Lately, I've been very aware of the work that goes into living the way we do. Mind you, we are not up in the hills or at the end of a long road. We are not off the grid or off the clock. We can walk to the library or drive to the market in a few minutes. We have almost daily obligations to the greater world that require us to check the time, plug ourselves into meetings, grind against deadlines. And, yet, we choose to live on our little patch of land in ways that my great-grandparents would have recognized: We grow much of what we eat. We preserve what we can. We hang clothes to dry on the line and feed the sourdough starter daily. We chase the chickens out of the spring sprouts and gather eggs. We create a meal around a head of cabbage or a batch of homemade noodles. As much as we can, we live from scratch.
But why? My great-grandmother would have loved our electric dryer. The computers, the iPhones, the cameras, these would have boggled her mind. The way we live seems plain wrong-headed on days when we go-go-go then come home ravenous to a kitchen where supper begins with peeling or chopping and ends, if we're lucky, an hour later with a sink full of pots and pans and dishes.
I think the credit (surely not blame) belongs to my dear Aunt Ella. She was my grandmother's sister, and I was born on her 71st birthday. I baked her a birthday cake every year (early on using my E-Z-Bake oven), and she made me popcorn with sugar, gave me her wedding quilt when I graduated from college, and taught me to adore cooking her way.
Aunt Ella's portrait on top of our piano
When I was a child, a certain tone of awe accompanied the words "from scratch." This was at a time when many of the mothers I knew (and mothers, not fathers, were the ones doing all the cooking then) were exchanging recipes that included the word "easy." The easy part involved opening a can or a bottle of catsup. But even as convenience became the chief kitchen virtue, Aunt Ella would make a Sunday dinner of chicken and noodles whenever our Kansas family was coming. My daddy was known to grumble about little bones slipping into the meal, but as young as I was, I knew this was special food. It was made with love and anticipation of a good time: Her sister was coming! Aunt Ella served the chicken and noodles on her good china, and we drank our iced tea and milk from little pink glasses left over from the Depression.
What I learned at my Aunt Ella's Sunday table, I have carried into my everyday life. And somehow it lends every day a little air of celebration: We are together around our table, eating food made with love. Sometimes we even pour our milk from a little pink pitcher left over from the Depression. For me, Aunt Ella's homemade noodles still epitomize the best in life: our own eggs, our hands rolling out the dough, our pleasure in the meal. She gave me her quilt and her locket and a bracelet; and she gave me a way of life.
It's a way of life that families are choosing more often because we must consider sustainability. But what if we embrace this way not because of our fears and guilt but more because it slows us down and reacquaints us with the simple joys of sustaining ourselves: the aroma of soup simmering on the stove all day, the time to think as we pin laundry on the line, the anticipation of warm bread as it is rises and bakes? What if we choose it because deep satisfaction comes from making our own way in the world? For a short span of decades in the whole sweep of history, we humans have dismissed our traditional ways in favor of throw-away convenience. My lifetime has seen the worst of it, I hope, but I feel blessed to have been influenced by someone born in 1893 and blessed also to be able to pass her knowledge on to my children, who were born in 1999. Fern and Blossom can make Great-aunt Ella's noodles from scratch. They are never going to forget that. And they are sure to pass it on.
But living from scratch is work. My father grumbles that there is no can opener in our house, by which he means no electric can opener. It's not that we don't open cans, we do. We just aren't willing to give a can opener space on the counter where we need to knead bread and roll out Aunt Ella's noodles. We just work a little harder at opening a can if we have to open a can.
We work a little harder in general. And it can get tedious. Sometimes I wish Aunt Ella were here to make supper for us, but since she's not, the four of us pitch in together. We pull the meal together, each one doing a little bit: washing the greens or dicing the onion, boiling the water. We talk about our day. We roll out dough and dance to Otis Redding and laugh at ourselves dancing to Otis Redding. Then we eat well and drop into our beds satisfied (and hopefully we've remembered to get the next day's bread rising).
I watch how our daughters embrace this life. They have never known another. Even on the coldest days, they suit up (coat, snow pants, boot, other boot, hat, scarf, glove, other glove) and head out to care for the chickens. I tell them how proud I am. I say that not every ten-year-old would shoulder the responsibility when the wind is blowing two-below. Fern looks up and says, "But then they'd have dead chickens."
So out they go into the bright cold of the new year. I watch them track back and forth carrying water. They examine frost-nipped chicken combs. They find the eggs. From the kitchen window, as I wash dishes, I watch my daughters turn toward the warm house at last. They trudge toward the door through the drifts of snow. Suddenly Fern pirouettes in her boots. Behind her, Blossom twirls too. Then they trudge on.
Somehow those little twirls signify everything. We are doing the work of our lives here, and it is cold and hard sometimes, but there are moments when we forget we are working, when suddenly we are dancing.
Aunt Ella's Hand-rolled Noodles
one egg per person
2/3 cup flour per egg
1/2 teaspoon salt per egg
Sprinkle the salt into the flour. Make a bowl of flour on the counter. Beat the eggs together then tip them into the center of the "bowl." Swirl a fork through the flour and into the egg, back into the flour, back into the egg. Do this until a soft dough forms. Start rolling it out on floured surface. Use more flour if it is too sticky, but try not to let the dough get heavy. You want it to be soft yet elastic. Roll it out until it's a thickness that appeals to you, really thin or really thick.
Either flour the rectangle of dough and roll it up, jelly-roll style, then slice. Or run a crimped cutter along it (or a pasta bike if you have it) until you have long strips. We let them rest on the counter until we scoop them into a pot of boiling water (or boiling broth). Time in the pot will depend on thickness. Taste frequently to determine how you like it best (but do leave some for those who everyone who helped make the noodles).
They are good with chicken from a pot. Or they are good with melted butter and a good zesting of pepper and salt. They are best served with good memories.