Home Ec: It’s a Learning Curve, Not a Joke Course in Grade Nine

The snow has come for real.
After a relatively balmy (3 degrees Celceus) that saw a lot of the pre-existing dusting of snow sublimate off the ground in a hurry, some time around 10pm (give or take) a new snow started falling. In reality, it wasn’t a “big storm” at all. Just a steady fall of snow with a moderate wind. Gentle enough that someone could ride a unicycle (I saw the photographic evidence, but didn’t see it with my own eyes) in the midst of it at 4:30am, down the street from me.
Totally manageable, although a complete mess (it being rush-hour now) if you haven’t put your snow tires on yet.
So here I am, chilling on my couch, waiting for Batch 1 of today’s candle-making extravaganza[1] to harden enough for me to pop them out of their molds and start Batch 2, enjoying the view from my window.
It’s very “winter wonderland”, I don’t mind telling you.
Today will be a day of scrambling, at least once 2pm rolls around. The Rainbow Youth Forum is tomorrow, so I’ve got set-up to handle this evening, plus sorting out how I’m going to schlep my info-fair stuff (sandwich board, table cloth, plus small heap of information pamphlets) to the venue (across town) through the edging-towards-a-foot-of snow.
For now, however, I’m cruising the blogosphere, reading old (but frequently sometimes new-to-me) posts on subjects near to my heart.

To wit:
There’s a post up at Simple Homemade that talks about “green living fatigue” and how to avoid it – most of the advice centers around “don’t bite off more than you can chew”: setting challenging but definitely achievable goals, picking areas to focus on rather than trying to focus on All The Things at once. That kind of thing.
On a related note, there’s an old post over on Apron Stringz that talks about how the work of DIY Living takes practice and a lot of skills and about how there’s a fairly steep learning curve when you dive right in.
I think both of these posts are relvant, and they’ve Got Me Thinking a little bit about my humble home-making beginnings.
See, these days, I make our bread, cook most of our meals from scratch, and routinely throw together tasty snacks/desserts on the fly and with no recipe, purely because I invited someone over and wanted to have something treat-like to serve them.
I forage, preserve, knit, sew, mend, weave (well, getting there), spin, darn (see: mend), chandle(?), saponify, and felt. (My wife is a professional leather worker and a former contractor. Together, we’re unstopable!)
I know how to shop locally and on the cheap (at grocery stores and thrift stores), know how to use what’s on hand, and, when the opportunity arises, can grow a food-producing garden, to boot.
Which is pretty impressive (if I do say so myself), even if there aren’t any children or chickens involved.
But my first few times out? Not so much.
My first apartment was (as, I suspect is the case for a lot of people) a complete disaster. There were a lot of reasons for that, and I wound up (thank the gods) losing my room-mate four months into the year, and (less great) having to sublet the apartment and move back in with my mother two months later. Economics were not my strong suit, as you may have guessed.
One of the ways that this manifested was my horrible “grocery math”. Up until then, I’d had a lifetime of grocery shopping in a car. The kind of thing where you show up once a week, stock up on All The Things, and schelp it all home in a car. Rather than on your back, which was what I was doing now. (Shopping for six people wasn’t making that any easier, mind you). So I’d over-buy every time so that I could get free delivery on my order. I’d buy full-priced blocks of cooking cheddar, flats of pop, and three kinds of oil (that only happened once and, admittedly, only because I caved to my room-mate’s demands; and, yeah, I have more than three kinds of cooking oil in my cupboard right now. But you get the idea). I’d buy family-packs of X or Y because it was Good and Cheap (e.g.: onions, when I didn’t eat onions), except that we never ate X or Y and so we’d have a family-pack of something taking up space and then going rotten in the fridge.
I let an open jar of tomato sauce sit in my pantry because, hey, it didn’t need refridgeration at the store, right? (We survived).
