Bear in a China Shop

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What’s your style of cooking? Are you clean while cooking or baking, or does your kitchen turn into a mini explosion of flour, veggie scraps, and a tower of dishes that rivals the Empire State Building in height?

Although I wish I could maintain the sparkling counters, neatly stacked plates, and organized piles of produce that Bobby Flay or Giada do while whipping up extravagant, gourmet meals, I seem not to have that talent. See, when I cook, I like to consider myself somewhat of a creative genius. Emphasis on creative…

Cooking has definitely become an outlet for me. I currently am unable to run and exercise like I usually do so I spend a lot of time in my apartment. And this means that I can either sit in my room and twiddle my thumbs, do homework, study for the GRE, or cook and bake. Obviously, I choose cooking and baking (although I do my fair share of the other options as well). I have made dinner for my roommates a few times in the past couple weeks (all successful!) and I’ve made a lot of new baked goods that are a result of me opening the refrigerator then the pantry then the refrigerator again until I find something that inspires me or lends itself to a delicious meal (hence the creation of Apple Pie Donuts, Quinoa Pizza Crust, Red Cabbage Slaw, or orzo mixed with chicken, pesto and veggies).

So, why am I talking so much about my cooking habits today? Maybe because I just read the story “A New England Nun” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and I had to read several passages over again because I couldn’t believe what the main character Louisa does in order to keep her kitchen and home spotless. I also couldn’t believe how well her dog Caesar is fed; he probably eats better meals than most college kids, and adults for that matter.

To give you a little bit of an introduction to the story, “A New England Nun” was written by a woman originally from New England who spent much of her life writing literature that deals with the oppression of women during that time due to the constraints put on them by society. In the time that she was writing, women’s rights and movements were slowly and steadily gaining momentum. Freeman’s work reflects these changes in society by providing characters who are under immense amounts of pressure to conform to social norms but choose (sometimes in subtle ways) to rebuke the ideas of the “best life” presented by others and instead remain true to themselves.

In the story “A New England Nun”, Louisa is a woman who has been engaged to a man named Joe Dagget for 14 years. She fell in love with him as a teenager and her mother approves of him and urges her to go ahead and agree to marry him. Joe leaves to go make his fortune in Australia so that he can support them and returns 14 years later. Louisa is still waiting for him when he returns! I don’t think that this is romantic so much as it is a product of culture and the expectations placed on women to get married and settle down. She views it as the only course of action, so she complies. However, when Joe returns from Australia and begins to visit her in anticipation of their marriage, she begins to have doubts. Why? Not because she doesn’t like Joe or because she’s scared commitment or anything like that, but because she LOVES her house and she says that when he visits her she describes him as a bear in a china shop. More specifically in regards to how much she loves her house, she “had almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home…she had throbs of genuine triumph at the sight of the window-panes which she had polished until they shone like jewels…she gloated gently over her orderly bureau-drawers, with their exquisitely folded contents redolent with lavender and sweet clover and very purity” (658, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume C).

In short, she’s a little obsessed with cleanliness. And by ‘a little’ I mean to say scarily addicted to cleanliness. She wears FOUR aprons at a time, and takes one or two off depending on how ‘nice’ she wants to look. I’m lucky if I even put one apron on to cook!! But nevertheless, there is something to be admired about the way she takes care of her home and her kitchen. The food she makes sounds amazing-although I’d be afraid to go over and dine at her house (knowing me, I’d probably spill pasta sauce all over myself or worse, on her carpet or perfect tablecloth). She has her own garden so she has fresh lettuce, currants (I didn’t even know what these were until I looked them up: they are little berry-type things that look pretty fancy), roses, peppermint, spearmint, cherries, apples, and more. She seems to tend to her garden the same way she does to her home and in one section, describes how she adds “a leaf or two of lettuce” to some of her dishes, adding that she cuts them up “daintily” of course (654). I don’t know about you guys, but I certainly eat more than a couple pieces of lettuce when I eat it. Maybe we can all learn something from Louisa though-she puts an immense amount of care into her food and appreciates each morsel that she puts into her mouth. I think that sounds like a legitimate way to do things.

I think that the most astounding thing about this story in relation to food though (I know, four aprons wasn’t the main attraction?!?), is how she feeds her dog Caesar. I’m a fan of the people who bake birthday cakes for their dogs and make homemade treats and all that jazz, but Louisa makes her dog dinner every single night. She makes him “nicely baked thin corncakes” and serves them to him on a plate in the backyard. That’s one lucky dog.

After reading this story, I felt more normal about my explosive cooking habits. I mean if Louisa is entitled to keep every crumb off of her countertops, wear four aprons, and stare lovingly at her clean tabletop, then aren’t I entitled to leave dirty dishes everywhere (only temporarily), streaks of batter on the oven, and flour in my hair? Maybe these things are just indications of how we work best: Louisa is probably the type who levels her teaspoons of baking soda with a knife while I am the type in the kitchen to pour the baking soda straight out of the box and hope it works. She makes perfect corn-cakes for her dog and I try out recipes and creations on my roommates for dinner, not knowing if they will turn out. I say whatever way you cook best, do it! It makes me happy to crank up some music in the kitchen while beaters spray frosting all over the cabinets. Louisa would probably have a heart attack watching.

In reference to women’s progress in terms of this story, I think it’s great that women and men can be seen in the kitchen now, cooking and baking however they do it best. There’s less pressure to maintain perfect households and relationships that are based on societal pressures that don’t include love. So in short, be who you want to be, do what you do best, and love every second of it. Especially while cooking.

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