Washington, D.C. It all started with a terrible pie.
Erin Bried, a 35-year-old senior staff writer at Self magazine, wanted to impress some dinner guests with a homemade dessert. And it worked, at first. “Who makes pie these days?” her company exclaimed as she placed her strawberry-rhubarb masterpiece on the table.
Then they took their first bites, and Bried discovered that what she’d thought was rhubarb was actually Swiss chard.
“That’s when it hit me,” she writes in the introduction to her new book, “How to Sew a Button and Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew” (Ballantine Books, $15). “When I was a child, I used to help my grandmother clip rhubarb out of the garden; now, as an adult, I can’t even identify the vegetable in the grocery store.”
At that I had to think of my grandmother, who made the finest pie you could ever find. (Take it from her friend, who said at her funeral nine years ago that pies in heaven had just gotten a lot better.)
“What is simultaneously comforting and alarming about my domestic incompetence,” Bried continues in the book, “is that I am hardly alone. I’m joined by millions of women, Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who either have consciously rejected household endeavors in favor of career or, even more likely, were simply raised in the ultimate age of convenience and consumerism. Why do for ourselves, we shrug, when we can pay someone else to do it for us?”
Thanks to the Great Recession, Bried writes, many of our grandmothers’ money-saving household skills are back in style. So she set out to learn not only to sew a button and make a pie, but to roast a chicken, plant a vegetable garden, knit a scarf, spring clean, make the most of a night in — and to do many other things that her grandmothers and others knew and know, things that today can seem rather complicated.
For her day job at Self, Bried often interviews A-list celebrities. For this study of homemaking, she interviewed 10 grandmothers across the country, none of them famous but each of them, she said, just as worthy of being celebrated.
One was 94-year-old Bea Neidorf, who has lived in Washington since shortly before the end of World War II and still volunteers at the Kennedy Center and the Hillwood museum. Of all the keepsakes on the corner table in her dining room, “How to Sew a Button” is the most modern by several decades. The pink paperback sits cheerfully next to a display of black-and-white family photographs.
“It was funny,” Neidorf said as she laughed about being interviewed for Bried’s book, or any book. “I would think that people would know how to hem some pants.”
Spend some time with her, or just open Bried’s book, and you’ll see that Neidorf is more than a seamstress. In the chapter about cleaning, she gives this advice: “Vinegar is like a miracle cleaner.” In the section on thriving, no matter how little you have, she says: “Good posture is very important. ... Look straight out at the world and say, ‘Here I am!’ ” On the topic of parenting, she offers: “Reading your kids bedtime stories is a wonderful thing and so intimate. Do the voices.” And on married life, she cautions: “for a happy marriage, don’t think of yourself.”
Neidorf recognizes that modern life leaves little time for some of the time-consuming skills that, for her, were just “part of your routine of being a homemaker.” She is quick to note, however, that she and other grandmothers weren’t born knowing how to do everything. She still remembers the first real dinner she cooked as a newlywed: steak, baked potatoes, string beans and gingerbread with whipped cream.
“How to Sew a Button” is a handy guide to running your household and, in many ways, your life. Each how-to is doable, but homemaking isn’t always easy. Maybe for fear of scaring off readers, Bried tries to buck you up (“Put on some good music. Remember, the word mop doesn’t end with an e,” she writes in explaining how to mop). And she prods you along before you give up (“Get over yourself,” she writes, explaining how to remove a chicken’s innards).
Any questions, about anything? Find a grandmother.
In the presence of such a knowledgeable one, I asked Neidorf how she makes her pies. After some hesitation, she confessed that she doesn’t fully agree with the section in the book titled “Find a Slice of Heaven: How to Make a Pie.” After browning the crust at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, she reduces the oven temperature to 350 degrees, a step not included in Bried’s recipe. At first Neidorf didn’t want to tell Bried, whom she adores, but she decided to speak out on behalf of a greater cause: “I don’t want everybody to burn up their pies!”
I couldn’t help but think that it is only right for the book to be imperfect, at least according to Neidorf. Just as it was only right that the first Thanksgiving pies I made after my grandmother died were terrible. As my mother said, she probably would have been secretly pleased: It just goes to show how much grandmothers know.