A Mini Review & Book Pairing: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

Leslie has already named this book her “Life-Changingest Book of 2016.” And…it’s hard to top that recommendation. But now that I’ve finished it (and made a loaf of bread, to boot!), I thought I’d add my thoughts.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking SchoolIn case you missed Leslie’s review, here’s the short recap: a professionally trained chef gives basic cooking lessons to a group of unconfident home cooks. And almost without exception, the lessons are life-changing for these women– they go from Hamburger-Helper-Level cooking to baking artisan bread, chopping aromatics in seconds, and butterflying whole chickens. It IS inspiring, and I find myself thinking back to parts of the book often as I work in my own kitchen.

Although reading this book was a really helpful start, I’ve found myself wishing that Kathleen Flinn would actually come to my house and invite me to her cooking school. I’ve struggled with my own mediocrity in the kitchen, and I feel like just a few helpful lessons would catapult me into new realms of ability– to learn, once and for all, the proper way to hold a knife, dice an onion, cook fish, and make a sauce, just to name a few things.

It got me thinking about all of the other ways that I’m finding my own way as a parent and homemaker. What about a “Kitchen Counter Cooking School” but for basic household budgeting? For cleaning and maintaining a home and belongings? For how to do laundry the right way, for goodness’ sake?

It occurred to me that the kind of class that would have imparted information like this to eager young women was Home Ec. But by the time I was taking classes in high school, home ec was out of vogue, and girls like me were encouraged to more practical electives such as typing and a “business” class where I learned how to make spreadsheets and play Tetris. What a tragedy!

If a personal tutoring opportunity were to come up in any of these subjects, I’d totally take it. But meanwhile, I’m reminded that I do have resources ALREADY ON MY BOOKSHELF that can give me some of the knowledge that I crave.

Introducing……..book pairings for the ultimate text-based homemaking education:

The Nesting Place by Myquillyn Smith: refreshingly unfussy and accessible advice on making a house Your Home. Her style doesn’t have to be yours; her practical tips and can-do attitude is easy to transfer to whatever look brings you joy and peace.

Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson (yes, THAT Cheryl Mendelson): At almost 9oo pages, this is a pretty exhaustive manual on everything that happens within your four walls. Chapter titles illustrate how Mendelson’s approach to home keeping is both practical (“The Chemistry of Household Cleaning,” “Common Laundry Mishaps and Problems,” “Cleaning Man-made Solid Surfaces and Other Plastics,”) and poetic (“The Air in Your Castle,” Th Cave of Nakedness,” “Kindly Light”).

Caves of Nakedness aside, you might think this sounds like the most boring tome ever to prop a door open, but somehow Mendelson speaks on every topic with a pleasant, efficient manner, much like Mary Poppins come to help you clean up the nursery once and for all.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. This book is as polarizing to the world of clutter-management as the election of 2016 has turned out to be to the general population. But I’ll cast a vote for the KonMari method any day– it’s simple and effective, and if you can get past all the woo-woo stuff about thanking your shoes for their service, your reward will be a more peaceful, manageable home environment.

(Of course, a zillion-point-five blogs and websites exist to teach on all of these topics as well, and some of them do so quite effectively. But there’s nothing like having a nice reference book to hold in your hand, don’t you think?)

What practical guides have been helpful to you?

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Commonplace: The Quotidian Mysteries

The subtitle to this tiny but thoughtful volume is “Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work.'” How is that for provocative?

This book, about a worshipful posture toward everyday living, was a timely read for me as I gear back up for a new school year and a plate full of quotidian opportunities!


Here were some of my favorite nuggets:

On being too busy for daily worship:

“Workaholism is the opposite of humility…when evening comes, I am so exhausted that vespers has become impossible. It is as if I have taken the world’s weight on my shoulders and am too greedy, and too foolish, to surrender it to God…

“I have come to believe that ween we despair of praise, when the owner of creation and our place in it are lost to us, it’s often because we’ve lost sight of our true role as creatures–we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensable. It’s a hedge against mortality and, if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sigh too God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.”

On the connection between liturgy and housework:

“Like liturgy, the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day. Both liturgy and what is euphemistically called ‘domestic’ work also have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.”

On holiness in everyday life:

“I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self…

“If they are wise, [the busy saint] will treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer.”

In summary:

“Laundry, liturgy, and women’s work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down…

“Both worship and housework often seem perfunctory. And both, by the grace of God, may be anything but. At its Latin root, perfunctory means ‘to get through with,’ and we can easily see how liturgy, laundry, and what has traditionally been conceived as ‘women’s work’ can be done in that indifferent spirit. But the joke is on us: what we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless–the endless repetitions of a litany of the motions of vacuuming a floor. What we dread as mindless activity can free us, mind and heart, for the workings of the Holy Spirit.”

Happiness and Habits according to Gretchen Rubin

I’ve been binging on Gretchen Rubin lately: I just finished Happier at Home, and Better than Before, and I’m also listening to her podcast, Happier.

Rubin describes her primary themes as “happiness, habits, and human nature.” Rubin’s “happiness” is all about satisfaction and joy with the life you have– related more to contentment, gratitude, and purpose than irresponsibility and cheap thrills. She strives for happiness by way of improved habits– intentionally cultivating practices that will help her live more consistently with her values and priorities, instead of self-sabatoging by taking the path of least resistance.

Preach, sista!

Gretchen Rubin

What makes Rubin’s approach unique and interesting is a commitment to both authenticity and self-improvement.

On one hand, she constantly encourages self-reflection and recognition of your natural tendencies, strengths, and limitations. Her fundamental rule is Be Gretchen; she speculates that one of the main obstacles to happiness and habit-forming is when we try to become something other than we are.

But this is not the self-awareness that leads to “Oh, well, that’s just how I am.” Rubin is tireless in her quest to Be [the best] Gretchen by way of a hundred small habits that will make her happier and more satisfied in her daily life.

I love her practical, can-do approach to a happier life. So often we see ourselves as victims of the life we’ve created, and think we’d surely be happy if only…my husband was more helpful…my kids were older…my boss was more flexible…my house was bigger…etc. In contrast, Rubin is purposeful about developing happiness-improving habits squarely in the context of her real life, now.

Her happy habits never depend on someone else’s participation. They don’t require drastic changes of lifestyle. Rubin frequently cites one of her Eight Splendid Truths, “The only person I can change is myself.” Then she sets about improving her habits as they pertain to her self, family, home, and work.

Happier at Home chronicles a nine-month experiment of improved habits centering around home and family. Each chapter presents three or four specific practices in the following areas: possessions, marriage, parenthood, inner life, time, body, family, and neighborhood.

Better than Before is not a personal experiment, but an interesting how-to on habit-forming. She presents nineteen strategies for forming or maintaining habits, and examines them all in light of four basic natural “tendencies.” I had heard Rubin describe her Four Tendencies on a podcast and found the idea so interesting that I bought this book for the full explanation.

Rubin is (by her own admission) a fanatic about habit-forming. I identify with her a lot, but I do not come close to her level of intensity and personal discipline. However, these were perfect reads for the start of a new season. I am walking away with some really helpful practical tips and great enthusiasm and optimism about my own personal routines.