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The (Not So) Good Old Days

Just finished the chest freezer’s first defrosting job. The thing doesn’t collect very much frost, but after enough months pass, it does need to be chipped free. This summer’s humidity caused enough frost to grow that it was threatening to interfere with closing the lid, so, reluctantly, I finally moved myself to action.

To my surprised delight, it didn’t take anything like as much effort or time as expected. Only about a half-hour with a hair dryer defrosting the glaciers, plus another half-hour of winnowing out the hopelessly aged items and organizing the survivors.

The reason I dreaded this chore and put it off as long as I could is that I can remember what it was like to defrost a Frigidaire. O God!

Defrosting the icebox’s freezer was a half-day job. In the first place, the freezer compartment started to build layers of frost from the instant you plugged in the refrigerator. Frost built up on everything: every surface of the machine and every surface of anything you put into the freezer.

First, you’d wait until your family had gone through most of the food in the freezer and the refrigerator. Turning off the freezer in older models entailed turning off both compartments. Later, you could shut off just the freezer, but even then, since the job would take a long time, you didn’t want to leave much frozen food sitting in the refrigerator or sink.

In those days, women didn’t have hand-held hair dryers. A hair dryer was a lash-up with a plastic bonnet on the end of a hose connected to a contraption that looked a little like…I don’t know…a drag-around vacuum cleaner. It never occurred to anyone to try to use one of those things to speed defrosting, if that were even possible.

On the day you decided to defrost and clean the freezer, you’d turn on the soaps to keep you company. The soap operas would start around 10:00 or 10:30 in the morning. So if you started with the first soap, which I recall was Days of Our Lives, you would clean through As the World Turns, The Guiding Light, The Edge of Night, and finish about the time The Dumb and the Feckless came on. If you worked steadily, you’d finish around 12:30 or 1:00 p.m.

It was a messy, foot-aching, back-aching, endless job that entailed boiling water, pouring it into flat pans, setting them into the freezer compartment to melt the two- and three-inch thick ice, wiping up the mess, and repeating. Over and over and over. Then you had to clean up the mess you’d made on the floor and kitchen counters. So, as you can imagine, I wasn’t looking forward to doing that with a chest freezer that would add bending over to the list.

Moderns suffer way too much nostalgia for the good old days. One thing that concerns me about both this bottomless recession and the sometimes silly sentimentality inherent to the environmental movement is that both of these forces are tending to push back our standard of living.

To my mind, not having to stand in front of a freezer for two or three hours pouring, chipping, scrubbing, sponging, and mopping comes under the heading of “standard of living.” So does having a freezer at all. So does running an air conditioner and electric lights and an indoor stove. So does walking into a supermarket and having a choice of all the fruits and vegetables that grow in any season of the year, somewhere on this earth or in some agribusiness’s greenhouses.

One of the problems with the locavore movement is that, taken to its logical end, it means that you eat whatever is in season in your local area. Whatever does not grow in your immediate vicinity and is not in season, you don’t eat.

While that sounds very romantic and green, its reality is far plainer and far simpler than most locavores would relish: malnutrition.

Enthusiasts tell us that “most Americans should not expect to have tomatoes in January” and that “to eat truly locally means learning to live without those foods that won’t naturally grow in your own backyard, or in your local farmer’s fields.” Be careful what you wish for.

My mother grew up in upstate New York during the 1910s and 20s. She lived with her grandparents on a small subsistence farm. During the summer and fall, they ate what they could grow or gather in the forest. During the winter, they ate what they could store.

My mother grew up with rickets. Thanks to poor childhood nutrition, all of her teeth had been removed from her head by the time she was 45.

She told me that an orange was a rare treat. Citrus was expensive, too expensive for people who lived off their own land, and even if you could afford them, oranges were rarely available. During the winter, she said, oftentimes all they had to eat was beans and potatoes her grandmother had put up, served in bowls of hot milk taken from their cow.

That’s locavore eating. Do we really want to take ourselves back to 1918?

Consider, too, the bright ideas intended to save water and energy. Front-loading washers, for example: there’s a throwback to the “good” old days, if ever there was one. They work very much like the old Bendix my mother and I used in the early 1950s. Put a tablespoon too much detergent in the thing, and it would bubble up and flood the service porch. This is why washer hookups in 1950s houses are often outside, on the back porch or in the garage. It’s a lot easier to clean up the concrete garage floor or the back porch slab than to have to scrub an interior floor every third time you do the laundry.

I remember that damn thing overflowing, and I remember my mother racing to wipe up the mess with a mop and on hands and knees with rags. As if she didn’t have enough physical labor to do!

