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Phyllis McGinley: a woman of her time

(post, Harriet Fasenfest)

About two or three weeks ago, I read a New York Times Magazine profile of Phyllis McGinley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and advocate for all things domestic. 

In her 1960s heyday, she had many detractors — not surprising, given the fact that she was writing during a peak of feminist activism. I admit my interest was piqued, given my own commitment to all things home and garden. I ordered one of her books immediately.  

[%amazonProductLink "Sixpence in Her Shoe" asin=002583360X] is a compilation of essays which, according to the book jacket, “delightfully escorts us through the House as she \[McGinley\] understands it.” Sections entitled “The Wife," “The House,” and “The Family,” were preceded by “An Unapologetic Preface.” I liked that tact.

Though it was clearly dated, I enjoyed this book. I honored McGinley's impression of the craft and life of homemaking, though I am less likely than most to dismiss it out of hand. Through a wise pen, McGinley’s accounts came infused with the tangible pride of her world.  

And while there were many romantic impressions of life and love in the tidy world of upstate New York (we were informed by the magazine piece that hers was a happy marriage), others (particularly the chapter “How Not To Kill Your Husband") were honest reflections of bliss on the rocks. I was glad for that. She might have been completely dismissed were it not for this full disclosure.  

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Reading as active sport."] 

But then, that’s what can make these sorts of personal narratives so intriguing. They cast honest, intimate portraits of a life in the way history or social theory never can. They are never as direct or final. They are subtle revelations in time — more impressions than fact, but always human. Which is why we are drawn to them, or why I was. 

What in her world made all that she did a safe and reasoned expression of a life? I wondered.

I have often considered myself a cultural sleuth, imagining that if I just look hard enough, read enough, think enough, I can come to the ground zero of meaning. Honestly, I am obsessed. I chalk that up to my life as a child of a Holocaust survivor. Without going too deeply into it, I believe my early awareness of life’s broken stories has directed much of how I have lived and searched for meaning. But I am sure that I am not alone in this respect. The meaning of life, or how best to live in it, is a question most of us wrestle with, some just a little longer and harder.

That aside, almost everything I choose to read must promise some puzzle piece. And that is how I read them, pen in hand, notations in the margins, essays and writings on their meaning. Can’t say I ever took part in the notion of a little “light reading.” Not this gal. Which is a long way of explaining why I approached McGinley’s book with such a discerning eye. I was after something.

Sometimes I am hoping to be comforted, nostalgic for a value that seems to have slipped from my hands. Other times I am looking for a clue, a way back or forward. “What was life then and was it easier? Harder?” Sometimes, and this is what I felt the other day, I find something that seems so important that I want to yell out and say, “There, that’s something.” I am a very interactive reader.

What brought me to the edge of my seat (couch) came in McGinley’s chapter on the house. In an essay entitled “The Myth of Grandmother’s Cooking,” McGinley cites reasons Grandmother’s cooking was never as good as she/we remember. Consider the following passage.  

bq. In addition to being more knowing about food, we have also at hand a vaster variety. Grandmother had her summer fruits, her homegrown vegetables, her rows of kitchen-canned delicacies stowed away in Mason jars. But where she could keep only carrots and turnips and potatoes or possibly cabbages fresh in her cellar, we, for 12 months, see the markets tempting us with the loot of the continent. We can get strawberries in February, asparagus in March, peas in April, oranges all the year around — can buy, at any time, broccoli, dill in the leaf, lettuce green and firm, ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, artichokes — sometimes at no greater price than we pay in their local season.

I paused when I read that. Here was a puzzle piece. Not really new or profound, but intimate in its delivery. I could have simply shook my head were it not for the innocence and goodwill of it all. This was no cutthroat hungry industrialist on the line. No genetic-seed modifier or corrupt capitalist looking for an easy buck. No, this was the purveyor of all things right and good for her family. She just wanted the best she could offer, and in her world as a savvy shopper and talented cook, the best came all year round. That was the thought that stirred in my head and led me to pen this piece. 

It was if I had been given a reminder of the subtle shifts inherent to culture. It never happens overnight.

That’s the truth of it all. Most of the way our culture shifts is by small and innocent decisions we make. There are no bad guys — well, not as many as we might think. Rather it is always about being (with respect to our lives as consumers), like McGinley, a wise and prudent shopper in the microcosm of our tidy lives. We thought we could live there. We thought we could have trust and comfort in all that the modern world and industry gave us.

At least that was how it was for a long time, in little and big towns across our nation, and why it is so hard to imagine a new relationship with those things we have put our trust in. Who are the bad guys, and how much of our own actions must be re-evaluated? Do we make the culture, or does the culture make us? And given what I know and feel, I felt I wanted to warn her. 

