Monday, 1 April 2013 | 47 comments

A new domesticity

A woman in graduate school for broadcast journalism contacted me. She was developing a piece, she said, which would be pitched to major media outlets, about female writers, bloggers, and businesswomen in their twenties who were taking advantage of the “recent trend of millennial women’s return to domesticity.” Many young women, she wrote, are creating brands and making money as experts on the domestic arts and “a return to traditional living.” Essentially, her piece would explore cultural and economic factors that have made this sort of content appealing to the public. I would love the chance to interview you about your journey and why you find a return to traditional living to be so appealing to many of today’s young women, she closed.I should have just offered to get coffee with this woman (who I’m sure is very nice and for whom I harbor no ill will!). Regardless of the subject, give me a latte and we can talk about esoteric cultural and economic factors until the cows come home. It’s, like, what I do for fun. The whole email just felt a little weird to me, though. So I wrote back, trying to better understand what she was seeking for content. I thanked her, of course, because it’s flattering (in that terrifying sort of way) to be asked for an interview. But I wasn’t sure, I told her, that I was really the right candidate.

For one, I explained, I don’t really have a brand or make money off of my blog. It’s a labor of love that I do in my spare time, on my own dollar. I do work full-time during the week, I clarified, but don’t really fit your description of “capitalizing on recent trends” since my income comes from an unrelated field. Secondly, the subject matter of the piece doesn’t seem quite in line with my writing. I understand that cooking and gardening might be considered domestic arts, but I’m not an “expert” in those arts (That’s probably why I don’t get paid for it! I wanted to joke, har har!), and I certainly don’t advocate a “return to traditional living”.

While we’re on the subject—I tried to be really nice at this point in the email—what do you mean by traditional living? Whose tradition is it? My site is a place where I share stories and talk about home cooking, among lots of other things, but it doesn’t pertain to any particular tradition. Oh, and interestingly, from what I can gather, my readership doesn’t seem to be comprised of only millennials or twenty-somethings. They are largely women, but of all ages, and the majority seem older than me. Also, there are male readers, too.

If, despite all this, you’d still like to talk, I’d be happy to get coffee and chat more, I wrote. Thanks!

She never wrote back.

. . . . .

At the risk of sounding pessimistic: why is no one interested in these stories? Give me more of the interesting, multifaceted accounts about what it means to actually make a home in this day and age. We’re too busy, I guess, framing those stories in antiquated language. Being interested in or good at cooking is portrayed as a step backwards towards “traditional ways of living”. Growing food is seen as quaint and pastoral rather than vital.

Some days I am so proud of my country-city existence. I put on a pencil skirt and sit at a desk and meet with our Ethiopia team, and then I come home to my chickens clucking and the woodstove trying to heat the drafty old house and the creek rushing. I puff up my chest because I can inhabit both worlds, walk in and out of them at will. I might clearly stick out in one or both of these worlds—at the meeting, I may be covertly trying to scrape duck excrement off my shoe; at home, I might be the person who can’t take that late-night Skype call because my internet connectivity is so bad—but it works. I can get it done.

Other days are less inspiring. Here’s a little episode that happens to me over and over: as I start to get to know someone, they will begin to learn that I live in the country, that I have chickens, that we keep a small garden. “You live on a farm!” they’ll crow. “Well, not really,” I say, “It’s just my home. We keep chickens and grow things because we enjoy it and think it’s important.” This never fails to perplex people. They would rather me agree that I live on a farm (which would be a disservice to the real farmers I know, by the way). I could extrapolate a lot from this—perhaps that we draw clear lines between “farms” and “every other type of residence” so as to be able to think that it’s not our problem. So that we can convince ourselves that caring about animals or growing things or open space belongs on farms, and not anywhere else. Mostly it just makes me feel weird and out of place. No one ever really bothers to ask, “Why?”

I should emphasize: I’m not against tradition. You can’t really argue that someone who writes 1300-word essays about her grandparents, their way of life, and their cellar for fun is kicking sand in tradition’s eyes. I do think, though, that some vaguely constructed concept of tradition is an easy, reductionist route to characterize ways of living, without acknowledging that people are driven by all kinds of reasons to live the way they do. Like, say, politics or community or health or passion.

Who is telling these stories?

§ 47 responses to A new domesticity

  • Sarah, I loved this. I come to your blog regularly, not because you ‘capitalize on trends’, but because you appear to live a life that you want to, despite its challenges. I like the way you write, you examine things, which makes your life worth living. My virgin attempts at blogging are my own way of examining the things around me and trying to create things that I feel proud of– baby steps to creating a life I feel equally proud of!

