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.
These days we can’t help but love the farmers, for their work is what we need and what we want — good farmers, sustainable farms, healthy soil, clean food, well-fed families. All this I know well. But by golly, with all the love going to the farmer, can I hear an amen for the farmer’s wife — or, to be more modern about it, the farmer’s partner?
I must repeat, as I have said many times before, that being a householder is not a gender-specific act. That I write now of the farm wife (as opposed to my normal bill of fare) is because that role is too often forgotten. But just as we speak of the farmer, so must we speak of the farmer’s partner, and “wife” is as good a word as any. It means something, and I do not care who says otherwise. Besides, I know the spirit of which I speak.
Let me offer some history: Farm wives were always vital to making a farmstead work. There was pride and value in the life, and nobody, not the least the farmer, would have said otherwise. That pride was part of our sustainable-farmstead idyll, and it did exist. Not for all, but for some.
On those farmsteads, there were well-laid-out kitchen gardens, healthy livestock, a good well, and properly maintained outbuildings. On those farms, a farm wife who learned the rhythms and demands of the seasons, and made peace with them, had great larders and root cellars to show for it. There were meals at the table to feed all who were hungry. In good years, there was food to last the year, and some to offer neighbors. In bad years, the neighbors came to you. This is not conjecture. There was a time when land and community were connected, when farmer and farm wife worked together to live a simple, decent life. Hard? Yes. Fantasy? Not in the least, at least for a while.
In the early 1900s — in this country, at least — farming started becoming big business, as the Department of Agriculture began nudging farmers to become commodity growers, growing for big commerce and trade. This type of farming, on a large scale, served to extinguish some of the joys of running a small farmstead.
For the farmer, it became an endless race to stay ahead, to make a profit, to manage the land and crops to meet the demands of new economies. For the farm wife, the chores got harder, or of a different nature. In the end, for the farm wife it meant lots of meals for lots of farmhands resigned to farming without pride or love in a system that was merciless for lots of folks.
Farming became bigger and noisier, with shorter returns and tired soil, until the idyllic farmstead, with its lovely kitchen gardens, flocks of chickens, pigs, a dairy and beef cow, timber, water, and fertile soil (that perfect balance of resources to make a small farmstead work) began to fade from view, for both the farmer and the farmer’s wife.
What came next, as it relates to the farm wife, is a long and constant decline as food — its harvesting and cooking — fell into the grip of industry. For some, this happened not a minute too soon; for others, it proved to be a lost art. And for others still, lives and ethics were usurped. There are kids today who do not know what a home-cooked meal is. Those kids will go out and eat the foods of industry unless the spirit of the farm wife returns, right alongside that of the farmer.
Really, it is hard to imagine having one without the other.
It is the spirit of the farm wife that engages in the magic of creating stores and provisions for the year. It is that spirit which takes what is grown on the farm and turns it into a remarkable variety of goods to be consumed during the year. It is that spirit of nurturing and caring; it is no better or no less than the spirit of the farmer, who feeds our souls and bodies. And just as I know when the farm-wife spirit is with me, so do I know the farmer. It’s true: Sometimes these spirits exist in one and the same person.
As it turns out, the farmer in my life is me. These two spirits do not confuse me. They dance with each other, but they are different. Would I, could I, have a separate farmer spirit in my world, it would be nice. For surely I exist most gloriously as the farmer’s wife. Which is why I am speaking up for that spirit today. I know it as something unto itself, even though necessity sometimes suggests we merge our roles. Yes, sometimes we must be part urban and part rural, part farmer and part farmer’s wife.
I daresay this dance of merged spirits would be impossible if I were growing food for market. I would be all farmer all the time, which is not my idea of a happy life — not my life, at least. Here in the city I can balance a manageable plot with reasonable production and still work outside the home. Though it is a meek cousin to the bold heart of rural farmers, urban farming (a phrase real farmers tend to scoff at, lest we make our living exclusively from it) can mean something. It can be more than backyard gardening, more than a passing interest. Embraced in full force, urban farming can be a concerted effort to find balance in a way of life that is particular to the city.
In the end, I suppose that is exactly what I mean by householding. It is a life that is part rural, part urban, part writer, mother, farmer, and farmer’s wife. It’s a mash-up. All the spirits are in me. See how we dance.
Make some coffee
Put out ground oyster shell on tomatoes
Pick beans and nasturtium pods; salt the pods for making “capers”
Pick and pickle cucumbers; brine them
Pickle cherries and rhubarb in currant juice/vinegar
Pick patty-pan squash; salt them to remove their liquid (fry up the next morning in a skillet with olive oil)
Make kuchen dough for plum kuchen
Harvest basil, mint, and cilantro to make “pesto”
Grind stale bread for breadcrumbs
Make breakfast and pack a lunch for my son
Go buy cherry pitter
Make Sonja’s plum kuchen (recipe in A Householder’s Guide to the Universe)
Pit 15 pounds of cherries with son’s girlfriend
Set cherries to dry in dehydrator
Cook off remaining “meaty” cherry pits to render juice
Clean it all up with help from the girlfriend
Work on outline for new book
Eat a big mess of garden green beans and summer squash cooked with the guanciale made out of the farm-share pork
Have plum kuchen for dessert
Walk up to the avenue to see what the people are up to; eat an ice-cream cone at the new farm-to-cone joint there
Go to bed; pretend to read some of that excellent Wendell Berry book, but actually pass out instead
Start drooling on pillow
Start all over again
Praise be to the spirit of the farmer and the farmer’s wife. May they live to see another day.
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Want more? Comb the archives.
Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry