Besides the obvious, at least in my own life -- mother, grandmother, smattering of women teachers and friends' mothers -- I owe a tremendous debt to some fine and able women who, even though I never actually met them, made me who I am today.
First up: Betty Crocker.
Hey, I know she's not a real lady. Listing her as a foremother is kind of like putting Mrs. Butterworth down as your child's emergency contact for the school office. Except that unlike the mute, watchful Mrs. Butterworth, Betty Crocker -- or a compendium of men and women laboring under her name -- taught me how to make perfect toffee. And sugar cookies. And provided me endless hours of entertainment in the form of Galaxy Cookies that I never actually made but admired, in their pastel space-age glory, for many years.
Sure, I went on to join the Rombauer-Becker crew in later years, but you know what? The Joy of Cooking has really boring pictures. Betty, you in your orange-checked full-color pineapple-studded-ham glory will always have a place in the test kitchen in my head.
My goodness, what an awkward sentence. Moving on:
Maybe you read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books as a child, or maybe you read The Egg and I. If you haven't, I recommend The Egg and I, with the caveat that there are some extremely ugly, ignorant passages about the native people of the Pacific Northwest. Making recommendations like that is always problematic, as the recommender runs the risk of looking like a racism apologist, but in the canon of Things Otherwise Worth Reading there are lots and lots of books whose authors take little side trips into Colonialistland or Misogyny Acres or Boy Can You Believe Those Wily Money-Grubbing Jews Town or whatever, and I'm not convinced the answer is to chuck it all out wholesale.
So with that said, and with full disclosure of unsavory racist bleh and my own personal disavowal thereof, I offer up the finest, most delectably hilarious account of life on a Pacific Northwest chicken ranch you will ever find. Larded with beautifully turned phrases and anecdotes involving outhouses, this book will drive you to outright snorting laughter as it either encourages or squelches any agrarian tendencies you might have.
Also: there is something about MacDonald's voice that calls to mind some of my favorite bloggers. I would venture that The Egg and I, a funny, honest, probably-somewhat-fictionalized-for-the-sake-of-story memoir, is the great-grandmother of that largely feminine contingent of the blogosphere: razor-sharp wit, a blend of high and low language, a self-deprecating first-person heroine whose human failings are laid bare, and the heartbreaking comedy of everyday life when that life involves dealing with feces other than your own.
I can thank MacDonald for a good portion of what I understand about language so well constructed it appears effortless, and how finding the funny in an untenable situation can save your head, and how to weave the two together. The rest of it I can chalk up to:
If Betty MacDonald is the great-grandma of the blogosphere, I'd put down Erma Bombeck as the grandmother. (The mother, in case you're wondering, is the 'zine.) Mixed in with the weird Bible study books and dry classics at my grandma's house were several Erma Bombeck paperbacks, and when I'd spend the night I'd lie there on the old teal velvet sofa, covered with an ancient, butter-soft sheet that always smelled of Clorox, and finish a book before I dropped off, and start the next one first thing. I'm sure it dismayed my mother that I was apparently in love with these tales of 1950s suburban housewifery -- it was all she ever wanted us to get away from -- but maybe because I recognized something of my present (my mother, after all, stayed home, wrote the Bible school puppet shows, and drove us around in a big white station wagon), or maybe just because they were really, really funny, I adored them.
From Erma Bombeck: Writer and Humorist by Lynn Hutner Colwell, quoted here:
The demands of motherhood amazed Erma. Exhaustion stalked her constantly. There weren't enough hours in the day. She never had time for herself and sagged under a kind of loneliness she had never known. Since no one discussed these feelings in public, Erma thought something was wrong with her, that she was the only woman in the world experiencing them. She thought she should be able to handle her life, but she wasn't doing a very good job and no one seemed to understand.
Her solution was to bury herself in typical fifties housewifely pursuits. She crocheted Santa Claus doorknob covers, stuck contact paper on everything that didn't move and decorated Bill's dinners with miniature roses sculpted from zucchini. It didn't help.
Now you tell me that isn't the forerunner of the mommy blogger. I hate to use the term, but you know what I mean, right? Erma was funny, she talked about these things in the female sphere like housework and mothering and pulled out the universal, she was politically involved -- and she hit the big time without ever forgetting what she was about.
Imagine your favorite blogger dropped into Betty Draper's living room. If you haven't read any Bombeck, give it a try. You'll wish you could leave a comment.
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Well, there you have it. Two Bettys and an Erma, foremothers of food blogging, mommy blogging, and ever hovering just behind me as I give myself chronic back problems at the computer. If only I'd had a better sense of how to use pop culture as a jumping-off place for thinking and writing, my college years might have been way more interesting, for me and for my professors. (Although I try not to think too hard about my Modern Studies degree or my eye starts to twitch and I involuntarily shout "Horkheimer!") We can talk about literary goddesses Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro later, but for now, who are your unlikely sources of inspiration?