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Book Review: Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living by Evelyn Birkby

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With the explosion of mommy and lifestyle blogs out there, it would be easy to assume that these women writers are doing something novel: sharing bits and pieces of their lives with the masses. In reality, they are part of a long tradition of homemakers who use popular media to reach out to each other, trade tips and secrets, and to connect. Evelyn Birkby is one of the grandmothers of this tradition. She has been part of the longest-running homemaker program in the history of radio, has been the subject of a documentary about radio homemakers, and since 1949, she has published a weekly newspaper column about her life on a farm in rural Iowa. The most recent of her ten published books, Always Put in a Recipe and Other Tips for Living From Iowa’s Best Known Homemaker (2012, University of Iowa Press) is a collection of her favorite newspaper columns from the past 63 years.

Arranged topically, these selected columns cover a wide range of subjects from the humorous and whimsical–children, pets, and cooking–to the contemplative and profound–marriage, death, and aging. Reading Birkby’s words is like sitting down for tea with the farm wife down the road. Although the medium has changed, her writing is not unlike the blog posts of some of today’s most popular natural living and lifestyle bloggers. She ruminates about her front porch and all the living it has seen. She remembers the history of a favorite piece of furniture and traces its travels from home to home within her family. She confesses her struggles in the wake of the sudden death of her five-year-old daughter, and she shares the recipes that nourish her family. With each short essay we receive one more piece of the puzzle that, together, make up the story of a joyful life filled with family, friends, hard work, and much love.

Birkby’s position as a well-educated woman who suddenly finds herself married and living on a farm makes her uniquely qualified for this type of writing. With great skill, she draws on both her roots growing up in small-town Iowa and her experiences as a young adult teaching and living in the city, to turn an inquiring eye to the homemaker’s world. She is curious, observant of the details of life around her, and self-reflective about her own place in it all. Now in her 90s, her collected writings provide a treasure trove of the day-to-day mechanics of living in the Midwest over the past near-century. After reading this book I’m left wanting to read more of Birkby’s work and that of her contemporary radio homemakers. I have a hunch that they were striving for the very thing that so many modern homemaker bloggers yearn for: simplicity, honesty, and true connection with those closest to them.

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