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November 8, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST
On Monday nights in 1952, many Americans were sitting in their living rooms with their eyes glued to the television screen. At the program’s peak ratings in 1952-53, more than two-thirds of U.S. households with TV sets tuned in to I Love Lucy, the most popular show on the air. When the show’s titular character gave birth to a baby boy in 1953, the homes of more than 40 million viewers turned into makeshift waiting rooms where anxious viewers could bide their time until the big moment. When President Eisenhower’s inauguration was broadcast on three networks the next day, only about 25 million watched.
In madcap fashion, I Love Lucy reveals a lot about ’50s domestic values. The premise is that Lucy Ricardo, a daffy stay-at-home wife, constantly raises the blood pressure of her husband, Ricky, with harebrained schemes. But when she isn’t weaseling her way into Ricky’s nightclub act or bargaining for money to buy hats, she spends a fair amount of time cleaning the house and getting food on the table.
Homemaking adventures seem to be returning to the mainstream. Leah Kramer, who created the sassy Web site Craftster, caters to a younger crowd she calls rebel DIYers. What some writers such as Jean Railla, author of 2004’s Get Crafty: Hip Home Ec, call “the new domesticity” can be seen everywhere from the popularity of Bravo’s hit show Top Chef to Michaels’ increased needle sales. Several Columbia DIYers are part of a national trend of domestic dabbling, but they say being handy around the house is a creative outlet and a source of pride, not an obligation, and unlike Ricky, they know men can do it, too.
In one of Lucy’s bigger verbal throw-downs with Ricky, the two challenged each other to switch roles for a day. When the man of the house flooded the kitchen with white rice and blew a chicken onto the ceiling, it was clear who belonged where.
Thanks in part to the women’s libbers of the ’70s and the shoulder-padded go-getters of the ’80s, cooking today can be seen as creative privilege instead of female duty. Sandi Nelson, an MU interdisciplinary studies major, views cooking as a painter’s canvas. “I basically go to the store and just try things,” she says. “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Nelson draws her culinary influence from her family, friends, boyfriend and work. With an Italian heritage, an Indian roommate who’s willing to share recipes, a boyfriend with a predilection toward Asian cuisine and a job at Thai Kitchen, she’s a walking cookbook.
“I really started to cook for myself since I’ve been away at college,” says Nelson, who often makes meals with her two roommates at Dumas Apartments on Wednesdays. “The first time I cooked a meal was for my parents’ anniversary when I was in third grade. I made lemon chicken to surprise them.”
Nelson says she and her roommates are addicted to The Food Network, and they’re not alone. According to a January 2007 Business Week report, the channel has steadily won over advertisers including Disney and DreamWorks Animation that target 18- to 34-year-olds. The network celebrated 2006 as its most popular year yet as measured by Nielsen Media Research ratings.
For this small-time chef, knowing her way around the kitchen isn’t such a bad thing. “Because of the feminist movement, I think people might think it’s outdated, but it’s really important,” Nelson says. “I associate cooking and eating with social servanthood. I like to cook for people because when you sit down and eat with them, you find out what’s going on in their lives.”
A Y chromosome doesn’t turn off Nick Harvey’s ability to navigate a kitchen. The MU computer science grad student makes homemade noodles, pasta sauce, sourdough bread and other dishes.
“I’m not much for Rachael Ray-type recipes for 30-minute meals,” Harvey says. “I’ll make a quick meal sometimes, but you can make a quick meal without prepackaged ingredients and things like that.” His version of a culinary quickie? Japanese soba noodles with deep-fried tofu, soy sauce, minced green onion and ginger, ready and on the table in a half-hour or less.
Those who aren’t as comfortable in the kitchen have many options for catching up with this trend. The Armory Sports Center, the Columbia Area Career Center, University Club, Campus Lutheran Church and Main Squeeze all offer cooking classes for the community’s undiscovered Emerils.
While tidying up around the house, Lucy finds herself annoyed when a bored, homebound Ricky criticizes her dusting abilities during his weeklong vacation from work. To get him out of her hair, she sends him out to build a brick barbecue pit, which she later rips apart brick by brick in search of her misplaced wedding ring.
Two Columbia roommates like to keep a clean house but for their own satisfaction. Wessal Abdel-Khader is on perpetual dust patrol at her apartment. She stockpiles supplies of cleaning products to battle everything from stains to soap scum.
A clean apartment provides a better environment to show off Abdel-Khader’s signature home-decorating style. One of her favorite pieces is a Japanese teak wood bed, which complements the other Asian-influenced pieces in her room. Her formula for stylistic success includes straight lines and dark wood mixed with natural colors. She says she keeps things “pretty contemporary but warm.”
Apparently, her style is warm enough to land her a photo shoot for Garry Lewis Properties advertisements. Last year, property management at the Southampton Villas selected her apartment to feature in its online listing for prospective tenants. A professional photographer took shots of Abdel-Khader’s apartment freshly cleaned with her arsenals of bleach, Scrubbing Bubbles and more.
