Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Home Ec" Memories - On Sustenance

How many of you women that visit here remember taking home economic classes in school in 70's and early 80's? After that it became gender neutral "bachelor living" where one learned how to make dip out of Velveeta and use Velcro. (I had to figure out Southern biscuits with peppered bacon gravy on my own).

The whole "home economics" idea was not intended to make women a slave to the kitchen but rather  came about from a change in how women shopped for their family.  Before the 19th century, except for the most privileged of the wealthy, women were producers of household items, including food  clothing, rather than consumers. So the early home economics classes focused on education for purchasing decisions, as well as health and hygiene in the home. What actual knowledge was imparted was often  limited  though, by school budgets and the quality of the teachers.  I have friends of my same age group that learned nothing more than how to make things out of hamburger and cans  Not in my home ec class. We learned to make things the way generations ago did.
I had the grand dame of home economic teachers, Miss Heidenreich. She was in her sixties, never married. She was sparsely thin and about 7 feet tall but perhaps that was just my recollection in 7th grade.  At first we were all sort of afraid of her, she was so tall, straight and stern, she just loomed at the front of the classroom, there in a grey dress.  But then we watched, at least I did, as she moved as she talked, gathering raw materials of food or cloth, coordinating the efforts.  Then, when she demonstrated  the finished product of what she wanted us to do, the look in her sparkling blue eyes was one of not just joy, but quiet triumph.

I recognized a bit of that.  Most of us were lucky in that we were raised by Mom's themselves raised in the 40's and 50's when money was tight and things were made to last. My Mom came through lean times in the depression, her Dad killed in an accident, with no insurance, leaving a widow and three kids to feed. My grandma somehow got my Mom through college, unheard of in that day, wherein Mom got a job that paid enough to put her two younger brothers through, while Grandma worked full time as well.  She and my grandma both then, learned to work with that same efficiency of movement,  that might be considered detached would you not recognize it as simply being the beautiful efficiency of machinery.
My grandmother would not even recognize a grocery store of today and my Mom would be appalled at the quick and cheap clothing made that falls apart within a few months of wear.  She made all of her and my clothes herself, except for jeans and t shirts, my sweaters hand knitted as well as an assortment.  There was also an assortment of 70's crocheted vests that looked to be more for hanging a houseplant, than for wear, but that was the fashion.  Those clothes did not wear out but were cleaned, pressed and handed down to a younger cousin (except for that one dress that ended up with a bicycle tire track up the back, and no, don't ask).

 If  an item of wear, needed repair, Mom knew how to do it.  I however, wasn't too keen on learning.

You see, I liked to cook, because, I like to eat.  I'd spend hours with my Mom, helping prepare the meal, if only to set the table while I watched her work. To me, cooking was like playing with the chemistry set, how fun to see how things are formed, how ingredients interact and take on whole other forms, and even better if you can eat the results.   But I had no interest in sewing, crocheting or knitting, making decorative pillows or embroidering a tea towel. I'd rather be out in the shop with my Dad or playing with model trains or control line aircraft. To say that I discovered that if you don't FEED your Betsy Wetsy Doll, she doesn't wet, gives you some idea of my mindset with "girl stuff".
I did make a valiant effort to knit a winter neck scarf for my Dad. But that was just because I loved him.  After several months, ripping inferior work out and starting over again and again, I had a piece only 3 x 5 inches square.  I gave up, knitted the edges together and it became a tube dress for someone's Barbi.

Let's just say I was not too excited about Home Ec. that first year, though I respected my teacher as I was taught to.  I just kept quiet, and sewed my silly pink apron with my name embroidered on the pocket.  I did buttons and hems, though I got a C in "snaps" just because I was obstinate.  I learned how to darn a sock.  I sort of giggled at that, as in my home you said "darn" instead of "damn".  Actually "damn"would have been the more appropriate word to what I did to those socks.