Next time out? I bought a house. This time, I was able to grow a garden (which I loved), although I suspect it did so well at least in part because it was the only garden – read biodiverse chunk o’ land – around. (My compost brings all the worms to the yard. Damn right, it’s better than yours!) A garden that netted me 50+ squashes (including a few ponca butternuts the length of my very-long arm) plus a heap of cukes, weeks of green beans, and a lot of herbs (but not much in the way of tomatoes – oh, well).
Good for me.
But I remember being so proud of my Home Economy when I bought heaps of fruit off the reduced-for-quick-sale rack and turned them into fruit sauce… that I had no idea how to properly can. They wound up in mason jars in the freezer, and never got used. When I sold the place four years later (due to divorce), they were still in there.
I tried to dry beans for use – like the lentils split peas I bought in bags from the store – in soups and stews, but they went mouldy on my counter.
I saved seeds, but didn’t know what would cross-polinate with what, and so wound up with some really funky (and rather more fibrous and bitter than intended) squashes in later years: Winter Zucchini, anyone? (It was actually pretty good). I also bought a lot of Fancy Organic seeds without knowing how to do anything but direct-sow them after Victoria Day weekend. You can imagine how well the peppers and tomatoes liked that.
I bought a lot of prepared foods and specialty (for a given value of “specialty” – I’m thinking “vanilla yoghurt”) foods that I could have done without.
I ate at a lot of restaurants (that had more to do with a crappy home-life than anything else, though).
So… Better, but really, really, really not great.
Third time – and with a significant dose of poverty and serious financial uncertaintly, er, “helping” me along by providing that necessity that is the mother of so much invention – that was a charm.
When I sold that house? I dropped 30lbs in as many days due to stress. I had a buget of about $10/week for groceries, and I’d upped it to ten from five because a gallon of milk per week really is a necessity in my life. Fruits and veggies? Out of the question. But I had a wild grape vine growing along my porch railing. So I had greens every day.
That was the beginning of my forays into foraging.
Moving to my new neighbourhood – one of the older neighbourhoods in Ottawa, and one with a LOT of mature fruit trees (including (up until recently) an apple tree right around the corner from my building) – meant I could up that a little bit.
I still made mistakes. For a while, I was getting organic produce (from all over the world) home-delivered every Thursday night. Every week, I’d check into my account and customize my order to include lots of mushrooms, leafy greens, avocados, and tropical fruits. And every week, there would be more produce than I knew how to cook for only one person. And every week I’d make the mistake of cooking the “less delicious” stuff first and “saving” the stuff I wanted to savour… you know… like rainbow chard.
That fiasco came to an end after three months, in large part because I was suddenly out of work (although thank goodness, because the temp job I’d been at was NOT a good place for me, mental-health-wise, and also that was when the Bus Strike hit, and I’d have had no way of getting in to work anyway). It took two months – the exact length of the bus strike – to find a new contract. This one walking distance (well, 45 minutes) from my house.
In that two months I learned A Few Things, because poverty and uncertaintly are nothing if not good teachers.
That’s when I learned that the galon jugs of milk (with their returnable deposites) at the convenience store around the corner are less expensive (that was a surprise) than the same milk bought in cartons or bags from the grocery store. That’s when I learned how to make yoghurt, because home-made yoghurt is (marginally) cheaper than store-bought yoghurt. It’s when I found out exactly how much food (well, flavour) diversity I could come up with using little more than eggs, milk, and wheat flour, since that’s what I had reliably available. It’s when I started understanding preserves – like, say, ketchup – as vegetables rather than something to be avoided because they’re not “fresh”.
And I’ve been moving along those lines ever since.
I learned how to make soap and bathbombs because I needed something with a low overhead that I could sell at craft shows. I re-taught myself how to knit because I needed a fast, DIY gift for my brother’s Secular Xmas present, and Red Heart (yeah, you heard me) yarn was $5 per ball at the discount store. I learned how to preserve (for real this time) for much the same reason, and then kept on learning (past the “apple-jelly as cheap and easy gift idea” stage) because I was suddenly harvesting all this local fruit so that I could have pre-paid non-perishables over the winter, when it came along.
