On Making Things

This article in the NYT by Heather Havrilevsky, on the pros and cons of a self-sufficient life in the country vs. a hectic life in the city, got me thinking. And talking. While I’m neither raising four kids on a ranch in Oklahoma nor raising two in hustling and bustling New York, it made me ponder my own constant desire to make–literally–my own life. Havrilevsky certainly makes some valid points, but I don’t agree with every twist and turn of her logic. There are a few false dichotomies and straw man arguments, to my thinking, but I’m grateful for the impetus to think through my own standing on these issues.

It all started for me a few years ago, when I started paying more attention to what I was buying and what I was doing in my kitchen. I got this crazy idea of trying to make the things I usually buy, all packaged and ready to eat. For me, this wasn’t too much to start with. Bread, crackers, graham crackers, granola bars, tea biscuits. Some of these were more successful than others, but I had so much fun making all of them. Why did I do it? I’d be lying if I said I weren’t concerned with the level of processing most of our packaged food goes through, and, in this day and age, that is a very common sentiment. However, I think there is a deeper issue at hand.

Havrilevsky suggests that we make our own food because we want to be in control, we want to duke it out with nature, we want the feeling of accomplishment and of being self-sufficient. And I can’t argue with that, on a certain level. When I make my own bread, I feel good about knowing what all four of the ingredients are that went into it. But there is something much bigger there: the desire to understand how things are made. My experiments in the kitchen are the product of a deep curiosity. I have learned so much by making these things, and, on some of these things, I’ll never turn back. Fresh baked bread is a luxury I’m willing to work for (especially since I usually use a no-knead method). On some of them, I definitely need more practice. And some of them, after hours of labor, I decide are more trouble than I’m willing to invest. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try my hand at new things. Next up on my list are mustard and pasta, and I keep asking Eric if we can get a yogurt maker. They’re not that expensive, and we go through a lot of it!

The other draw for me, I think, is that these processes make me feel closer to those who came before me. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that my dabblings are a choice and not a necessity. Heaven knows that if I had to knit all the socks for my family, we’d have frostbite, and if I had to sew all our clothes, we’d look like circus clowns. But I am still trying, in some small way, to experience some new appreciation for the things my ancestors did on a daily basis as a matter of course. It makes me feel good to have that connection to them. It makes me feel good to think I am reclaiming knowledge and skills that have been lost or missed a generation, things of real value that I am happy to do my own tiny part to resurrect.

And also, maybe most importantly, I think there is a magic that is found in making things–a wonderful, everyday sort of magic. I’ll never cease to be amazed at how bread dough rises, or how basil leaves are transformed into a cool and creamy pesto. I think this carries over into a lot of my passions: gardening, knitting, sewing…it’s incredible to watch something slowly emerge from raw materials, something that is, in the truest sense of the word, more than the sum of its parts. I’m grateful to be able to explore that on a daily basis. And I’m grateful that it is a joy rather than a necessity. I’m always proud to have made something with own hands, something that delicately toes the line between fun and function. That, to me, is a beautiful thing.

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