    Just thought I would share. Keep on writing, and we’ll keep on reading!

  • Sera

    Thank you for writing this! I wish I knew who was writing these stories as well. I am also a ‘pendler’ – commuting from “the country” into the city. Gardens and chickens are beautiful everyday existence, and the more I read/hear labels to do with traditional or quaint, it makes me a little bit frustrated. I guess with any label it is so. We love to box things up, but we hate ourselves being boxed into a label.

  • Tim

    Yes to all of this. Yes. Thanks for sharing all of this. So much grey. So many reasons. Too much simplifying. Keep being your awesome self, Sarah.

  • I often wonder why I choose to make things from scratch (food and other) when it is not a necessity. The simplest answer I have is because it is enjoyable but I know there are other reasons that are harder to articulate. It doesn’t feel like a returning to the past but rather a way of moving forward that makes sense to me.

    • Yes! I think about this a lot. It’s like when I’m hanging the laundry outside – ok it’s true that I’m saving money, it’s better for the environment & my clothes, etc., but all those are side benefits – the reason I do it is because it brings joy to my life! It’s a moment outside in the fresh air, which I love every single time.

      It’s hard to explain, but I think I should keep trying. There’s such an amazing satisfaction that comes with making things, with being connected to the universe we live in, in a hands-on way. Humans have been doing that as long as there have been humans, so if that’s “returning to traditional living”, I’m all for it, but I’m not for people putting it in a box, watching it on tv, and then moving on to the next thing.

  • I agree with all you said. I cook at home most nights, not because it’s a return to “tradition” whatever that may be, but because I want to. “Isn’t that a lot of work?” people ask. “I wish I had the time.” Well, surely, I’m giving up time that could be used for something else (usually housework). But what I get in return is as you said — vitality, health, passion. I think the questions you asked are exactly what this person needed to hear, and needed to ask herself and her professor about her project. It may be that you hear back afterwards — I hope so!

  • And once again, I think that you’ve sparked a really important discussion and have shared some insightful points.

    “A return to traditional living” just doesn’t seem to fit. For starters, as you write, whose traditions are we returning to? I am even more puzzled by the term “return”. As your ability to occupy two “worlds,” country and city, shows this is less of a return to something (when before did people, especially women, work in front of computers, fly to Ghana for a business trip, and then come home and feed the chickens and harvest some lettuce for dinner?) and, instead, more of a reinvention of that something.

    I just don’t think that a garden or a hobby farm necessarily signifies a return to traditional living. In addition to feeding us, things like gardens and chickens and hobby farms, ground us too. We cook dinner from scratch not because it is tradition, but because it is fun and it tastes good and, of course, we have to eat so dinner has to come from somewhere. These aren’t retreats from the contemporary, but instead gardens and cooking (and chickens too) seem to be better described as tools (with heaps of history, no question) that help us to better live in and to enjoy this very complex and modernized world.

  • Emily H.

    This is an utterly perfect commentary on something I whole-heartedly agree with!
    I am an attorney and I would love to someday live in the country and keep chickens and bees and continue my canning and cooking, but then head into court in the morning. That’s the dream. I am already notorious for raiding my grandmother’s kitchen supplies and old recipes.
    But the minute I say that to anyone I get two standard responses: 1. “But you’re a lawyer. Lawyers don’t do that.” or 2. “Oh, you mean like when you’re old and retired.” No, I don’t mean when I’m old and retired, I mean now! Because there’s no such thing as “lawyers don’t do that.” I am not a modern woman “returning to the traditional” nor am I a traditional person who has a “modern” job. I am a person who finds cooking and canning and gardening to be fascinating hobbies that a ton of fun, in the same way that I love british television or crossword puzzles or reading blogs. To try and put all of that into neat little boxes does such a disservice to the gloriously complex lives so many of us are leading.
    Thank you for putting my thoughts so much more eloquently than I ever could. Keep it up, lady!

  • CGS

    The point here is that it is called living. When the day has passed and I have savored my labor and the fruits thereof I know I have lived. The grape jelly, the deer jerky and the home taxidermied turkey are things I can offer as part of who I am and what I do. When you pass hours staring at a TV and your time has gone by have you lived or just existed? We put in a garden and flower bed and filled hives so that we could live and enjoy life not because we needed honey and vegetables.

  • I think YOU should write an article about “millennials” (how I hate that term, despite maybe kinda sorta being one?) and “traditional living.”

    Although I think we younger folk are not so much returning to “traditional” living as we are returning to a common sense way of living and a way of living which values things differently than more recent generations. We look to the past because people then also valued things differently than today – placing value on homemaking, handicrafts, fresh, quality food, home cooked meals, and being self-sufficient.

    For instance, I LOVE vintage and antique cookbooks because I enjoy gleaning them for “new” and unusual recipes which I know will be entirely from scratch and use reasonable, everyday ingredients. Vintage cookbooks, especially ethnic ones, also have plenty of one-pot recipes which save effort and dish washing.

    Although I work in a museum (which I love), my one true dream is to become a food historian and spend my days researching manuscript diaries and cookbooks, and published bulletins and books, and my afternoons and evenings replicating historic recipes for modern kitchens. What? Is that a thing? Someday I hope it will be.

  • Oh, does this make me crazy. I’m a Gen Xer who watched the rise of blogging and I’m thinking: Isn’t it likely more the case that the internet has provided homemakers (or whatever you want to call it), male and female, a place to write and share with one another beyond the local in a way that wasn’t so public before? *That* is the connection that strikes me as interesting. Yes, obviously there are commercial/manufacturing issues that have greatly impacted society, but there’s a lot more going on. I end up speaking with women working in traditionally men’s fields often, and we end up considering how the art they make is shaped by male voices because all the mentors/teachers are male. I don’t mean to distill this down to an issue of sex, but I think there might be parallels worth exploring in the sense that homemaking, however we do it, is a topic that has found its own varied language and unique communities between practitioners online, and maybe that has only been possible because of the venue. And what a warm, welcoming, and vital resource it is.

  • I just wanted to add that this post was fantastic, and the comments below (which I read — all of them to date) were the proverbial cherry on top. I agree with all of you — the gender lens, the critique of “traditional”, the suggestion that Sarah should write an article about this very topic rather than being interviewed.

    To add my own reflection. I can’t help thinking we are all so privileged — to get to live the lives we want to, without the trappings of strong tradition. To live at the boundary of urban and rural. To reject gender norms. How lucky we are to live in the internet age!

  • Really well-said and lovely, thank you!

  • Yes, yes, and yes. I wonder if we’re not all a little bit country and a little bit…city. Cheers to weaving the many facets of yourself into a well-lived-life.

  • Living a traditional life and living an authentic life is, as you point out, not necessarily the same thing. You’ve made choices that reflect what matters to you. As one who also crosses the city/country ways of life, I know that I’m doing what matters to me now; and rather than trendy, it’s rather a enormous commitment and a can be serious inconvenience (besides leaving behind a nigglingly huge carbon footprint,) along with being wonderful and fulfilling. My husband and I even have completely different motivations for our dichotomous existence. It certainly would be interesting to see what this journalist comes up with for her piece.

  • Sarah- Your blog is refreshing and on target. I feel like I’ve found a sister. I, too, lived in the country and spent my days working from a small home office and travelled to D.C. to meet with staff, conduct meetings, etc. You are right in that there is a definite misperception and need on the part of many to “label” farming, traditions, domestic arts, etc. I also think there is a bit of romanticizing that goes on that can be a little ironic, especially the time when I was on a conference call with another company and one of the children brought a slightly wounded rooster into the house who than began to crow… repeatedly. Before anyone could question, I quickly mentioned that the ringtones that people had on their phones these days were extremely unusual. At the end of the day, I think it is really just the fact that we are looking for the connection to what is real…. real food and real relationships with the land that only occurs through carving out our little niche of home through gardening, chickens, etc. Thank-you for your blog and your honesty… it is delightfully refreshing!

  • This post is just one of the many reasons I love your blog. Keep doing what you’re doing, don’t conform or fit into boxes people place around you, stay fantastic.

  • I think you’re on to something … this crazy sensible mix of country and city all rolled into one less-than-perfect-but-trying domestic life. Dipping in and out of heeled shoes and mudboots.

    Not one of us is defined by just one thing … so why should our lives be? Bring on the complexity.
    And write about it.
    Axx

  • Wonderful post. Thank you for writing this. I agree so much with what you’ve written and the other comments. Those of us doing a little of each–working full-time “city” jobs, parenting, gardening, hobby farming, cooking, making our own kimchi or bread–we’re just living a full life, based on no particular tradition. And it’s a wonderful and fulfilling life. The interesting thing (as has already been noted) is that the Internet and blogs have given us a voice. I baked bread and experimented with all sorts of cooking and gardening projects long before the Internet. But it’s the Internet that’s given me access to my tribe, for while I’ll always be grateful. Love your blog. Keep doing what you do!