But Miss Heidenreich taught us all of the basics. Unlike other classes we weren't learning how to make casseroles with soup or 101 ways to use canned Crescent Rolls. The cooking was not anything out of a can, and  there were some things we learned to make that were not very popular with us.  What 8th grader wants to make and eat stewed prunes or unseasoned boiled chicken for meat and broth.  What about brownies and pizza? But later, many years later, caring for the elderly, such things came in useful.  I could cook for restricted diets, I could make bread, I could make a white sauce instead of an expensive can of cream soup. I could make a variety of economical dishes with just a bit of meat or eggs or beans for protein.  I could make a cake missing key ingredients, butter, milk or eggs. (but not all three, that is known as a hockey puck).
Miss Heidenreicht would watch constantly, bright but insulate, letting us make our way, only stepping in when flames were involved, or there was a need to stanch blood.  But she was not popular with all the students as she was a stern task-masker, expecting you to work hard, to listen and to apply what she had taught you. She taught like my parents taught, but not all kids had the benefit of that experience.

She frowned on idleness and those girls that wore jeans to school, instead of neat slacks or dresses.  She dressed plainly, her dresses unadorned but for a bit of lace or a small necklace of pearls, the fabric starched into submission.  But she was not unkind, not even batting an eye when one  jean clad girl came in with green hair from a "let's add some ash blond highlights at home" disaster, only offering her extra praise for her strudel to keep her from crying.  Based on Miss Heidenreich's age, I only understood as an adult, what hardships she may have seen as a  young woman, depression era families sometimes starving, only the strong, resourceful and skilled surviving and thriving. It made me think differently of her home economics class, and what I came away from it with. 

She was my teacher just that first year, retired and replaced by Mrs. Potter, of whom I have no real memory but for a friendly smile and the "Dante's Nine Circles of Hems".  By Ninth Grade, I'd learned enough, I thought, and put in a bid to take Auto Shop instead of Home Ec.  That met with a resounding slam of a car door.

I made my case, I knew how to make dinner, I needed to know how to change my oil and pack a wheel bearing. I was told I needed to take the "girl" classes. Shop was only for boys.  I was told I was stubborn, I believe the term "as a mule" was heard (to which I pointed out to the administrators that unlike a horse, a mule is too intelligent to break its leg for glory running in a brief, pointless circle).  I was shot down, though there was one female friend and classmate, now an engineer, like her father, who won out and got to attend the agriculture class where she castrated a calf  in a moment which gave me hope for my class.
So I dutifully sewed my outfits, made taffy  and tarts and finally in the last sprint for independence, opted out of most of my courses, taking them at the local college, going full time in the summer.I wasn't old enough to drive but I made it there by bike and by bus or Dad's trusty stead.  I was indeed the only college freshman in a "training bra" (don't get me started on how that term started, it's not like you train them for tricks or anything "Sit",  Stay!", though getting older, they do know "roll over").

My days of home ec were over.  At the time I was happy for that, yet now, I wish I'd paid  more attention, as more skills of prepping and preparing as well as knowledge  and the economies of the kitchen would have served me well as I entered my 20's and 30's.

This Sunday  morning, I'll be lighting the fire of a 60 year old stove that's DIY maintenance and upkeep. The house will be cold, extra blankets used  at night instead of bumping up the heat.  As the stove puts heat into the back of the house, activity picks up as if propelled by the increasing warmth. After reflection, prayer and thanks, there will be a plumbing project to finish, bread to be baked, and somewhere, a sock or two that needs damning.  Outside, branches scrape and rasp against the house, the frost on the window a portent to how cold it can be for the unprepared, as winter light lay upon the ground like a pale scrap of starched grey cloth.
But like many things in homes I've lived in before, I could afford to pay to have someone do all of this, buy all this. But I choose not to. I, and my family, would rather do more for ourselves, with minimal help from others, putting our money into tangibles which will keep us housed and safe, where days of struggle to survive, of sparse broken meals, do not threaten.  I  find much great satisfaction in saying "I made this"  or "I saved this much",  making something out of nothing, building  not a house, but a home with pieces of the past, carefully mended, and always treasured. 

