Dec 17, 2015

The Hands-On Home - a review

In recent years, a handful of home keeping books have been published, and most of them were well received. None, however, have done much for me. Generally, these books start by telling readers how homemaking can be for feminists, too (sigh), and then proceed to give homemaking 101 skills. So when I first saw The Hands-On Home by Erica Strauss, I admit I wasn't particularly interested. Then I had a chance to see the book in person.

First, I was struck by the beauty of this 388 page volume. Throughout, absolutely gorgeous photographs by Charity Burggraaf are featured. They are all printed on matte paper, but somehow the photos are still crisp and clean and vivid and feature all the beauty of food and cooking. The fat hardcover also includes a bookmarking ribbon - and the sections of the book are tabbed in different colors, making using the book easier. Clearly, the publisher put a lot of thought into this volume.

And that's good, because author Erica Strauss has, too.

In fact, I think she's produced the best home keeping book of my generation. 

Strauss' premise is simple, but uniquely modern. She understands that many of us are striving to get away from the rush-rush of being away from home and instead want invest in our homes and families. She knows many of us are trying to eat healthy whole foods and stay away from expensive and potentially unhealthy store bought cleaners. She knows some of us are even looking critically at the chemicals we lather on ourselves in the form of shampoo, soap, moisturizer, and other beauty products.

Best of all, Strauss understands that modern home keeping isn't about keeping things Martha Stewart perfect. She knows that giving us a cleaning schedule to strictly follow isn't useful, and that customizing our home keeping for our own families is really where it's at.

Strauss starts her book by covering some basics. To my delight, she begins with cooking. Strauss used to cook in professional kitchens, and she actually taught me (a decent home cook) some things I didn't know. She emphasizes avoiding food waste ("The average American family of four throws out more than two thousand dollars of food every year. Pretty expensive trash or compost - that's money not available for college savings, retirement accounts, charitable giving, or travel."). She teaches that recipes aren't really necessary, if you understand a few basic techniques: braising, pureeing soups, roasting, sauteing, searing, and yes, good seasoning. ("...Heavily salt cooking water for anything starchy like pasta or potatoes, or for green vegetables you want to blanch. When the food cooks, that salt will be pulled into the food along with moisture, helping to create an evenly seasoned product.") Because when you drop processed food from your diet, you really don't have to limit salt, after all.

Strauss also covers fermenting and canning, giving excellent instructions and advice on how to do each. (Although she does perpetuate the myth that canning jars should be sterilized before filling and processing in the canner, this isn't dangerous advice; it only adds an unnecessary step. You can learn more about this topic by clicking here.)

My favorite section of The Hands-On Home, however, is the section on home care. Here, I found information I've never seen anywhere else. For example, Strauss explains the types of dirt (properly called "soil") one might find in a house: organic, inorganic, petroleum-based, and combination soil. Then she explains which cleaners (alkaline, acid, solvents, or abrasives) work best for each. ("Many commercial cleaning products are 'all-in-one' combo cleaners. Because they are trying to be all things to all soils, they take a brute-force approach, using chemical cleaners that are often far stronger and more caustic than are necessary." And, she says, because these commercial cleaners are combining alkaline and acid cleaners together, they are actually less effective.) She also gives a useful list of each type of cleaner; for example, in the "common alkaline" cleaners section, she offers details about how to use (and, if necessary, what precautions to be aware of) baking soda, liquid Castile soap, borax, powdered oxygen bleach, washing soda, ammonia, household chlorine bleach, and lye. (Strauss wisely counsels to start with the least caustic cleaners.)

Then Strauss goes on to offer advice on how to come up with a cleaning routine that works for your family. Here she discusses the importance of routines, what chores we should consider doing daily, regularly (perhaps weekly or monthly), and seasonally. What I love most about this section is that the author makes no demanding claims about what YOU should be doing. Instead, she tells us a wee bit about her journey from messy to reasonably tidy home keeper and gives us the tools to follow her path. Namely, she suggests we envision what a comfortable home looks like to us, personally. ("What state would your home have to be in for you to be able to grab a cup of tea and a favorite book and relax on your couch, or play with your kids, or spend an entire evening with your partner, without the nagging feeling that you maybe should, should, SHOULD be doing something else?") Then she encourages readers to turn that into a list, from which they can create a truly workable cleaning schedule.

The remainder (and majority) of the book is divided up into seasons, covering cooking, preserving, home keeping, and personal care chores the author thinks you may want to tackle during Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. Here, you'll find lots of inspiration. There are from scratch recipes for bread and tortillas, ricotta cheese, mayo and salad dressing, yogurt, vinegar, and all manner of fresh vegetables, fruits, and some meats; there are instructions for making canned barbecue sauce, pickled asparagus and fermented dilly beans, mustard, salted preserved lemons, frozen caramelized onions, and jams made without pectin; there are lots of recipes for cleaning items like glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner, carpet freshener, grout cleaner, toilet cleaner, and oven cleaner; and you'll find recipes for tooth powder, soap, hair wash, deodorant, moisturizer, lip balm, bath bombs, and gardener's hand scrub. There's even advice on line drying laundry and giving mattresses and old fashioned airing.

In short, I am a big fan of this book.  

I'd even go so far as to say every home keeper should read it.


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