In Which A New Literary Idol is Disovered

We traveled to Brent’s mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner yesterday. While I was hanging about, dodging dinner prep duty, I happened to see some old books in her basket o’ magazines. The one on top was The I Hate to Housekeep Book, by Peg Bracken, published in 1962. I imagine my mother-in-law received this as a wedding gift or picked it up for herself early in her marriage.

Old homemaking manuals can be fascinating from an anthropological/sociological point of view, and are often unintentionally funny.

Well, what a surprise I had, because the book was NOT unintentionally funny. It was brilliant and quite deliberately slyly hilarious. I don’t have a copy of it myself, but I read it cover to cover over the course of the day, laughing aloud many times.

The book is written for the “random housekeeper,” which is a sort of affectionately mocking, self-denigrating nickname that usually annoys me. For example, I loathe Flylady’s “Sidetracked Home Executive,” and Flylady’s characterization of her readers as SHEs often rings false to me, and is not amusing at all.

So my back was up when she explained she was writing for the random housekeeper. She won me over in just a few pages, though, when I realized she did, indeed, have me completely pegged. Not surprising, because Peg Bracken was a working writer. You’ll find many an article or manual intended for full time home-makers is actually written by a full time writer and the advice within it often reflects the fractured lifestyle of the writing/working woman. In Bracken’s case, this is very much true, and the takeaway for me was not that housekeeping is loathsome, but that it’s necessary to do a certain amount of it in order to keep doing the things you really like (“working on your French verbs”).

I chuckled hard when, in the introduction to her section on cooking, she wrote, “housekeeping and cooking are miserably intertwined,” and expanded on how every meal prepared adds to the crumbs and mess that must be cleaned up, and time spent cleaning leads to anxious thoughts of what to have for dinner and how to make it. So true!

There are some places where the book is out of date. It is most decidedly written from a mid-century point of view with respect to the roles of the sexes–although it is subtly subversive. You just have to get past that. I don’t think her advice about wigs is terribly relevant at all, and many of the products she recommends are not only unavailable, I have no idea what they even are. (“sal soda” anyone?)

On the other hand, much of the book is surprisingly prescient, and very much applicable to working mothers of the 21st century. I took away some funny-but-true tips. For example, she recommends if you have a very busy day planned–many things to do–instead of doing them one at a time, start them all, and then you will have no choice but to finish. She also suggests, when you get inspired to clean house, to seize upon the impulse, but always start in a different place. That way, when you inevitably run out of energy and peter out, you will have finished in a different place, rather than always stopping before you get to that back bedroom. Smart, and also funny.

The greatest piece of wisdom, though, is the emphasis that you keep house for yourself and your family, and not to get hung up on other people’s standards. Always refreshing, that, and I suspect far ahead of its time.

Bracken includes some recipes at the end, and party planning tips. The recipes are somewhat dated, but a few of them seem useful. She also wrote a cookbook which seems to have a cult following. I intend to acquire it.

Overall a fun and surprising gem to discover while visiting relatives. (And I must say, the great thing about being a guest at an older person’s home is perusing all of the interesting old books they have.)

Bracken died in 2007, but I was happy to hear that she lived to a ripe old age, had family, and had many admirers.