I look at all the blogs out here, many on my sidebar, of women, resourceful women, who have learned how to grow, store, can and prepare healthy meals for themselves or their family; manage land, tend a farm, some with help of family, some completely on their own, even as they teach these skills to others. Their skills aren't limited to the kitchen but include the field and the workbench. I have learned a lot from them, to add to what skills I grew up with.
These are only a sampling of those many great sites of women bloggers  founded on the DIY concept (though there are a number of great blogs on my sidebar that include posts on the subject like this one.)  These are the ones I visit regularly, and a couple of them have become dear friends.

Bacon and Eggs
Bullets and Biscuits 
Common Sense Homesteading
Framboise Manor
Mrs. S.
Self Sustained Living
Sunnybrook Farm
The Little Acre That Could

Go say hello if you've not visited them before.They have some wonderfully useful and entertaining information and so many other excellent links on their own sidebars of other like minded men and women, worth getting to know. Taking care of your family, your needs and safety, with no handouts and your own resources and skills.  All are things I wish were still stressed in school now.  Those that learn themselves, the men and women that do so and then pass on that knowledge to others, give me hope for the future.  I do think Miss Heidenreich would be proud.


  1. Hi Brigid, When I saw the shingling hatchet it immediately brought back a memory of when I was about ten. My bro and I would borrow my Grandpa's hatchet to pound nails into the top rail of the fence n the back yard. One day I got a little too overzealous and as I was two handedly pounding away, I brought it back a little to far on the back stroke and there it was stuck in the top of my head! My brother is screaming at the top of his lungs that,"he cut off his head, he cut off his head" as I hot footed it up too the house with blood pouring all over me, where when my Mom saw it, slowly wilted to the ground for a few seconds. Then it was yanked out and into the house for another home grown stitching episode. Oh what fun

  2. Thanks for the mention! That'll get me off my butt to post more now that I know I may have company coming over ;) Now, my home ec teacher was old, thin and tall. The same home ec teacher I ran into a couple years ago and she was still... old, thin and tall. But my favorite "home ec" teacher was my grandma. At 95 years old, she's still teaching me.

  3. Thanks for the mention. Most of the diy projects are on hold right now, because it is really cold in the basement at the moment.

    Thankfully I never had to take home ec in school. There was a choice of basic electricity/mechanics or home ec. Since mom & grandma taught me the basics on how to cook, clean, sew, and rewire an electrical plug (grandma kept spare cords and tools in a drawer in her kitchen), I figured it would be more interesting to learn more about electricity and the inner workings of 2 & 4 cycle engines. Not surprisingly, I was the only girl in the class.

  4. Having graduated in 1966, I was in much the same boat as you: Home Ec or Music Appreciation. I refused to take Home Ec. Being the third of four daughters, I knew how to cook, sew, embroider, crochet, knit, etc. School was for learning new things. I wanted to take Shop and Auto Mechanics. But girls weren't allowed. Looking back, I think if I had let my father know my desires, he would have moved heaven and earth to get me into those classes. But I was not brave enough myself to buck the system. My loss. My father did teach all four of us how to change a tire before we were allowed to get our driver's license. And I learned how to change the oil in my car, plus a few other types of repairs. I grew up a city girl, but always dreamed of being a country girl. I love to cook, bake, preserve. I did live for 10 years in the country but am again a city girl. Some day I will have chickens in my back yard. I am not giving up on that dream! Oh, and I have also learned to cook over an open fire. From what I hear, high school electives these days leave a lot to be desired, using up a full semester to teach something that should be able to be learned in a week. We need more "survival skills" taught in school.

  5. Ah, Home Ec. Half a year of cooking and half a year of sewing. 2 Years, same teacher each one. I wish I'd had a teacher like yours. The sewing stuck pretty good but all I remember about the cooking side is menu planning, nutrition facts, and how to bake an apple pie. LOL. Never did learn how to cook at home either, although my Grandmother use to make and cook everything from growing it to the table. She was just to far away and I didn't get to visit often enough.

