Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Of restaurants and householders

Home cooks deserve major cred

June 7, 2011

Today I consider two separate but interrelated topics: prosciutto and restaurant work.

First, the prosciutto. As you might remember, I’m attempting to make one. It hangs now, some months after my first post, in my friend’s cold basement pantry, covered in mold. My friend, Fred, says not to worry. He instructs me to brush it off (both physically and emotionally).

Which I do. I am offering up some images (go to the bottom of this post), but I warn you, neither the before nor after shots look particularly delicious. But the leg smells good, which, at this point, is all I’m hoping for. It is a startling thing, and I will feel so vainglorious if it comes out tasty. So I keep brushing and keep hoping. I will continue to give updates as we go along.

Now, on to restaurant work.

The other day, as I was chopping parsley, I remembered an important fact: I am, and have long been, a cook. Way before I took on this householding life, I had run restaurants that required I figure out food systems — systems for bringing in product, storing it, prepping it, cooking it, and serving it in infinitely creative and well-crafted ways.

So, I wondered, is that why running a householding kitchen appeared so doable to me? Had I long ago developed the chops to do it and thereby discounted the learning curve householding required? Very possibly.

But, as I stood there chopping the parsley (which I had gleaned from my neighbor’s yard to freeze for future use), I thought about something else: Why do we give so many props to restaurateurs — and so few to homemakers? Certainly the work and skills required in running a householding kitchen can be just as demanding. The question wasn’t so much personal as it was theoretical. Why the disconnect?

Somehow in the jobbing-out of our meal production, we have turned the pride of a well-managed home kitchen into something akin to drudgery, or worse. Under the guise of leisure living or the weight of overburdened lives, we have turned over the expert running of our householding kitchens to a simplified and sloppy system of takeout, fast food, and boxed mixes.

Over time, we have taken the infinitesimal intricacies and joys of great cooking and turned them over to The Man and his “scientific research” or, in some recent renewal of respect, to the folks with white aprons and heavy debt loads.

But having lived on both sides of the counter, so to speak, I know that running a householding kitchen requires the same hard, skilled, commitment-to-detail work as running a successful restaurant. Perhaps even more so, since you are incorporating your gardens and the seasons and the life and needs of the farmers into your design.

So why do we get nearly frantic over those farm-to-plate dinners when, in a householding kitchen, you are always serving farm-to-plate meals, if only from your backyard farm to your mom’s chipped china?

The way I see it, we householders are mavens of the world’s smallest restaurants. Each day we dice, chop, cook, clean, and repeat for long hours with very little pay — just like the big kids do. We learn our skills patiently and continually, but somehow we are not always that proud. We think it is just “home cooking” or “homemaking,” and give it second-class status when it is so very much more than that.

How did that happen? My sense is that industry, advertising, and an obsession with leisure played a big role, but we homemakers jumped right on the bandwagon. We, too, figured we had better things to do with our time and, over time, we lost any memory of what it took to run a great kitchen and home. Today, not only do we have very little pride in the craft, but almost no idea about what it takes to make it all work. Heck, we don’t even have a word for it.

Back in my mom’s day, knowing your stuff meant you were a “balaboosta” — a title you wore with pride. Now? Is there even such a word? Sure, I use “householder,” but it is a bit dry. Could be we need something a tad sexier.

Regardless of the title, it is the life that needs revisiting. Not just because I say so, but because those skills — the ability to access great products from great purveyors and use them in a timely and functional way within your kitchen — is what farmers really need.

Certainly we can turn that work over to all those farm-to-plate restaurants, but what would it mean to the farmers to have an army of householders who knew how to do exactly that — to buy fresh produce in bulk, in season, every year and day, in a way that would actually support them and the good earth that good farmers treat with care?

What would it mean to create an army of householders who could take those items home and, with the least amount of packaging, turn them into every other darn delicious thing you could think of? What would it mean to have the time and inclination to take care of our backyard gardens and put meals — real, simple, seasonal meals — on the table for ourselves and our families, and have those talks everyone says is so vital to have with our children just because we actually had the time to do so?

