Monday, February 26, 2007

Margarine Musings

When I was growing up, my family used margarine, never butter. When as an adult I bought my first block of butter I treated it as if it were margarine. I stored it in the fridge until I needed it. Then I stuck a table knife in it and tried to scoop out a lump. No joy. I levered and waggled and eventually managed to excavate a lump of cold hard butter, which I dropped onto a slice of bread. Then I tried to spread it. As I contemplated my ruined slice of bread (now just a crust with a big hole in the middle) I thought "It's rubbish, butter. No wonder my parents always used the superior, easy-to use modern margarine instead!"

Of course, I learned over time. Now I know that butter is just as easy to use as margarine as long as you know how. You can't use it straight from the fridge, it has to be room temperature first. You can't just scoop out a lump, you need to scrape off a portion softening it as you do. And you don't really spread it on sliced bread, you have to dab little bits of it here and there and smoosh them out slightly, but it's much better on thick slices of home-made crusty bread, still warm from the oven. In the self-sufficiency blogosphere we talk a lot about the skills our ancestors had, and we try to learn some of them, for example cheese-making, beekeeping, or building with cob. But there are many much more humble skills we have also lost. My parents knew how to use butter, but they never passed the skill on to me and I had to learn the hard way. I am lousy at laying a fire in a hearth but my husband has the knack. When I watch my 5-year-old son try to sweep up some crumbs with a hand brush, I marvel at all the different ways he manages to get such a simple task wrong. These things are simple, but they still need to be learned. Or if the knowledge has skipped a generation, re-learned.

It's tempting to think that modern objects and ways are better than those which have gone before. When we try to do things the "old" way, we often find them difficult and unsatisfactory. But we shouldn't assume our forebears found them so. Maybe we just lack the skills to do it properly, like my first fumbling attempts to spread butter. On the other hand we should avoid the temptation to romanticise the past - there was plenty of gruelling labour and hardship, and we have certainly made progress in some areas which I would not want to give up. My tendencies may be Luddite, but you'll have to prise my wireless internet enabled laptop from my cold dead fingers, for example.

If this admittedly rambling article has a point, it's that knowledge and skills are precious. Every bit as precious as objects and artefacts from the past. Even very menial skills, once lost, are difficult or sometimes impossible to recover. There is a lot of pleasure to be had from mastering a new skill, and even more from passing it on to the next generation.

10 comments:

red_swirl said...

Hello Mel! Really interesting concept ... I had the same trouble as you with butter, probably for the same reason.

So, um, if you're still in a thinking mood, what skills do you reckon we're in danger of not passing on to our kids?

Handwriting? Library/book index use? Saving up/Lay-bying? I think Jamie Oliver etc have already identified cooking as an increasingly rare skill.

Bill of Ballaugh said...

Sawing a straight line; chiselling out for a half-lap joint; carving initials in a tree or a wooden school desk; whittling; toasting bread by an open fire; chopping sticks for a fire; writing letters and 'thank you' notes; making dens; finding the right piece of wood for a catapult; making a bogie; spinning a top with a stick and piece of string; riding a 'boneshaker' downhill and across cobbles. And I've loads more, some of them for "real" grown-ups, that is people who have forgotten how to be children.

Melanie Rimmer said...

Great answer, Dad! I reckon if I took my kids to a forest and told them to "go play" they would just stand around and complain they were cold. I remember once suggesting to Tom he should climb a certain tree and he asked "Are we allowed?". Maybe I should do it once a week for the next year until they learn how to play without electronics, plastic or ready-made toys.

Lesley said...

I love the half term weeks because we get to have the three seven-year-old grandchildren to ourselves for whole days at a time.
Last week, I taught them how to crochet.
We also made spag bol properly from scratch - although we did use bought pasta.(I plan to get a pasta mangle by next half term as we want to try our sticky fingers at ravioli!)
And we made garlic bread, and pasta carbonara. Last half term we made chicken goujons (not exactly "first catch your chicken" but we did go to the butcher to buy the chicken breasts) and home made beefburgers.
Even making home made soup from things we find in the fridge is an adventure.
Oh yes and we went to the circus too.

Stonehead said...

Well, I haven't taught our boys how to use an iPod, mobile phone or PS2.

What they have learned or are learning are things like how to build and light a fire, how to tie knots and when to use each knot, how to track animals, how to snare a rabbit, how to kill, pluck and draw a chicken, how to use a saw, hammer and hand drill, how to make and use a sling, how to hoe a field, how to dig a hole, and most importantly after all that - how to wash thoroughly!

Moonwaves said...

This topic reminds me of sharing a house with a final year university student a few years ago. We decided one night to make rice krispies buns. She was very excited and then her face fell as she said "oh, but we don't have a microwave so we can't melt the chocolate". :-)

Melanie Rimmer said...

That's impressive, Stonehead. I can't do most of those things myself.

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