In the 1950s every girl took home economics-- “Home Ec”-- in high school. It was sort of middle class America’s idea of a finishing school subject for young ladies.
I think the classes were required as part of our education because the assumption of America’s educational establishment in the 50s and 60s was that every woman’s destiny was to become a wife, a homemaker and a mother (in that inviolate order, by the way).
Oh, young women might have a little fling after high school with teaching or typing in an office for a few years, but that would end, and a woman’s real work would begin--creating homes which would produce happy, productive husbands and happy, obedient children. All family members were to be presented to the public well-fed and clean.
Then the only skills that would matter would be those needed for running a well-organized household and feeding the family. We needed to be able to prepare the perfect white sauce, we needed to know at least 14 ways to use turkey leftovers, we needed to be able to make our own curtains, stitch up cute costumes for our children’s plays, tailor our own suits for church, and keep our work spaces clean and tidy.
Not much was said in home ec about the mothering part of our destinies. We might learn to slap a diaper on a doll, but the actualities of how a baby arrived to be diapered were left vague. As for raising Baby, our educators assumed that we’d read and apply Dr. Spock to any problems in the nursery.
As more women began to delay marriage and family to go to college, home ec was a popular major for years. Young women who aspired to teach home economics classes to high school girls boned up in their state colleges on cooking and sewing and went deeper to learn which bacteria made you sick when you left the potato salad out too long at the picnic.
One or two of my college friends became Home Economists for their counties. They were in the revered upper echelon of home-making gurus. Oddly, many of these super-skilled homemakers never married. I think they liked the theory but not the reality of marriage and family, which is messy and sometimes leaves us without the time to get our white sauce perfectly smooth or the energy to apply the perfect wax job to our hardwood floors.
Still, I always felt intimidated by those women. Try as hard as I might, I never mastered one thing in home economics.
Oh, I dutifully signed up for my required classes in cooking and sewing every year from the 7th grade on. But I was the one who burned the group pot roast, left lumps in the mashed potatoes and chewed up the fabric in the back of the pleated skirt I was constructing from sewing in and ripping out the zipper so many times.
As a project in the 8th grade cooking class, I had to cook all of our family meals for one week, buy the food, keep a record of expenses, and turn in all of my paper work at the end.
I wanted to be creative and show my teacher how much I had learned so I introduced my parents (and myself) to things like roast lamb, minted potatoes and asparagus, a new vegetable for us. We hated it all. I made cheese soup that started with a sadly imperfect white sauce and ended with an impenetrable lump of yellow dough. I whipped up herb bread that almost choked us and candied yams that got so hard they almost pulled our teeth out.
At the end of the week, we were all glad to get back to our TV dinners.
When I married and set up my own home, I tried to remember what I had learned, but my deviled eggs always tore up, my tea was always cloudy, and my flower arrangements always fell over.
I made creamed tuna on toast for my husband, who proclaimed that in the Army they had called that dish S--- (I won’t write out the word) on a Shingle. I created lopsided layer cakes that had to be propped up with several inches of frosting on one side to even out the layers.
I even ventured into canning tomatoes. I did it one time and added 12 jars of nice red tomatoes to our food supply. But the disturbing explosions coming from under the cabinet a few hours after I put the jars away discouraged me from (1) eating the tomatoes and (2) ever canning anything again.
I did sew fairly successfully for years, having finally figured out how to put in a zipper. But making your own clothes is no longer cost effective. The materials cost more than a finished garment, which comes with a zipper I don’t have to fuss over.
But if you ask me how I used last week’s turkey leftovers, I’ll tell you that I ate my turkey in a restaurant, leaving the cooks and waiters with the problem of what to do with all that left-over turkey. I did not wash dishes. I did not have to keep my work space clean and tidy.
I was happy.