Certainly much good could come from this life. But this life takes work and time. No-joke work, time, and a helluva lot of skills.

Which is why I think it is ironic that we give so many props to the restaurants out there and so little to ourselves. That’s just gotta change.

Though owning restaurants may have given me a head start on this householding life, it did not start there. No, if I go back, way back, I remember hacking up the golf course back in the Bronx to grow some food and baking brownies to sell in the college dining hall. I remember walking through the park with Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus and making journey cakes from the foraged booty.

I remember watching my mother cook and the day I was given the task of chopping the chicken livers, onions, hard-boiled eggs, and parsley for her fragrant and coarse pâté (though we did not call it that). To this day, I remind her that I want that worn-out wooden bowl and chopper, if only that I might pass them on to another.

Those are the images that can seduce a girl.

Which brings me back to the prosciutto. If there is a leg hanging in my friend’s basement, it is partly because I am obsessed with the politics of this life, but also because I want to be a balaboosta. I want to discover all the things that are involved in good cooking and good kitchen management. I want to support my very good farmer this year, next year, and for years to come, as I buy yet another whole pig and, thereby, put my money where my mouth is (or wants to be).

I want to treat every darn beautiful thing that grows in this lovely region with care and to know how to put it up in ways that will take me through the year.

Moldy now; sublime later?

If I can do it, or imagine it, because I had the skills to begin with, it is only secondary to the instinct that got me here at the start. If I am taking back the pride of this life, it is because I am annoyed, really annoyed, at what industry and modernity has replaced it with.

But most importantly, I want to invite you all back home with me, back to this beautiful, hard, slavish life. Hell, those restaurant chefs got nothing on us. Yeah, they get awards and respect and awe from the public, but you want to know something secret? After all is said and done, many of them wish they could be just like us — householding cooks and balaboostas. Home and in their gardens. Believe me, I know.

Every so often you brush off the mold.
The leg smells good, which is a good sign.
There are 15 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Fromagette on Jun 7, 2011 at 1:18 PM PDT

Thank you for summing up my feelings exactly!

2. by Margi Macdonald on Jun 8, 2011 at 4:03 PM PDT

Thank-you for such a rich, and timely post Harriet.
With the whole world talking about a nasty E coli outbreak and food safety, it’s wonderful to be reminded that we can all be fine home-based cooks, and that delicious, life-enhancing food has its origins in good farming and age-old methods of preparation.

3. by Avery on Jun 8, 2011 at 8:36 PM PDT

I am loving that home-curing prosciutto is considered part of the job title of a balaboosta, a yiddishe household maven

4. by Fasenfest on Jun 9, 2011 at 4:41 AM PDT

Yep, Avery, funny it is. I guess that socialist bent of yiddishkeit made me a rebel in more ways than one. By the way, It makes me very happy that you used the word yiddishe right.

5. by oregon foodie on Jun 9, 2011 at 8:16 AM PDT

Funny, my sister and I were just talking about this last night. Though I have not held a paycheck-earning job for the last 20 years, I love my job as farmer, cook, cleaner, financial analyst, go-fer. I love sitting down to a healthy home-cooked meal at the table with candles and music every night, and sending my hsband off to work with a good lunch in his lunch box. I love the rows of jam, applesauce, fruit and vegetables and in my pantry and the containers of tomato sauce, pesto, raosted tomatoes, and stock in the freezer. The only time it gives me pause is when I meet someone new and they ask me what I do. My sister suggest I tell them “I make things.”

6. by allegro on Jun 9, 2011 at 10:59 AM PDT

I think we all need tee shirts emblazoned with “balaboosta.” This is a great post and a little odd considering that I just tweeted now nice it is to bump into chefs at the farmers market, but I added that the difference was in his food compared to mine. I officially take that back. I think one of the best things I know how to do is nourish other people with my food. Balaboostas to the rescue.

7. by Fasenfest on Jun 9, 2011 at 11:37 AM PDT

Hey Oregon Foodie and Allegro,

It is funny how far we went to distance ourselves from this life, how much of our skill set and efforts we downplayed or gave away to the “professionals”. I’m going to google the word balaboosta and see what comes up. See how many references there are. You right though, it might be fun to make up tee shirts that say bad-ass balaboosta. Or else, just live like one and be proud.