    Those years were the same for me, too soon to be let into "the guys' classes" and beyond bored with the "girls' classes". But I managed to pick things up once I got out on my own, like wood crafting-carpentry-home improvement and car stuff (dated a lot of gearheads, LOL). Now they have cut many of those types of classes and so many kids don't think they need to learn it. Sad.

  6. The last two post fit well together. Besides wonderful stories of your family history they point out how deplorable our education system has been become. Related to “Men of Letters”: For the past 20 years, schools have been continually de-emphasizing the teaching of cursive writing to students. The development of No Child Left Behind, and the newer Common Core Curriculum has only reinforced that. Fewer and fewer legislatures are requiring the teaching of cursive writing. Instead of courses such as home ec and shop (even art and music are not offered as electives) nothing is offered that will help our youth be self-sufficient. But the government does not want that, they want everyone to be dependent on the government. In my opinion, if Common Core is instituted, things will only become worse. In recent worldwide testing at the senior high level, 16 other industrial countries scored above the US in science, and 23 scored above us in math. The reading scores for US had to be tossed due to a printing error ( LOL ). I will get off my soap box.

  7. I wish I had had a home ec teacher like Miss Heidenreich. Ours couldn't even teach the kids how to make a decent doughnut. I did my required time during junior high, and then I was out of there. My momma taught me the home skills I learned. I do wish I was better at sewing. Never made time to pick that up.

    Thanks for the shout out. Always good to "hear" from you.

  8. I was mediocre in shop, which was a tripartite of wood, metal, and mechanical drawing.
    I excelled at none.
    My Father and Grandfather taught me how to cook and bake, but neither had automechanical skills.
    It wasn't until my 20s-30s my friends did my car work, and I was mostly relegated to fetch monkey.
    "Pass me the pliers, needlenose!"
    Along with a beer or three.

  9. Oh, my gosh! You are funny! I really enjoyed reading your post. :-) It brought back memories of Home Ec class and was so entertaining and well written. I'd say you excelled in English classes too. ;-) Thanks so much for linking to my blog.

  10. Thanks for this post, Brigid! As another Baby Boomer, I was the guy who didn't want another go-around in Metal Shop class; I tried to get into Home Ec. Denied repeatedly, my parents went to the school board and made the counter-arguments re: allowing the ladies into shop... end result, I was the first lad in Home Ec in Pekin, IL High School. I learned to make a roue, bake cakes, weights and measures that were very useful.. and no more welding burns!

  11. Brigid, thank you for the mention in the blog today. I will also check out those you linked that I have not seen before.

    I took a year of Home Ec, back in Jr High. I vaguely recall trying to learn to make a white sauce, with mixed results, and sewing a pillow from cordeuroy that only got pitched last year! That was one OLD pillow.

    In HS I did not do shop, but did take Mechanical Drawing, which I enjoyed greatly. I also got a field biology class which was more fun than should be legal!

    Thank you also for the email the other day. I am still composing a thoughtful reply. ;)

  12. At the time and place I was in school, Home Ec and Arts and Crafts (the macrame vest/plant hanger reminded me...) were considered low-substance, high-grade classes. Boys would take them mostly if they needed an A or B to keep up their sports eligibility.

    A girl in Shop was almost unheard of, but that putative unicorn wasn't missing much (despite the teacher's earnest attempts to put some substance into the class) -- it seemed to appeal mostly to those kinds of students plus the non achievers who smoked cigarettes behind the dumpster.

    Given the unforeseen pervasiveness of computers in my adult life, I do wish I'd taken Typing and actually learned fast and accurate keyboarding instead of my self-taught four- to six-finger search-and-destroy approach. I was put off not by its image as a girls' class so much as by the teacher, whose demeanor was sour enough to dissolve limestone and whose pedagogical priority was to make the typewriters last forever.

