- Made from Scratch: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth
In Made From Scratch: Reclaiming the American Hearth, journalist Jean Zimmerman tackles the subjects of homemaking and domesticity in the United States. The book offers both an historical look at these topics as well as a discussion of Americans' current relationship with domesticity and the home. Predictably there are chapters on food and cooking, cleaning and housework, and sewing and quilting, as well as some less-expected topics, such as the history of home economics classes in American [End Page 159] public schools. The unexpected bits of information—such as the history of Jell-O and a discussion of Colonial Williamsburg and the American fascination with historical reenactments—are some of the most interesting and enjoyable of the book. For many Feminist Teacher readers, however, one of the major components of Zimmerman's argument—that domestic work is important and should be valued—will seem an obvious point. Moreover, while Zimmerman is clearly passionate about her topic, her goal of charting the decline of domesticity in the United States in order to demand its revival is not without serious flaws.
One of the major problems with the book is Zimmerman's approach to her subject. While many readers will agree that creating and maintaining a comfortable, livable home is important, as the book progresses it becomes increasingly focused on declaring an urgent need, as she puts it, to "reclaim the hearth." Zimmerman, however, never concretely articulates what this really means or how readers might accomplish this. Perhaps more troubling is Zimmerman's failure to recognize how problematic her goal is and the impossibility of the idealized home that she upholds. She fervently reminds readers how important it is to look back and pay homage to women who spent their lives doing domestic work, but in the process too often strays dangerously close to nostalgia, and nearly seems to suggest that the dissatisfied domestic lives many Americans lead can be resolved by baking cakes and taking up knitting. Furthermore, too often her praise of domesticity obscures significant historical problems. Certainly homemaking skills were held in higher esteem a century ago than they are now, but it seems crucial for Zimmerman to at least acknowledge that historically, deeming a set of tasks "women's work" has been the quickest way of trivializing and demeaning them.
Another issue readers might have with Made from Scratch is that Zimmerman fails to qualify many of her statements or findings, and consequently her writing often seems to suggest that the experiences and history she discusses are everyone's, rather than openly acknowledging the limitations of her observations and that her work on the idea of the American home is a distinctly white, straight, middle-class suburban one. This tendency to universalize is deeply troubling: statements such as, "We know deep within ourselves that home and hearth are important, but we feel guilty about acting (or not acting) on that knowledge," and "We're damned if we do, damned if we don't. We hate housework. We'd rather be doing anything else," both uncomfortably assume that the reader identifies and agrees with Zimmerman and leaves a more critical reader wondering who the "we" is to whom Zimmerman repeatedly refers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Zimmerman's writing often feels unintentionally contradictory, and she too often fails to make the most of her potentially rich and interesting topic. Throughout much of the text Zimmerman details Americans' waning interest in homemaking, yet somewhat surprisingly declares in the epilogue that "Americans are fed up with lack of texture." Moreover, she tells her readers, "I cannot help but mourn the loss of home-making skills," yet she also describes her distaste for housework and laments having once won a prize for a pie she baked. What is frustrating about this incongruity is the lack of self-awareness about it and the lack of a real investment in deeply [End Page 160] exploring it through her writing of the text. Instead Zimmerman merely oscillates repeatedly between "mourning...