Peasant stuff

Since I moved in with a friend of mine a few months ago, I often walk into the kitchen and find my roommate standing at the stove, stirring a pot of stew or checking on a loaf of something in the oven.

“What’s cooking?” I ask.

“Eh. Peasant stuff.”

She’s from a small European country where one just whips up things to eat, makes clothes, fixes what is broken, with no particular eye toward impressing or intimidating others. Nothing has instructions or ingredients; it’s just peasant stuff.

I’ll add that peasant stuff is lovely. Sometimes there are beautiful beans, or bread stuffed with nuts and olives. She makes gorgeous clothes. Peasant stuff is pro-level know-how without the bullshit expectations of what it’s going to do for you, besides feeding and clothing you.

I was raised by parents who thought basic know-how was important, too. We don’t use measuring cups or shopping lists where I come from, either. I remember making dinner for my family for the first time when I was eight, and when I asked for a measurement from my mother, all I got, yelled from the couch, was “Some, OK? SOME.”

But there’s a difference between American and European folkways that I hadn’t really thought about before living with my friend. At the most basic level, poor folksy Americans are hustlers. One of our most basic skills, along with making a roux for gumbo and hemming pants, is monetizing everything. When your Aunt Suzie makes great cupcakes, you praise her by saying, “You could sell these! You should open a store!” It’s not assumed to be a skill that everyone has; it’s a way to get a leg up on the implied competition of everyone else who makes crappier cupcakes.

We don’t have a traditional wedding; we have The Best Wedding Evar. It’s not a good apple pie, like other good apple pies; it is The Finest Pie of My Life. Life is a daily struggle to outdo oneself and others.

If you didn’t grow up poor in America, you probably didn’t learn to hustle because needing money is for poor people. Rather, everything is art. Dinner is art. Knitting is art. Gardening is art. These are spiritual practices of aesthetic worship. Today, Margot, a woman of taste and distinction, made this holy sandwich. She bowed before it and breathed deeply of its inimitable sandwichy perfume.

Aunt Suzie isn’t going to open a cupcake shop, and Margot will forget about her sandwich idol after yoga. But in order to enjoy what they have made, the thing itself must be viewed in the light of how it symbolizes their ability to rise or fall in the imagined estimation of people whom they will never meet.

What I enjoy most about peasant stuff is it’s really for you to enjoy.

7 responses to “Peasant stuff”

  1. Rachel says:

    I have been teaching Raymond Williams recently, and he talks about how defining “literature” (or art more generally) apart from the realm of the “useful” or the “productive” serves the interests of industrial capitalism at great expense to the human beings within it. He asks, ‘when did we decide to place” creative” endeavors–those that sustain our minds and spirits–separately from other kinds of work–those that provide our livelihoods?’ It’s not normal; it wrenches us our whole selves into discrete parts and contributes to the alienation of labor.

    The “folkways” you mention are appealing to me because they acknowledge that all forms of human ingenuity and sustenance are creative acts, and that there’s opportunity to create beauty in all we do.

    My students dig Williams because they are torn between desperately wanting to enter “the real world” (& the social enfranchisement of having a job) and not wanting to be chained to a desk for fifty years, and RW seems to explain why.

  2. Rachel says:

    Oh, and a corollary: all art that is “merely” decorative also serves crucial human needs & functions. & is a product of labor.

  3. Tim says:

    This reminded me of Dolly Freed’s Possum Living. Recently re-published, it was written and originally published in the early 1980s, when the author was 17. It tells about living like a possum, on know-how and gumption, rather than on money traded for hours and hours of work. This is peasant stuff without any self-conscious aesthetic overlay. She shoots snapping turtles for turtle soup; she raises rabbits in her basement and slaughters them for meat.

    There’s a great documentary made at the time, available in 3 chunks on YouTube.

    All the same, of course, she wound up monetizing it (“opening up a cupcake shop” in your terminology here) by publishing the book. Perhaps you’ve touched upon a real paradox: once captured and publicized, such peasant stuff is transformed into something else, the realm of the affected Bohemian or hipster.

  4. LP says:

    I’ve long regretted that I’m not better at peasant stuff. Not a good cook, can’t sew, can’t make on-the-fly repairs very well, can’t even seem to keep potted plants alive. If I were shipwrecked on a deserted island, I could only hope that some fishing poles and boxes of food washed up too.

  5. LP says:

    And: Thanks for a fun post, AWB.

  6. lane says:

    this is devastatingly great. . . . i could go on in many many ways about these ideas. but that would get boring. “you could sell these!” . . . “america i love you, america i hate you . . .”

  7. swells says:

    Yes, I LOVED this post, and have been thinking about it a lot with regards to my relationship to feminism. I can’t do any peasant stuff, which fills me with mighty remorse, especially when I’m around my amazing friends who can. I have come to realize that I think part of my inability, on a subconscious level, is rooted in a deep and early fear that those things were too domestic, and I didn’t want to be domestic, because then I wasn’t strong and would only fit to be a housewife. How sad that some of these arts can be, or maybe were only temporarily, lumped in with the sense of a lack of autonomy and independence. I even like that they’ve been coopted by the affected Bohemian/ indie hipster movement, as troubling and fey as that cooption is, because at least things like Etsy and urban farming and such help to keep some of these skills alive (as well as the realness). You know, how meat doesn’t only come wrapped on a styrofoam tray, and all that.