Remembering Our Roots

I honestly cannot remember when I learned to make pie dough, but I know that my first lessons included three key things: Not to overwork the dough, gently pressing it against the bowl with the heel of my palm to make it flaky before rolling it out, and always rolling from the middle out, rotating the rolling pin to keep the dough smooth and even. These are not things I taught myself or invented on my own; they are things my father taught me, things he learned from his grandmother, things she probably learned from someone else. They were among the many cooking skills passed down to me, and every time I use them, I remember their origins.

One of the curious things about US culture is this desire to constantly reinvent ourselves, to pretend as though everything we are doing is new and original, at the same time we long for a ‘culture’ and a ‘heritage’ and crave a ‘history.’ That history is all around us, as are our cultural roots, even though we seem determined to ignore them. And in forgetting our roots, the origins of the skills we not only use in daily practice but sometimes develop entire industries around (I’m looking at you, DIY), we do a disservice to the people who have come before us, and we perpetuate certain social structures.

The DIY movement in the United States has been growing steadily over the United States from something only weird people do to a nationwide trend, and one increasingly commodified and filled with constant attempts to one-up other people. First you need to make your own soap. Then you need to master the art of pressing olive oil for your soapmaking. Now you must grow the olive trees for the pressing. And there’s an industry happy to sell you the manuals, tools, and workshops you need to achieve the pinnacle of DIY…at least until someone else comes along and raises the bar.

This is a movement heavily populated by white hipsters from middle class backgrounds. As they swap lactofermentation recipes and showcase their knitting projects on Twitter and talk about how adorable their new chicken houses (never coops, they are houses) are, I cannot help but think of the roots of the DIY movement, because these are not ‘new’ or ‘rediscovered’ skills, they are things that people have been doing all along, and they have lengthy origins and an established history.

Many of these trendy new things, after all, are those that poor people have been doing all along, not out of a need to be hip but out of necessity. Growing your own food when you can, quilting, knitting, preserving food, keeping microlivestock, these are all things people have been doing because they needed to do them. In the low-income Black community, many of these skills have been passed down with meticulous accuracy from generation to generation for decades; these new victory gardens people are so proud of were already growing on the back porches and in the back yards of poor Black families across the US who needed cheap sources of calories to supplement what they could afford from the store.

I am not angry at the DIY movement for existing. Teaching people new skills is an excellent pursuit, and I love seeing people expand their interests and learn more about the things they can do, and to learn that these mysterious things they thought took place in places far, far away can happen in their own homes and kitchens. People are astonished I make my own yoghurt, something I’ve been doing for years because it’s cheaper and allows me greater control of the texture and flavour, even though it’s simple. I like teaching people to make yoghurt, and I like seeing people take charge of sourcing the things in their lives.

I dislike the commodification the DIY movement has created, because it makes doing things at home more expensive. Canning jars, for example, were always a bit pricey by nature, and now they are extraordinarily expensive because Mason and other firms that make them realise there’s an upmarket for them and they can charge more. I scrounge thrift stores, as do a lot of other people I know, for less expensive canning products, but even there, there’s a growing markup, because the store knows it can charge more, and people will pay more, thanks to DIY.

This commodification has created a situation where people start to feel like they cannot afford DIY, including the very people who have been doing DIY just fine without the industry for decades. The very people who retained these skills when mainstream society turned away from them in favour of industrially-produced products can’t maintain those skills because of cost barriers, which is a bit absurd. And they’re not being credited with the work they did to make sure these things were kept alive. Instead, the ‘artisan’ movement, populated by back to the earth hipsters, is what gets the attention in conversations about DIY skills.

It should be possible to recognise and salute the origins of the movement as the movement grows, and to talk about the rich, complex, and very interesting origins of DIY. Why not discuss the fact, for example, that slaves were often forced to keep their own gardens in order to feed themselves and eat traditional foods? And that these gardens were the genesis of those grown by free Blacks, the very same gardens that eventually grew into backyard gardens in poor communities after the abolition of slavery, the self-same gardens that kept people alive during times of poverty, the same gardens that families continue to grow out of necessity, tradition, and a sense of place? Because to me, that history is rich, fascinating, and important, but I don’t see a lot of people talking about it.