A newsletter ouroboros and a two-headed snake
Happy spring, Hateraders! I took March off from the newsletter to go on vacation and look at some rocks. I also wrote a few things, including this longboi about the much-discussed labor shortage in the hospitality industry and a review of the…Taco Bell Cantina. But I’m back now—like your seasonal allergies—and will be here until you die. Let’s get on with it.
I am old enough to have meaningful “back in MY day…” rants now, and one of those is that back in MY day, we called it “home economics.”
By “it” I am of course referring to the trimester-long cooking and sewing class mandated for every student at Perry Middle School (yes, our gym uniforms said “PMS”). We PMS-ers were too young to countenance the full, crushing weight of adulthood at that age, so our home economics class taught only the most essential home skills.
How to make microwave sticky buns using brown sugar and a tube of Pillsbury biscuits.
How to sew a pillow shaped like a cartoon cow holding a glass of its own milk.
I still own the disturbing cow pillow, but it’s buried deep in the recesses of a closet somewhere; I couldn’t find it in time for this letter. I have attempted to sketch it from memory so you can understand the kinky shit schools were pushing on preteens in the early aughts:
Even if “home economics” was a disappointment to me as a 13-year-old, I loved it as a concept. The term seemed like a more dignified substitute for “homemaker,” a benign word whose connotations I nonetheless found annoying.
Today, “homemaker” really just suggests “someone without taxable income.”1 But there was a time when “homemaker” and “homewrecker” were true antonyms, when the concept of “home” was seen as both inseparable from heterosexual marriage and exclusively the domain of women.
You could make a home by marrying a man. You could wreck a home by fucking him.
“Home economics,” in contrast, seemed to promise a way to decouple domesticity from subservience. As a home economist, a woman could study eggs not simply to prepare for her future husband’s mercurial Egg Preferences, but because eggs were worth studying on their own.
I’ve heard people argue that “home economist” is a patronizing term, like calling trash collectors “sanitation engineers”—the assumption is that it’s a hollow gesture, more appeasement than genuine respect.
But I think it’s just accurate. “Home economics” picked up steam in the early 1900s as a fairly neutral descriptor of the study and practice of domestic life. You could make a career as a home economist, and that career could be expansive: the (mostly) women who claimed the title were simultaneously chemists and chefs, alchemists and accountants, marketers and mad scientists.
Pillsbury and Kellogg’s hired scores of professional home economists to create demand for their products by monitoring trends and road-testing recipes that could democratize them. Betty Crocker was not, as we now know, a real woman but rather five home economists in a trench coat.
Until the 1960s, the USDA had a “Bureau of Home Economics” tasked with researching “the scientific basis for the mechanics of living.” Their first Bureau Chief, Louise Stanley, had a doctorate in chemistry. The Bureau’s home economists developed recipes, monitored housing cost increases to update guidance for household budgets, and published studies on the tensile strength of various textiles. They even equipped homemakers with pedometers and time-use diaries to collect new datasets for their research.
In other words, they were exactly what they purported to be: economists.
Still, “home economics” started to fall out of favor for a lot of complicated reasons and one simple one. The field, which was dominated by women, didn’t garner a lot of respect from other disciplines, which kept its applications narrow. What many women had thought was a gateway into the sciences turned out to be a locked and windowless room.
In the 1990s, there was a big push to rebrand “home ec,” and in 1994, the American Home Economics Association changed its name to the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.
The reasons for the rebrand were ostensibly to better capture the field’s complexity, but I still can’t help but mourn the loss of what seems to me a better-fitting term. Economics today is an almost impossibly broad field, encompassing everything from agriculture to climate to education to what to charge aliens for Earth souvenirs. Most attempts to define it focus on how people make choices in the face of scarcity; home economists have focused on exactly the same.
I’ve been thinking about home ec a fair amount lately, in part because I’ve grown increasingly curious about the firewall between my professional life and my other professional life.
For almost eight years, I’ve worked full time as an economics editor, helping PhD economists to strengthen their arguments and make their papers more accessible. And for all of that time, I’ve tried as hard as possible to keep that work from bleeding into my writing (and vice versa). Most people at my day job don’t know about my writing, for reasons that I probably don’t need to explain to anyone who has ever been asked to accept professional advice from an obvious lunatic.
It was better, I thought—I think?—to live my life like Nicholas Cage’s two-headed snake, to separate my ambitious heads with a spatula lest they fight over each other’s lunch.
The trouble with that plan is that I am not a snake, and that my two heads might actually (sometimes) get along.
So I’m going to try removing the spatula every now and then and see how it goes.
Next Friday, you’ll get the first Haterade: Home Economics dispatch, in which I propose a better way to predict restaurant sales (and talk about why some of the current estimates are flawed). There will be A Chart, but I promise you will be able to understand it. I can understand it, and I am a big palooka.2
If this sounds awful to you, don’t worry—this is just one of many varieties of Post that I will continue to do, like Mailbags or odes to hot dog Ferris wheels or recipes for barbecue-flavored running gels.
That said, if you’ve got a home-ec-related question or topic you want me to look into, drop it in the comments or drop me a line: @lizcookkc on Twitter or email@example.com.
General questions? Send me those, too; I haven’t done a Mailbag in a while, and I like chasing your frisbees.
LET’S HAVE FUN AND PRETEND TO DO MATH!
If you liked this post, please share it! It helps new people discover the ‘letter. And if you’d like to be a living embodiment of “market failure,” you can always stuff some money in the tip jar: Venmo | PayPal
Or perhaps more accurately: “someone who creates value not measured by GDP”
I also promise to never write that some dubious take is “econ 101,” which is how every condescending assweasel announces to the world that they never took another economics class.