Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lost Arts

When I was a kid my mother made toast by placing slices of bread on an asbestos-lined griller created for that purpose. The thing was held directly on the kitchen stove’s gas flame. Left too long, the bread would blacken; not long enough and it would merely turn dry and inedible. I was never particularly fond of my mother’s pain grillĂ© but it was a part of life, companion to the cafĂ© au lait and brown sugar with which I started my day from earliest childhood. It was an art of sorts, a lost art of little value in modern times, but it got me to wondering how many such household skills have vanished.

Do people still darn socks? I learned how with a wooden egg placed in the sock’s toe to stretch the fabric and make it easier to stitch and close a hole. I know how to sew buttons, pushing a thin needle through fabric and wearing a thimble to protect my index finger if the fabric is too thick or resistant. One of my chores as a kid was to weigh meat, fish and cheese on the kitchen scale, with a collection of brass counterweights that ranged from one to 500 grams, and to check eggs against a light to find the ones with double yolks. I know how to make caramel from burned sugar, and use a pressure cooker, though the hissing and whistling still scare me. I can make humus from scratch, starting with dry chick peas, and crepes, too, though my crepe pan has vanished. I can roll cigarettes. Not joints, cigarettes… A different skill altogether.

I know how to make a vinaigrette and mayonnaise, though the latter is shrouded in mystery. My mother swore that a menstruating woman could not make a decent mayonnaise, that the egg yolks and olive oil would not blend properly and instead curdle into an inedible mess. Strangely, I have heard this tale again and again, including from my ex-wife, who is Vietnamese.  Perhaps the French brought this belief into Vietnam when it was a French colony; now it appears to be an urban legend.

I’m pretty good with tools and have built most bookshelves in my house, and I still have the clamps and brad-hammer my father used to frame my mother’s paintings for a show. My father told me how to use Coca Cola to clean tools and greasy nuts and bolts, and when firing up the chimney the first time in a season, he would dump a handful of used coffee grounds to sweeten the air.

I know how to iron, though I am slow and not particularly good at it. I am lax at doing the wash. I mix colors and fabrics and for awhile everything I owned had a grayish cast. But I’m getting better.  I can clean shoes with saddle soap and shine them, any color as long as it isn’t white.

Does anyone do any of this stuff anymore? Are these arts truly lost?   

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