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The beauty of everyday acts

(article, Harriet Fasenfest)

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A few months ago a friend of mine loaned me two books: Home Comforts, by Cheryl Mendelson, and The Zuni Café Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers. After spending some time reviewing both, I was struck by the particularity of their individual efforts. There was such lovely detail and expressed appreciation regarding the subtleties of their craft that it made me reflect on the specifics and skill in everyday acts.

In a passage from Home Comforts, the author tells of her Italian grandmother. She writes, “I heard Puccini, slept on linen sheets with finely crocheted edging rolled up with lavender from the garden, and enjoyed airy, light rooms with flowers sprouting in porcelain pots on windowsills and the foreign scents of garlic and dark, strong coffee.”

Rodgers encourages our attention to detail. “The more you taste as you cook, the better you will understand how each addition you make to a preparation affects the flavor and texture of the dish, immediately and eventually.” And later, “Begin to trust your eye and hand, knowing what a quarter cup of liquid looks like in your favorite bowl, what two ounces feel like in the palm of your hand, or how many of your pinches fit in a quarter teaspoon.”

[%image "promo-image" float=right width=400 caption="Homemade apple cake, where else? At home."]

In reading those passages I felt seduced to live more fully in the craft and character of homemaking. That I took to (in this order) vacuuming, dusting, mopping, and finally polishing my wood floors was not really unfamiliar to me (I do come from good German stock). But that I considered it a high art was. And, likewise, it was amazing how the act of salting food by way of brining took on the status of fine cooking simply because someone took the time to learn, and retell, the wisdom of old home cooks.

These stories and lessons go far to revive lost arts of home and hearth, but even they do not convey the full story. For in each bed turned down with lavender or each region’s attempt to store and advance the flavors of the season, there is the genius of a particular place and moment in time. Always it starts with a certain wheat or pasture, a particular soil and summer’s heat. Always the fashion and features of a good life started with a place somebody loved dearly enough to call home.

In that way, these crafts and remembrances invite us to live fully in our own homes, to eat and “put in pots on the windowsills” things grown in our own gardens, to rejoice in our own regions. To love them as surely as they must have loved their own. Reading these stories renew my passion for the details of everyday good living. And that, too, is a part of urban homesteading. It is about making good on what is unique in the region with an eye towards ingenuity and a little high art.

I love this ideal; it transforms the ordinary into a celebration. It requires us to find beauty in the small things. In this effort I admit to spending lots of time in and around the grounds of my home. Sometimes it feels lonely as this new community of urban homesteaders takes form. My assumption is that more and more of us are evaluating the world and the lifestyles we have created and, in so doing, see the scale and simplicity of the home as a promise of sanity.

Yet it takes time to learn and live in the grace of simplicity. For one, there is the separateness of agenda that makes urban homesteading at odds with the fabric of mainstream values. It is true that I often feel (and am looked upon) as an alien in my own town. And regardless of the effort, no amount of prose can turn the tedium of toilet maintenance into anything other than what it is. But woven together, this effort can create a rooted and sturdy life in both fiber and whole cloth. And while there are lots of ways to keep busy in this city, few of them are as graceful and grand as the smell of freshly baked bread or the beauty of a well-tended garden patch.

And, finally, what this life allows is time to listen to the wisdom and stories of all that came before. When we slow to it, we see the history of our soil, the memories of abandoned fruit trees dotting our city streets, the path of the wind as it finds its channels among the peaks and valleys of our cityscape, it too attempting to navigate a new way to be free. But mostly we begin to admire the efforts of our elders and the wisdom in their eyes and hands. If we are lucky enough, we can yet glean from their memories and learn those recipes and skills that might otherwise be forgotten.

And it is in that tradition that I offer Sonja Fasenfest’s apple cake. As I've mentioned, it took several attempts to translate her world of intuitive cooking into something resembling a recipe. I offer it now only as a guide because, as Rodgers suggests and I concur, "We should sacrifice set measures at the altar of variables — difference in product quality, tools, appetite, and changes in our own palate from one day, or year, to the next. We learn to adjust. Our unwritten recipes become fluid, producing a variety of different, but related, results, all of which may be delicious.”  

So use this recipe as the framework of your inventions. Know your ingredient and the world it was grown in. Doing so transforms the experience into a thing great in both fiber and whole cloth.

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