Sow, Grow, Stow

An artful approach to living emphasizes self-reliance & traditional homemaking skills.

August 26, 2013

From her productive homestead in northeast Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest has been gardening, preserving, and cooking up a storm for more than a decade. The stylish and energetic 60-year-old ran a string of popular Portland cafés and restaurants in the 1980s and '90s, all while raising her first son as a single mother. These days, she has turned her attention to the home, making it her mission to promote the role of the modern-day balabusta—Yiddish for "a good housekeeper." Harriet's mother, Sonja—a German immigrant balabusta of considerable prowess—taught her the essence of good homemaking. Growing up in the Bronx, Harriet knew nothing about vegetable gardening; those skills came later, growing from her passion for preserving. But she learned about food at an early age.

"When I was a kid, I went shopping with my mother—to the butcher, bakery, and greengrocer—each one was an experience," Harriet says. "Homemakers were proud of their ability to select good food and prepare it."


Free Newsletter

Growing and preserving food crops at home is another important part of Harriet's vision for successful homemaking. Not necessarily because it's cheaper to prepare meals from a homegrown harvest, she adds, although it can be, but because it helps us see that we can produce or make what we need instead of buying everything from a store. "Figure out what you need and get the raw materials directly from the farmer or your own garden—then you become the producer." This puts you in control of what and how much you consume so you can tailor meals to your household's needs, she says.

Harriet's direction crystallized in 2000 when she noticed mountains of rotting fruit beneath an old pear tree in her garden. "That was my 'Newton' moment," she recalls. "What had turned these ripe pears from a prized food resource into a nuisance in my back yard? How had I come to take them for granted and leave them to rot? What had turned those nutritious pears into valueless objects?" The years that followed found her planted in her kitchen, processing all the gleaned food she could get her hands on as she learned the once-common (but today esoteric) techniques of food preservation.

Photos: Jon Jensen

Harriet's kitchen credentials grew via mentoring from her friend Marge Braker, a home economist with the Oregon State University Extension Service in Clackamas County. Together, the two women presented workshops on food preservation and cooking until Braker's retirement. Harriet continues the workshops from her home studio. With her book A Householder's Guide to the Universe (Tin House Books, 2010), Harriet aims to deliver "the real story on how to live authentically and repair what's broken in our society."

The term "householding"—which she borrows from a book of essays by farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry—is bound inextricably to the seasons. Harriet describes householding to include the full range of activities involved in the domestic economy, from planting and harvesting each month's fruits and vegetables to keeping track of what's ripe at local farms and snapping it up at its peak. Life is busy through spring and summer, becoming downright frenetic in fall when she practically lives in the simple outdoor kitchen that doubles as her teaching studio. In winter, all the frenzy of the gardening season is rewarded with an abundance of homemade food.

Harriet's pantry is stocked with swoon-worthy jars of pickles, preserves, fruit, vegetables, and grains, all from local organic farmers and her own garden. The orderly rows of jars contrast with her voluptuously wild, overgrown back yard. In the garden, clumps of black-eyed Susans, nasturtiums, and other pollinator-friendly flowers are packed into every available niche of sunlight that isn't occupied by food plants. Beauty is obviously vital in Harriet's home and garden, as it is in every other aspect of her life, but what drives her is a singular need to craft a life that expresses her love of the planet through her day-to-day choices.

A Householder's Guide to the Universe is as much a manifesto and call to action as a how-to guide to living a better life. It offers inspiration, advice, rants, musings, recipes, and stories about Harriet's own struggles negotiating the challenges of householding. The book is organized by month, providing a seasonal framework for understanding the processes and ideas behind householding. "I'm not advocating a throwback to Betty Crocker," she says. Instead, she hopes the book will challenge and entice readers to consider a new way of thinking about home economics.

Admittedly, not everyone has the time or ability to commit to householding. But Harriet questions the thinking that has us measuring our time in terms of money, arguing that anyone can at least make some choices about his or her home economy. She also advocates for households of all descriptions: "You don't need to have a conventional nuclear family to household. It's about creating a household of commitment," whether with family or friends.

"There's a lot of preciousness about the idea of householding. We see picture-perfect people doing it and maybe want to emulate it, from the outside in. But it isn't just about getting chickens," Harriet says. "For it to be meaningful, we should understand the home as a microcosm of the world. You may not be able to change the global economy, but you can change your home economy."

Rich or poor, busy or at loose ends, with or without children, there are sacrifices as well as benefits involved in the householding life.

"It's hard to do it without giving up something," Harriet says. "Are you willing to be available when the harvest is ready? Can you budget differently, with the largest outlay of money in fall when you're putting up food? And can you learn to eat your mistakes?" Householding is a skillset—a tradition that has been taught over the centuries, generation to generation of, usually, women.

"You can't take a lifetime of knowledge and distill it into a day, a week, a year, or even a book. To become a balabusta, it takes time." But you have to start somewhere, and your own back yard is as good place a place as any.

A Kitchen in the Garden
Harriet Fasenfest's outdoor canning kitchen is a simple open-air space, formerly a carport, shaded by grapevines. She uses the outdoor kitchen to preserve her garden's bounty in summer, when a big simmer-ing pot of tomato sauce would heat up the house. In A Householder's Guide o the Universe, Harriet lists the essentials for an efficient outdoor kitchen:

  • A tabletop propane burner or barbecue grill for the canning pot. Optional but convenient: a second burner on which to cook jam or sauce while the canning pot heats up.
  • A counter-height work surface for filling bottles.
  • A sink with a bucket below to catch draining water.
  • A drinking-water-safe hose connecting the sink to an outdoor faucet.

Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013