I started baking our Daily Bread in earnest back in April, after my wife got laid off. Because it would save us $2-$5 a week. I have a boat load of apple butters, plus a heap of both tomato and service-berry preserves this year because the apples, serviceberries, and tomatoes were free.
I learned how to spin because I wanted to, and because the start-up costs for an experimental hank of roving and a drop-spindle (made at home, with cheap materials, by my carpenter wife – although not nearly as cheaply as this tutorial does, fyi) came out to less than $10, all told.
What I’m getting at is that (a) I didn’t do this all at once. I didn’t go from [kid who likes to cook and makes a mean cheesecake but can’t budget worth a tin dam] to [frugality queen and domestic goddess] without a LOT of trial and error (and a lot of free opportunities – “for growth” but also “free stuff”) in between.
The title of this post mentions “Home Ec”. For me, it was two years in grade seven and eight (one semester each) where we learned to make blueberry scones and macaroni & cheese with broccoli (both recipes I still use, fyi) and how to sew a pillow and a pair of shorts (neither of which I’ve done anything with in eons, since I tend to hand-sew and wear skirts, but still useful). In grade nine, it was two weeks of learning how to make Morning Glory muffins (which I only remember because they turned out really badly) and other stuff that I don’t remember at all.
I’d really like to see Home Ec be reinstated as a mandatory full-credit course that covers:
Basic mending (buttons, zippers, patches, maybe darning)
Basic hemming/alterations (taylor a shirt, hem pants, possibly hem a skirt)
Budgetting for a week, a month, and a big get-together meal
Meal planning and cooking for one
Grocery Shopping 101 (field trip!) including choosing good stuff from the “sell by” rack, comparison shopping (price per 100g), and paying attention to expiry dates
A dozen easy, healthy, delicious recipes that don’t take much planning or much money[1]
Figuring out your utility bill
How to pay taxes in your province/territory, with added attention to self-employment stuff
How to do basic home-repairs (dripping faucet, loose screws, putting up a shelf, blocking/stopping drafts)
How to use frozen foods (like frozen fruits and veggies) and other preserves (tinned tomatoes, apple sauce, prepared mustard & ketchup, freeze-dried pasta/gnocchi/etc) in your cooking
What to do if your first apartment has bedbugs (along with: why to avoid dumpster diving for furniture, if at all possible), and what to watch for in order to catch them early
I think that seeing “home ec” as what it really is – living on your own 101 – rather than some superfluous course that “nobody” needs… I think that’s important. I think it would prevent some of the trial and error that goes into learning how to live on your own, and I think it would mean that a lot more people grew up with an understand of how to keep themselves (and their families-to-be and, in some cases, their families-of-origin) more food-secure in the long run.
Melaid the Birch Maiden.
[1] Stuff like: Veggie chili; Harvest pot pie w/ lentils or romano beans & a mashed potato crust; stir fry; Quinoa/fice pilaf; Mushroom & spinach risotto using cottage cheese instead of something more expensive; Macaroni and cheese from scratch (with broccoli); Pasta primavera (with added unit on protein combining); Red beans and rice with tinned tomatoes; Veggie goulash/stew with mushrooms; Tomato-cucumber-black-bean salad; Veggie terrine using a soda-bread crust (or other sour-milk crust, thus allowing for a discussion about using sour milk in cooking, and why it’s okay); Salad nicoise (with tinned tuna and whatever’s on hand); French onion soup, Potato-leek soup (with turnips, celeriac, and white beans).
But also stuff like: Raisin-spice quick-cake with optional sunflower seeds, Red velvet cake (yes, with beets), and quick-and-easy vegan, gluten-free “Kitchen sink” drop cookies For All Occasions.


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