  • I’m not sure where the love of ‘farming’ is rising from; the sense of romance and easy-living that seems to emanate from anyone who hears you live outside the norm of American life. There is nothing romantic, bucolic or otherwise about farming, but it seems to have risen to glorified standards in our consciousness.

    Who is writing these stories? The ones that make farming out to be so appealing? What is it about returning to traditional ways -whatever they are- that fills us with so much excitement? Do we ALL long to leave behind our push-push-push lives and return to simplicity? Are we so afraid to say ‘This is NOT what I want.’ when all along we’ve been brain-washed in to thinking that it is?? Do we think we’re selling out to leave the rush-rush-rush behind?

    If everyone truly followed their dreams, can you imagine what kind of lives everyone would lead? It would lead to a new utopia. I’m certain of that.

  • Aaron

    I have never commented on your blog. But this was so stunningly written, so insightful, so right-on-the-money that I felt I had to come out of the woodwork. Thank you.

  • Love this post. Right on! FYI, there was a piece in Gastronomica last summer, written by a prof at University of New Hampshire on exactly the topic you describe. Would you like me to fish it out and scan it so I can send it to you?

    • Hey Dena—Someone else mentioned that article to me, too. I only found it on JSTOR and they wanted me to pay $15 for it, so if you want to send it, I’d appreciate it. I heard it was…less than flattering…analysis of female bloggers. In any case, would love to see it. Thanks in advance! —S

      • Sarah: I scanned it for you and sent you a link an online album that holds the scanned copy. Please let me know when you receive it and if it is legible enough. I can redo it if there is any problem.

    • Not sure if there’s any way to post a link to it for all to read- I’d love to see it. Thanks for bringing it up at least, Dena!

      Sarah, I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment. We are not moving backward; there is nothing really “traditional” about it. Our ancestors did it out of necessity; maybe we are too in a way? I see it as getting the best of both worlds. It’s novel and idealistic and quite satisfying, and I think it’s only a matter of time before everyone else catches up to us.

      • Christine: I am a little hesitant to post a public link to the article as I am not sure how that works in terms of copy right infringement. If you send me your email address I will send you the link….it is now in an online album that has limited access. It is only accessible to the folks I give the link….you can send me your email address to dena@gatheringflavors.com .

  • i love that you called out the journalist on a reductionist way of writing an article. btw have you seen the blog called the new domesticity? she does a good job of taking a critical approach to the concept.
    also would love to hear about how you balance the city life with the home life. i feel like my office job takes up too much mental space and time and makes it hard to dig into the gardening and cooking at home.

  • What a great discussion. Kaela, from Local Kitchen, shared this and I agree that there’s so much compartmentalizing done with home arts. I do make money from this ‘brand’ of things, but my reasonings and why’s and the importance of sussing out more grey area around all of it is just as important as the jars I stash or the time I spend poking around in my flower pots. (ps I got that email, too, never talked to her though.)

  • Maureen

    Balance is what it is called. I live in the 7th largest city in the US, work at a major University, spend an extraordinary part of my day on the computer. The balance comes from going home, growing flowers and vegetables, make soap, bead, needlepoint, cook & bake. This brings balance and joy to my life. The rhythm of the day is different. I can breathe.

  • Kristine in Santa Barbara

    I’m one of the non-millenials that enjoys your site and your writing. I’m surprised you haven’t encountered this before. The blog world is a lot of (mostly free) fodder for editors and interviewers. Actually understanding what you do or think isn’t really what they want. What they want is (mostly free) content, with “an easy, reductionist route to characterize ways of living, without acknowledging that people are driven by all kinds of reasons to live the way they do.” We are both overstating and generalizing, but we know that it’s often true. Thanks for staying the course. Please continue to excuse yourself from the projects and collaborations and “opportunities” that don’t inspire you. And please continue to write and share what’s true for you. Win-win-win.

  • meg

    We like to characterize, to dichotomize, to classify. If we can identify things as clear and distinct, then we have something to talk about, to philosophize about. If not, then we dwell in a nebulous in-between space that surely doesn’t make for good or inflammatory journalism. But I agree completely with you. We, too, live out in the country, keep chickens, have a garden, can and preserve food, do fermentation projects…This isn’t out of some desire to be quaint or to capitalize on a trend. We just enjoy it. It’s part of the life we want to live. Just because they happen to be selling exorbitantly pricey and over-cute chicken coops at Williams-Sonoma doesn’t mean we’re getting in on something grand–some precious statement about simplicity and a sweeter, less-complicated time.

