Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cleaning out the childhood home and thoughts on packaging

Eleven months after our mother died, Justine and I are finally facing up to cleaning out her house. I was 3 when we moved into that house and I remember curling up on a shelf of the empty linen closet and thinking this was going to be such a good hide-and-seek house! And it was. I cleaned out that linen closet on Sunday, and it is empty again for the first time since 1969.

Justine and I have to divide up the "treasures" and so far have been accomplishing this peacefully, even happily, remembering our mother. Justine let me have the glass flour and sugar bins with the cracked yellow lids. These are truly prized possessions. Thank-you, Justine.

Our mother always decanted flour and sugar into these bins and stored metal scoops inside. What a shock when I went away and had a kitchen of my own and tried to pour flour and sugar out of bags into measuring cups. So stupid and messy. Could this be one reason cooking is in decline -- bad packaging of staples?
Good design

Take baking powder. The old-fashioned Clabber Girl baking powder container is both beautiful and useful. You scrape the spoon on the straight metal lip attached to the top and it completely flattens the baking powder, which is the kind of precision you need in baking. My mother showed me how to do that when I was about 5 and I've enjoyed doing it ever since.
Bad design

Notice how Whole Foods baking powder -- a relatively new product -- lacks that lip for leveling your measuring spoon. It's a tiny, tiny flaw, but it irks me every time I use this baking powder. Is this intentional? To discourage us from baking and make those 365 cookies all the more appealing?
Doubt it. Though it's always more fun to imagine malevolent conspiracy than boring incompetence. 

Back to sugar and flour. As an adult,  I went my mother one better and got wide-mouth bins for my sugar and flour. I especially love this flour bin, purchased at the Alameda flea market.
Perfect design
Sometimes I worry it contains lead, but I've been scooping flour out of this for eight years so the horse is long out of the barn. You can scoop your flour into the measuring cup over the bin and spill not a grain on the counter. Very tidy and frugal.

Labelmaker -- fair design
And now I have my mother's bins -- for the bread flour and the high-gluten flour.

We go back to the house today to proceed with our task. If you are a thief,  there are hotel soaps, Fisher Price toys, petite Talbot's jackets, tote bags, spools of thread, shower caps, ancient containers of mace, old copies of Martha Stewart Living, cracked Pyrex bowls and half a bottle of Canadian Club for the taking. There are also hundreds of photographs of me at all stages of life, as well as early finger painting projects, beautifully framed. Please. Take.


  1. wow! that first paragraph is about as good as writing gets. have you ever considered writing a book? (just kidding).
    you have a way of writing about sadness that makes it seem so natural, which, of course, it is.
    happy treasure hunting.

  2. I like your conspiracy theory! I think I would bake more often if I had proper vessels for my supplies. I have plastic flip top containers for the sacks of flour and sugar to sit in that sort of contain the mess, but sort of just make it worse.

  3. I know what you mean about the amount of stuff one has to go through. I helped my parents move from the large house to a smaller one about 10 years ago and the process was much the same. Now they have accumulated the same amount of junk in a smaller area.

  4. Funny, I just bought a container of WF baking powder and thought the *same* thing. Very annoying after having used Clabber Girl for so long.

  5. I believe Home Depot and the like have lead testing kits. I'm not sure if they work on dishes, but I have some made in China plates I would like to test, but I haven't. Anyway, the kits may be more for windowsills, etc., but I don't see why they wouldn't work on any hard surface.

  6. I was going to say that Rumford baking powder (aluminum-free) also has that straight edge, but it turns out, it's made by the same company that makes Clabber Girl! Huh.

  7. Clabber Girl's corn starch is the same way. Bless them for thinking of us.

    You and your sister are handling this graciously and with good manners, which is how it should always be done, but often is not.

  8. It must be really hard to go through your mother's house -- and as others have commented, you and your sister sound like you are doing a great job together.

    I am not a thief but as a nostalgic mother of a four year old, I've been looking for the old-school Fisher Price toys -- the farm, home, and school house. If you have those, and when you are ready, you should definitely put them on EBay!

  9. I have my grandmother's metal flour, sugar, tea, and coffee tins, in graded sizes, on the top cabinet shelf. They are goofy and I love them because they remind me of her.
    Good luck with the house. Thinking of you.

  10. Hey Jennifer! Check out the short video with G. Hamilton in the online version of the NYT. It turns out she is someone you would love to observe.


  11. Oz -- Thank-you for that link. She seems much more low key than I'd expected. Have you read the book yet?

  12. The cleaning out is an (emotional) (seemingly endless) labor of love. Good luck.

    Keep the Fisher Price toys for your grandchildren (I'm serious!) And keep all those photos. If they are all in frames, then just fill a box and later on your can put them in a album. Photos are SO important.

    Finally, I imagine that the WF baking powder does not have the rim because it is not easy to recycle - that is it is more ecological. But I agree that that little metal rim is very special and such a good design.

  13. You are welcome! I started it yesterday, and I am trying to make it last. Cannot get enough of that voice!: something to be said about publishing a first book after 40.


  14. I can't believe all the press that Hamilton book is getting! I guess I better go out and buy it!

  15. Good inseparable thoughts I like it and what I'm doing so will everyone else who may be interested.


  16. my pet peeve is the spice jars that a teaspoon won't fit into the opening. And I really really hate baking powder cans. I think the conspiracy is so that most of the contents WILL spill all over the counter so one has to purchase them more often. Grrrr