Domesticity

When I read the Witold Rybczynski’s chapters entitled “domesticity? and “commodity and delight? I immediately identified with the Dutch definition of home because it dovetailed so nicely with my own definition of home:

The Dutch loved their homes. They shared this old Anglo Saxon word ham, hejm in Dutch with the other peoples of northern Europe.* "Home" brought together the meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection. "Home" meant the house, but also everything that was in it and around it, as well as the people, and the sense of satisfaction and contentment that all these conveyed. You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home. The Dutch affection for their homes was expressed in a singular practice: they had elaborate scale models built of their houses. These replicas are sometimes inaccurately referred to as dollhouses. Their function was more like that of ship models, not playthings but miniature memorials, records of dearly beloved objects. They were built like cupboards which did not represent the exterior appearance of the house. But when the doors were opened the entire interior was magically revealed, not only the rooms complete with wall coverings and furnishings but even paintings, utensils, and china figurines.

It was quite late in my life before I ever identified with a particular “house,? but I’ve always identified with this definition of home, particularly when you accompany it with the other characteristics the Dutch admired:

It is precisely because Holland's scrubbed floors and polished brasswork did not reflect a profound understanding of health or hygiene that they are significant. The cleanliness of the Dutch interior was not simply a part of the national character, nor a response determined by external causes, but evidence of something much more important. When visitors were required to take off their shoes or put on slippers, it was not immediately on entering the house the lower floor was still considered to be a part of the public street but on going upstairs. That was where the public realm stopped and the home began. This boundary was a new idea, and the order and tidiness of the household were evidence neither of fastidiousness nor of a particular cleanliness, but instead of a desire to define the home as a separate, special place.

Though I’ll have to admit I often got in the way of my mother’s attempts to keep our house spotless, it wouldn’t have been home otherwise. We lived in some pretty shabby neighborhoods when I was growing up, but our house was always spotless, or at least it was once my mother had cleaned up after me or gotten me to clean up after myself. If cleanliness is really next to godliness, my mother was a real saint.

Add that to the Dutch belief that:

… the kitchen was the most important room; according to one historian, "the kitchen was promoted to a position of fantastic dignity and became something between a temple and a museum.? Here were located the cupboards that held the prized table linens, china, and silver. Copper and brass utensils, brightly polished, hung on the walls. The chimney piece was enormous and elaborately decorated overly so to modern tastes and contained not only he hearth with the traditional hanging pot, but also a simple kind of stove. The sink was copper, sometimes marble. Some kitchens had interior hand pumps (one is visible in de Witte's painting) and even reservoirs with a continuous supply of hot water. The presence of such amenities signified the growing importance of domestic work and the premium that was beginning to be placed on convenience. This was natural. For he first time, the person who was in intimate contact with housework was also in a position to influence the arrangement and disposition of the home. Servants had to put up with inconvenient and ill thought out arrangements because they had no say in the matter. The mistress of the house, particularly when she was as independent minded as the Dutch woman, did not.

and it would be hard to find a closer definition of my idea of home. My fondest memories of childhood are centered in the kitchen. No matter how boke we were, we ate well, even if most of the food came from our fishing and gardening. My grandmother had worked as a cook for several years before getting married, and she passed her best recipes down to my mother. Nothing says love more clearly than blackberry pies, even if picking the small berries meant fighting garter snakes off with a stick while fighting your way through blackberry brambles.

I acquired my love of homegrown, natural, foods from my dad and my appreciation of fine cooking from my mom:

The notion that what is artless must be better than what is not requires a precarious leap in reasoning, but for all that it carries great weight with the American public at least judging from the dozens of advertisements that extol "being natural." It is a shallow conceit. A little reflection shows that all human culture is artificial, cooking no less than music, furniture no less than painting. Why prepare time consuming sauces when a raw fruit would suffice? Why bother with musical instruments when the voice is pleasant enough? Why paint pictures when looking at nature is satisfying? Why sit up when you can squat? The answer is that it makes life richer, more interesting, and more pleasurable. Of course furniture is unnatural; it is an artifact. Sitting is artificial, and like other artificial activities, although less obviously than cooking, instrumental music, or painting, it introduces art into living. We eat pasta or play the piano or sit upright out of choice, not out of need. This should be emphasized, for so much has been written about the practicality and functionality of (particularly modern) furniture that it is easy to forget that tables and chairs, unlike, for example, refrigerators and washing machines, are a refinement, not a utility.

Though I would argue that nothing could taste better than a couple of ears of corn picked fresh in the garden, a plate full of freshly sliced garden tomatoes and cucumbers, and a small steak; I still love chicken simmered in a complex mole sauce or Thai beef salad dressed with fresh mint, cilantro, fish sauce, and lime juice. What could be better than eating great food in a beautiful, harmonious environment?

2 thoughts on “Domesticity

  1. Food, beauty, and family … what could be more precious, or more meaningful?

    Dutch interiors in paintings have long been a personal favorite. But I never would have encountered Rybczynski’s thoughts without your intervention. Fascinating.

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