And I remember both of us bending over with aching backs to haul the heavy wet laundry out the front side the thing—even a little girl can get a back-ache, believe it or not. The Bendix induced back pain in users of all ages and sizes.

Why on earth do we think reverting to the 1950s is a good thing?

Then we have the repercussions of the present economic depression. How many of us are putting off buying appliances and other tools that make our lives more tolerable? I, for one, can’t afford to replace my dangerously overheating clothes dryer. It will run on “air fluff,” but that cycle doesn’t dry clothes. Most of my laundry can be hung out. But what happens when I need to wash the down comforter? That has to go through a dryer, and it can’t go into an ultrahot commercial dryer.

If I didn’t have a dryer, I wouldn’t own a feather comforter. I’d be doing the same thing my mother did: hauling heavy woolen blankets and bedspreads to the dry cleaner once a year. When we unwrapped them and put them on the beds, we’d sleep in toxic fumes for two weeks, until the stink dissipated.

How “green” was this? Well, take a look at a map of the Superfund sites in your area, and note how many pieces of land contaminated with dangerous chemicals once housed neighborhood dry cleaners.

While I can stand to hang out my clothes on a line, the truth is that having no working dryer puts one foot back in the 1950s, when most people didn’t own dryers. Or dishwashers. Or electric stoves and ovens. Or televisions. And no one ever heard of a microwave.

We no longer have the Russians to bomb us back into the Dark Ages. The Chinese are too busy turning themselves into the world’s economic superpower to bomb us into the Dark Ages, and the Iraqis are in no position to return the favor just now. But we seem not to need any help: we appear to be taking ourselves there on our own.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d like to see the developed world and everyone else consume less fossil fuel; spew less gunk into the atmosphere; quit polluting air, land, and water with toxic chemicals; quit bulldozing farmlands and blading the desert to make way for square mile on square mile of sprawl; stop torturing animals in grotesque factory “farms”; live well but not so large; and all such good things.  I just don’t think we should do it at the expense of our health. Or at the expense of the positive factors that make us a “developed” country.

5 thoughts on “The (Not So) Good Old Days”

  1. A locavore diet would leave me pretty malnourished as well. I don’t remember a Bendix – my family went from a wringer washer to a top load automatic. I have been contemplating a front load as we are on a septic system, but I am concerned about the mildew issues I hear they have. It is a shame that common sense appears to be not so common.

  2. I don’t know if a down comforter would fit into a home dryer. What I would do: wash the comforter. Place on clean sheet outside. Surely, the Arizona atmosphere will suck out the moisture pretty fast. Shake it now and again.

    Then put in dryer on fluff.

    OR–ask a friend if you can have some dryer time in exchange for, say, a yummy casserole.

  3. Great post! Took me right back to my childhood in the 40’s. When I was 9 we moved from our farm into town and had an inside bathroom with a flush toilet!!! Such luxury!! No, I sure don’t want to revert to the “olden days.”

  4. I was with you until you got to the front loader. We got one several months ago and I love it. We cloth diaper for money reasons, and it has a sanitize cycle. When I did diapers in the top loader, it was a several hour process. Dump them in, fill the tub, let soak overnight, drain, run the washer, run and extra rinse. Now I can push three buttons and accomplish the same thing, and it saves us a lot of money on energy.

    You are so right about the locavore movement. Is it good to support local farmers? YES. Is it good to take it to an extreme, eating only things that can be grown locally? NO. I live in Zone 9, almost the tropics with no real frost season and two full growing seasons a year, so yeah, *I* could do it. Most of my family lives in Denver, which is a desert as well as having a limited growing season (frost dates are Labor day and Memorial Day). It woudl be quite a hardship on them. And if everyone were spending all of their time on agricultural pursuits – growing and putting up food for an entire family for a year is a LOT of labor – we’d regress technologically.

    • @ Milehimama: That’s interesting about the diapers. Sure is an improvement over boiling the darned things on the stove and running Clorox through the rinse cycle! And you can be sure a Bendix could not, would not, DID not sanitize diapers.

      We tried cloth diapers. After my son was born, we used a service. Poor little baby had diaper rash from the minute we put the things on him until we finally wised up and switched over to paper diapers. Rash went away and he was perfectly fine after that.

      @ frugalscholar: Yes, my queen-size down comforters fit into the dryer. When you hang one of them on the line, the feathers clump up inside and you get quite the mess. What I learned from The Company Store, whose staff advised me over the phone, is that you can put the line-dry or nearly dry comforter in the dryer with a clean tennis shoe. The shoe whaps around in there and fluffs up the feather comforter. Comes out looking just like new!

      @ Nola: From what I’ve read, the mildew issue is resolved simply by leaving the door cracked open a bit so air can circulate and get the door’s gasket completely dry.

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