New 'How to Sew a Button' book offers grandmotherly advice and household tips

By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009

It all started with a terrible pie.

Erin Bried, a 35-year-old senior staff writer at Self magazine, wanted to impress some dinner guests with a homemade dessert. And it worked, at first. "Who makes pie these days?" her company exclaimed as she placed her strawberry-rhubarb masterpiece on the table.

Then they took their first bites, and Bried discovered that what she'd thought was rhubarb was actually Swiss chard.

"That's when it hit me," she writes in the introduction to her new book, "How to Sew a Button and Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew" (Ballantine Books, $15). "When I was a child, I used to help my grandmother clip rhubarb out of the garden; now, as an adult, I can't even identify the vegetable in the grocery store."

At that I had to think of my grandmother, who made the finest pie you could ever find. (Take it from her friend, who said at her funeral nine years ago that pies in heaven had just gotten a lot better.) My grandma never recovered from a trip to the grocery store, during her pie-baking glory days, when the clerk ringing up her rhubarb asked a manager for the code for "pink celery."

"What is simultaneously comforting and alarming about my domestic incompetence," Bried continues in the book, "is that I am hardly alone. I'm joined by millions of women, Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who either have consciously rejected household endeavors in favor of career or, even more likely, were simply raised in the ultimate age of convenience and consumerism. Why do for ourselves, we shrug, when we can pay someone else to do it for us?"

Thanks to the Great Recession, Bried writes, many of our grandmothers' money-saving household skills are back in style. So she set out to learn not only to sew a button and make a pie, but to roast a chicken, plant a vegetable garden, knit a scarf, spring clean, make the most of a night in -- and to do many other things that her grandmothers and others knew and know, things that today can seem rather complicated.

* * *

For her day job at Self, Bried often interviews A-list celebrities. For this study of homemaking, she interviewed 10 grandmothers across the country, none of them famous but each of them, she said, just as worthy of being celebrated.

One was 94-year-old Bea Neidorf, who has lived in Washington since shortly before the end of World War II and still volunteers at the Kennedy Center and the Hillwood museum. Of all the keepsakes on the corner table in her dining room, "How to Sew a Button" is the most modern by several decades. The cheerful pink paperback, like the black-and-white family photographs displayed next to it, sits there waiting for anyone who wants to look into the past.

"It was funny," Neidorf said as she poured a perfect cup of coffee and laughed about being interviewed for Bried's book, or any book. "I would think that people would know how to hem some pants."

Then she crossed her legs to show the hemline that, of course, she had stitched herself.

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