  • I am interested in these stories. It is one of the reasons I visit The Yellow House. Thank you for telling them.

  • I’ve been thinking so much about some of the same ideas Sarah – in the context of work, and this idea of vocation, and what does it mean, to me and to our culture, that I spend my time doing laundry and baking bread? I love hearing your thoughts and seeing everyone’s responses. More great dialogue at The Yellow House (er, the farm? Ha). Thank you for inviting us all to the conversation!

  • Maggie

    Yes, I am a woman in her mid forties. I totally appreciate anyone who can write as well as you do about life. I love how you responded to what could very well be a request with good intention, but, maybe condescending. Some of us just live our lives as it feels right to us. My husband is very skilled at the business we own. Our personal life doesn’t entail that industry. We are very forward thinking in our business…but are very much old school outside of that. Are we traditionalists? Hmmmm, Sometimes. Not by design. We are just who we are.

    We feel joyful watching the flowers bloom and our garden grow. In our hearts we know it is these things that can matter to our life..not the material things. We’re not trying to pave a way. We’re just living our life. Thank you.

  • You remind me so much of myself and you hit on a lot of things that run around in my head on most days. I really enjoy the simplicity of your blog because it’s not about the commercialization of your “brand”. I love a good narrative and that’s why I continually come back to your writing. I also try to balance a life between my (small) city life and my roots in the country. It’s not an easy line to toe, but I think it makes us better able to appreciate the aspects of each life. I think when it boils down to it we choose to pursue cooking, gardening, sewing, etc. because they are real activities that give meaning to everyday life. Keep writing for yourself and for us!

  • I always find that any attempt to pigeon-hole me into anything (even, to a certain extent, pigeon holing me as a female although I realise that’s inevitable) always makes me want to rebel and do the complete opposite, to prove that I’m more complex and life is more complicated than that. And I love what you do here because you don’t always do what is expected of you and you show how rich and wonderful life can be. Keep on doing what you’re doing and telling your stories.

  • “why is no one interested in these stories? Give me more of the interesting, multifaceted accounts about what it means to actually make a home in this day and age”

    Yes. Exactly.

    Not sure why, but it seems like people have an urge to classify and reduce, as if gives a better handle on what it is and can feel like it’s understood. Modernity means outsourcing to many people. It irks me when I extend hospitality through homemade food and a place at my table, and people crow about how ‘cute’ it is that I made something ‘from scratch’. Um…

  • Amen, sister.

  • This is so important, Sarah, thank you for putting it so well. Some buddies and I have been having related conversations about that Gastronomica article, a similar (way less flattering, even) one in Bitch magazine about “domestic arts” bloggers, and “Kinfolked” living as discussed in a post that Happyolks recently wrote. Some of the issues about stories being reduced or not represented accurately might have to do with the medium—the Internet runs on gorgeous photos and soundbites that make us long for certain ways of living, and it might seem like the lifestyles are easy to replicate with the right camera angle and a well-placed wooden spoon. Sounds like the grad student isn’t distinguishing appropriately between authentic living (which is even a problematic way to put it) and curated living. And you’re so right to call her out on that! It wasn’t until I moved to a very cold pocket of the U.S. that I learned how much people have to prepare for winter, as in canning is an actual survival mechanism, not a hobby. Without having exposure to different types of living and the reasons—whether choice or force—behind them, it seems all too easy to be reductive. Anyway, thanks again for your perspective; so, so glad you shared.

  • Emily

    “At the risk of sounding pessimistic: why is no one interested in these stories? Give me more of the interesting, multifaceted accounts about what it means to actually make a home in this day and age. We’re too busy, I guess, framing those stories in antiquated language. Being interested in or good at cooking is portrayed as a step backwards towards “traditional ways of living”. Growing food is seen as quaint and pastoral rather than vital.”

    THIS. A million times this. Thank you for this post, and thank you for putting into words a feeling I’ve had for some time, yet have been unable to verbalize. Connecting with our food, families, and ourselves: that is what it’s about for me.

  • Susan

    I’m late to this conversation, but just heard a mention of this new book that sounds pretty similar to the topic the grad student wanted to write on http://www.amazon.com/Homeward-Bound-Women-Embracing-Domesticity/dp/145166544X

  • Miabella

    Too bad she didn’t call back. She missed an opportunity to be enlightened rather than spouting sound bites and labels.

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