8. by Fasenfest on Jun 9, 2011 at 12:25 PM PDT

One for now:

What is a Balaboosta?
Balaboosta (n.)(bah-lah-b00-sta) A Yiddish term meaning the perfect housewife, homemaker, wonderful mother, cook, and gracious hostess. She does it all and does it well.

9. by Margie Gibson on Jun 10, 2011 at 4:24 AM PDT

I grew up with a love of food and cooking, nurtured by my mother’s and grandmother’s examples. I cook daily, often for friends, but find that few have any idea of the work involved and too many think cooking is beneath them, a skill better pursued by someone hired to do the job. This attitude shocks and saddens me because what holds a family together as well as a meal that reflects your background, history, and geographical location and gathers everyone you love around a table.

Italy has started a program called Home Food. visitors--total strangers--are invited into homes to experience a local, homemade meal. Of course, Italy has developed its food traditions into a PR tool that attracts visitors. I think we can learn much from the Italian attitude and celebration of food. We all have our local products and traditions; we just have to recognize and appreciate them.

10. by Fasenfest on Jun 10, 2011 at 2:44 PM PDT

Yeah Margie, I heard about that. Home Food. Now we could use that here. I know we are trying to start our own agritourismo or farm stay action here in Oregon. The woman from Lipping Lamb farms has been working on getting that going and it would be a perfect fit if folks could eat great home cooked meals while they were there. Hey, I got an idea. I’ll just start charging the family for dinner. That would give me a little more cash and get it through their heads that its worth something. Not that they don’t but occasionally they can get a tad dismissive of all the work it takes. What you gonna do? Alternately, I’ve been wondering about the old Room and Board approach to taking in lodgers. Not exactly roommates but rather lodgers with benefits -- Ahhhhh, meals that is.

11. by Linda Ziedrich on Jun 13, 2011 at 10:01 AM PDT

Harriet, I think Balaboosta would be a great title for your next book.

12. by Fasenfest on Jun 13, 2011 at 10:24 AM PDT

Hey Linda,

So here’s a question - if a balaoosta no longer has a family to feed is she still a balaboosta? I’m hoping so. I will just have to be a bad ass for the world at large and/or take my show on the road. But I do like the idea and the title. Maybe The Street-Wise Balaboosta would be better, just to keep it real.

13. by janem Shanko on Jun 15, 2011 at 9:23 AM PDT

Nice up date on your prosciutto, I’m planning on doing one in the fall when I get my 1/2 pig/hog. I’ve done bacon and so on. This will be new to me. At least now I know not to worry about the mold aka your picture. I’ve started wine this week and berry vinegar. One thing I do wish the people I cook for that they would relize what I do! Working like I do then cooking dinner isn’t always easy and I will say, there are days I’m too tried and it’s pizza and I didn’t make it....shame I know since it’s quite easy. Always look forward to your updates.

14. by Fasenfest on Jun 15, 2011 at 2:21 PM PDT

Well, Fred tells me HIS prosciutto is looking just fine - no mold at all. Ahh, maybe a little bit but not like the hairy beast I can be looking at. Now I think there were probably a bunch of mold spores hanging around in my friend’s basement that just attached themselves to my ham. I’ll call it the caves of Rougefort and imagine I’m developing some exotic new taste. But just in case I’m wrong about it, next time I visit the beast I’m going to spray it down with red wine and hope to deter the mold. I’m also going to try and move it into Fred’s house since HIS seems to be doing so well. Also, we’re just about to put the leaf lard/rice flour/black pepper goop on it (I’ll post). At that point we will be entering the last long haul when it will hang, covered in its fatty shackle, for another six months to a year. Oh joy.

15. by janem Shanko on Jun 22, 2011 at 11:18 AM PDT

Fred’s may not have any mold but at least if mine does (with my luck!) I will know just to brush it off. Ohhhh I can’t wait for the update. Six months go fast. I’ve been making wine and that takes about the same...time and more time!

Thank you for the updates

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