    Had I taken Home Ec, chances are I'd have gotten thrown out for saying something impolitic about bringing my mother in to show 'em how it's really done. After growing up in the Depression, honeymooning on ration coupons, then losing her first husband to cancer in the early 50s and sitting out the postwar economic miracle as a single mother raising two kids with Grandma and Grandpa, there wasn't much she couldn't have taught the teacher about practical frugal living.

    What's more, the number of other parents who wanted her recipes was all the proof anyone needed that it could be more than a survival exercise. She and my father actually met that way -- Mom worked at the company cafeteria and, well, I guess the way to a man's heart actually is through his stomach. (Admittedly her predecessor, universally referred to as "High Burner Hattie," may have inadvertently sandbagged the game.)

    So, I guess I got a good Home Ec course, just not the academic credit for it.

    Anyway. There are two courses I wish were required at the high-school level. One, which might be folded into Home Ec, is intelligent personal finance: how we fritter away small amounts of money that add up; when and how to obtain and use credit; how self-denial in favor of tax-deferred savings and investments when you're in your 20s and 30s can make you well off at retirement age.

    The other (which has some obvious crossover with that) is how to be a smart and critical media consumer. We're bombarded with messages all day, every day, beginning practically in the cradle. Consumer product companies of every kind tell us that we need it, want it, can have it, and by golly deserve it. Corporate PR departments try to draw our attention toward their supposed good side and away from the toxic spill or the offshored profits or the use of the bankruptcy courts to do their employees out of their pension plan. Politicians claim that the Constitution didn't anticipate this problem and you shouldn't worry your little head about it. It's polymorphous, and perverse. Today's world is full of sophisticated and pervasive efforts to sell you something that isn't necessarily good for you.

    Kids need to go into that world able to recognize and defend themselves against it: spotting slanted truths, identifying vested interests, recognizing the echo chamber at work...

    Where to wedge this into a curriculum already quite full and dismayingly oriented toward standardized tests is another question. Maybe we just need to grasp the nettle and say that high school has to be five years long now.

  13. Great links, and it was a 'different' time... Women DID run the house (and a lot more), and had capabilities most of the younger generations today don't have a clue on!

  14. Well said Brigid!
    As a girl my home economics teacher was Mrs. Striker. A frail, birdy woman with bad breath & a tight hair-do. She made us wash store bought eggs before cracking them and was a genius with a seam ripper. Her lessons have remained with me for almost 50 years.

    As a middle age adult, Mr. Wendell Berry became my "Home Economics" teacher. He taught me to value and claim pride for being a simple "farm wife".
    How could I have known 30 years ago, that a farmer poet from Kentucky would teach me "What Are People For?", and the real reasons why Mrs. Striker's lessons were so important?
    It's not an exaggeration to say, both of those people help to make me who I am today.

  15. what an absolutely great post...oh the memories! i truly sucked at home ec but i think it was because the teacher kind of sucked. everything that i know about cooking, i learned from my mother and from internet friends who share recipes whether they be hits or misses. when we lived in the city, we started practicing how to be more self-reliant and we started learning skills like plumbing, electric, growing and preserving food. however, once we got here to the Manor - it was fly by the seat of your pants because although we had been practicing - we hadn't been living it. we have been here for 4 winters now and we have a good couple of notches to add to our "learning curve". but we wouldn't have it any other way.

    thank you for the mention, Brigid...and to put us in the company that you did means the world. if i had have written this post, i would have listed those same individuals...but i would have added you to the list as well.

    your friend,

  16. *raises hand* Home ec cooking was easy, since I did a lot of it at home already. Sewing class, well, the less said the better, but I can mend my own clothes. I did well in mechanical drawing (shop I) and OK in beginning metal shop (Shop II). The guys did not like having the girl nerd in metal shop, though they discovered that I could swear just as loudly as they did when pushed to it.

    Then I got hooked on aviation mechanics while in college and the rest is rather muddled history.


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