The home-decorating bug has also bitten her roommate, Hannah Martine. She didn’t decorate much before coming to MU in fall 2004, but now she spends more time on home-decor projects. “I’ve never been a crafty person, but I like looking at something and thinking, ‘How can I make this better?’” Martine says. “It’s about finding your own style and learning how to put things together.”
The HGTV Web site’s “Rate My Space” section indicates she’s not alone. Click on the page’s dorm room section, and pages of pictures appear from proud young decorators eager for feedback.
When company arrives, Martine says it’s a must to have a clean place. “You want it to look nice, like you can keep a home,” she says. “Now that I have my own furniture and my own things, I want them to look nice and look presentable.”
Is she domestic? Maybe, but not in the ’50s sense of the word, which makes her cringe. To Martine, domesticity isn’t about vacuuming in heels but about maintaining a comfortable environment. And that, she says, is never cringe-worthy.
Those looking to break into the home-decor realm can seek help in one of the newest (and judging by its title, one of the spunkiest) books by designer Mark Montano from TLC’s While You Were Out. A do-it-yourself guide to tablecloths, tooth whitener and more, The Big-Ass Book of Crafts will hit stores in February.
When Lucy exhausts the family bank account, Ricky forces her to cut costs by saying no to new dresses. Because she doesn’t want to sacrifice her style in the name of money management, she attempts to sew a dress. It ends up belonging to a style that can most accurately be described as Elvira hits the farm.
But two Stephens College students think fiddling with fabric doesn’t have to raise eyebrows. They say it’s a useful way for people to express themselves. Junior Allyce King and senior Nicole Thieret have written a book called My Style, My Place to spark creativity in budding fashion-design mavens and home decoration enthusiasts. The book, which hit bookstores Nov. 7, shows readers in their 20s and 30s how to complete 29 redesign and start-from-scratch projects for clothes and home furnishings.
The two put their book pitch together in 24 hours after a publishing company representative approached them at a Minneapolis quilting convention last summer. Realizing that younger would-be designers needed material of their own, the publisher reached out to the duo to get something fresh, King says.
According to King, sewing can sometimes get an undeserved bad rap for being outdated. “In general, people might think it’s something that maybe their grandmother does, like quilting, or something their mother did in home ec,” she says. “All you see is your grandmother piecing something together, but being our age group, you might not really know where to start. It’s another creative outlet to show people what you can do.”
Singer Sewing Co. in July released a new line of high-tech sewing machines that could appeal to computer addicts. The machines have USB ports and special clip-art software designed to make complicated patterns easy. Other companies have had these types of brainy machines before, but — bonus — the Singer versions are “cheaper” at $699 to $1,399. The company reported a 10-fold increase in sales between 2004 and 2005 of even basic models priced less than $200.
Thieret believes with the popularity of do-it-yourself projects, sewing could take off. “Right now everything is so mass-produced,” she says. “Anything that you want that you see on a red carpet you can just go out and buy. That’s what got people away from sewing to begin with.”
Robert Snyder, general manager at Hobby Lobby, says his store has sold slightly more fabric and craft materials to young customers in the past few years, and interest is building. “I think people are getting more and more into starting children out in a craft atmosphere,” he says. Jeff Clouse, assistant manager at Michaels, says needles and thread are also leaving his shelves more quickly this year.
King, a fashion design major, has reason to hope people start sewing again. She traveled to New York in October to negotiate a deal with the McCall Pattern Company to get her original clothing patterns on the market. And to cater to the tech-savvy fashionistas out there, she’s co-hosting a new series of podcasts that will send helpful sewing tips and designer interviews to iTunes customers everywhere.
Although the homemaking tendencies of these local domestics wouldn’t make for a good Eisenhower-era sitcom, they’re proof that a new generation is invested in some of the same work as Lucy. As many businesses have found, these creative ventures are prime opportunities to turn a profit. Target spokesperson Ana Williams, for example, says her company’s home décor section is popular with college students and post-college adults. She says Target’s apartment-starter kits are a hit.
Many theories exist for why homemaking is making a comeback. In her book The Terror Dream, author Susan Faludi says Sept. 11 brought a “heightened call for domesticity.” She says that the attacks restored the need for “the image of an America invulnerable to attack.”
Main Squeeze owner Leigh Lockhart links the resurgence of domesticity with uneasiness about Iraq involvement. Trouble abroad draws Americans into their homes, she believes. “It’s the war,” she says, “and it makes people feel all unsettled, and they want to nest.”
Whether young domestics are politically inspired or otherwise, King thinks modern domesticity is headed in a new direction. “We don’t want people to think these are our grandmothers’ and moms’ ideas,” King says. “This is a creative outlet. This is something new.”