I wanted to tell her that beneath the warm sentimentality of her culinary pride was an ethic brought forth by the onslaught of global commerce and industrial agriculture, the result of which, some 40 years forward, would challenge her heart (if not her meal planning) with every strawberry in February she ever saw. Clearly she could not see that then. Neither could I. 

Being 55 and an early one-time advocate for all things exotic, I remember the thrill of discovering faraway foods. There was an open-all-night giddiness to our shopping trips. Twenty-four-hour quality and bounty was ours for the taking. As I write this, I can almost taste the parade of new foods as they arrived on our market shelves.

There was (though not in this order) the avocado, the artichoke, asparagus “tips,” Brie and smoked oysters, blinis and caviar, quiche Lorraine, and pâté, the uptown cousin to chopped liver. These were all items (including, horribly, caftans) that a burgeoning 1970s hostess like myself needed to know all about. 

We, as early advocates of sophisticated palates, were smitten with everything foreign. And that may well have been because our local palates, and foods, had become deadened by the very system that was bringing us the goods from far away. 

As it happened, not only could technology bring us foreign foods but it would, ironically, turn our own food stuffs into pablum. I mean Velveeta, Spam, and Wonder bread were not and are not (despite spurious arguments to the contrary) good eating — no time, nowhere. 

So it made sense, when faced with those things, that Phyllis McGinley and I turned to Brie for respite.

But remember, the passage I refer to is the “Myth of the Grandmother,” not mother. I make the distinction because the author (and I for that matter) had leapfrogged a generation. And not just any generation. What we both dismissed was the generation who may well have understood why cooking from what you grew made sense. 

Besides the economics of the matter, who, really, would sing the praises of a perfect peach (or go so far as to put them up) if they had never tasted one?  Who, if we are to think about it, could understand the logic of root cellars and pantries and eating in season, if the only season around them is either manicured or covered with concrete?   

Who knows what became of McGinley? For a while, at least, I know the good life as we knew it chugged along. But there came a time (at least for me) when we got tired of eating fancy foreign foods, and we came back home — first by way of James Beard, later by way of Alice Waters. 

No doubt we kept it fancy for a while, using words like “artisan” and “regional” to open up our wallets. Not that I didn’t go along; I did, and was mostly happy to do it. But then, somehow, the world shifted again, and the “fancy” in food, regional or foreign, was removed in lieu of good old dirt and the foods raised in it. 

Show someone a mottled tuber these days and they’ll get near teary-eyed with culinary pride. We foodies are such funny people.

And in all of this, I wonder if this newest approach to food is not just another personal expression on good living. Will all of this be just another compilation of essays and musings that someone, somewhere, will discover on their journey to the light? Will they put notes in the margins and dog-ear the passages that give strength? Or will we look deeper into the context, history, and logic behind “Grandmother’s myth” and let it transform us in real and tangible ways?

For my part, I can only hope that the change makes its way to the center of my being. That’s what I’m working towards — that and never thinking that I look hot in an exotic caftan again. Now that was scary.

I’ll leave you now with this little ditty. 

Renewing Grandma’s Myth

First we ate food we raised and we grew
We drank from our rivers, our skies were still blue
Then we moved into shanties, we moved into shacks
And ate Hostess cupcakes and Velveeta for snacks

Then we got fancy, got gourmet and sleek
And knew when the berries from Chile were peak
Then we got hotter, or at least did our earth
And someone thought somehow we consider the dearth

And think of our water, our soil, and our deeds
And start growing food in our back yards with seeds
But what will come forward now that we know?
Will we saddle the horses and pick up the hoe?

Will we cast off our iPods and darn our own socks
And learn to make yogurt and maybe gravlax?
Who knows what will happen? I admit I’m not sure
But one thing I notice (and I know I’m not pure)

We like to ignore things for better or worse
And tie our solutions to the ends of our purse
But money is frail. Just look at the banks —
They're groping for solutions like the rest of us Yanks

So why not try digging your hands in the soil
And challenge those stories of hard work and toil
It might not beat living a life on the links 
But consider the outcome as the polar bear sinks

You’ll not be protected, not long I dare say,
Cause the water is melting and coming your way
So think deep my darlings and stop buying things
Invest in the future that frugality brings

Dust off your old green jeans and funny old hat
Take to the garden to grow this and grow that
Support the fine farmers who take care of your land
For they are the future, if the future be grand

And now that you have (or I hope that you do)
Start asking your grandma just how to make stew
Or put up the bounty and fill up a jar
And stop buying foods that come from afar

Forget about “fancy” cause fancy’s a ruse
Stop using fine palates as a silly excuse
Now go to thy kitchens and put up your larder
It may not be easy — in fact, it is harder

But oh, the deep wisdom you’ll find on your way
And she says with a smile, with a wink and a sway
Go forth with good cheer and do what you must
Remember your children and the world in your trust.

reference-image, l