Home Project

On March 15, when the Netherlands entered its intelligent lockdown, my husband and I were in Australia. From Perth, we watched the initial stages of panic unfold in Amsterdam: the fisticuffs over toilet paper and the run on tinned tomatoes. By the time we got home, the Dutch had recovered their blasé equanimity. Most household items are back on store shelves, judging from the full grocery bags our kids leave at the front door.

Bread baking home project
My sourdough starter. Photo credit: Karen Kao

From inside my hermetically-sealed bubble, I plan meals and the next grocery run. My kids are great but I don’t want to push my luck. Non-essential foodstuffs (palm sugar, spelt flour) go onto a list for that happy day when I can forage on my own. In the meantime, if it’s something I can make, I will.

Every 4 days, I bake a 1000 gram loaf of bread. My sourdough starter has never been so lively. Every week, I give myself a new home project. I have the time now so why not use it?

Pickles and preserves

Preserved lemon home project
Preserved lemons. Photo credit: Karen Kao

My pantry shelves fill with Japanese pickles, preserved lemons and orange marmalade. It comforts me to count the bags of dried beans, lentils and chickpeas waiting to be opened. I recognize that all this activity is a form of panic sublimation. If the zombie apocalypse breaks out tomorrow, at least I’ll die on a full stomach.

For Kate Morgan, food and science writer for The New York Times, empty store shelves remind her of her Italian grandmother. Nanny was the kind of woman who never saw a scrap of food she couldn’t put to some use. In her kitchen, Morgan she learned to put up corn and blueberries and peaches. That muscle memory returns to sustain Morgan today. She starts a vegetable garden, writes out every preserve and pickle recipe she can remember, and dreams of the day she’ll have roasted peppers, raspberry jelly and tomato sauce enough to share.

Back in the day, we ate only those things we could make, harvest or kill with our hands. In 6th century China, you couldn’t pop into the local convenience store for a bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce. The condiment wouldn’t be invented for another 800 years. Instead, every self-respecting home cook had their own secret recipe for the umami-rich paste that flavored their food. It was a laborious process that required the soy beans to be boiled, cooled, fermented, ripened, and dried in the sun.

That level of industry is beyond me. I’ll potter instead in my vegetable garden during the most spectacular spring in Dutch history. Snow peas, sugar snaps, and English peas promise a heavy harvest. Basil, thyme, rosemary, and sage will liven the palate. Maybe this time my lettuce will thrive.

Resource management

Now feels like the perfect time to embrace a sustainable lifestyle. To move beyond recycling plastic, glass and paper into re-using what I already have. Take, for example, this week’s home project. Blue wisteria overtakes a corner of my garden. It competes with the climbing jasmine and, in the process, strangles all the other plants. I set out to tame both.

To do so, I need a new trellis. I could buy online but the cost of delivery exceeds the value of my goods. Do I abandon my garden to the tyranny of wisteria or find some other solution?

Luckily for me, my husband hoards wood. He has enough 2x4s to build an ersatz trellis. I can’t say it’s a thing of beauty but the wisteria vines are now pruned and the jasmine trained in place. That’s one more home project done and dusted.

This is the age of makers and tinkerers. A pathologist and an artist design a ventilator out of cheap, readily available parts. Students, teachers, and doctors at New York University get onto a conference call to brainstorm ways they could help. 300,000 face shields emerge.

Face mask home project
Nose guards for face masks. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Google the term face mask and you’ll find hundreds of online sewing communities hard at work. One of them is led by my old high school classmate, Janie Buck, who’s making 1,000 masks for local law enforcement personnel. Who knew that the ladies of the sewing circle were superheroes in disguise?

You’ve probably guessed my next home project. It won’t be anywhere near the scale of Janie’s. I’m not even sure my sewing machine still works. But the Fabric Patch has supplied the pattern, my closets yield plenty of cloth and my friend Martha has sent me the hardware I’ll need.

Is it OK to be happy?

Lucy Kellaway is a former reporter and columnist for The Financial Times. A few years ago, she abandoned journalism to teach math in inner-London schools. Occasionally, she still writes for her old paper and last week she wrote a column on Life under lockdown.

Kellaway is self-isolating in her London home with 2 of her adult children. It sounds quite structured, almost corporate. During the morning scrum, one of them is appointed to make dinner that night. Then they’re off to work a 9-to-5 day, broken only by the obligatory coffee break at 10:30am and lunch at 1:00pm. On the weekends, it’s tools down. Then, Kellaway amuses herself with kit and wood stainer. Her home project is to prowl about her leaky wooden house in search of holes to plug.

I have peace of mind, and spring, and family and siliconing. I don’t need any more excitement than that.

Lucy Kellaway, Is it OK to be happy? in The Financial Times, 11/12 Apr 2020

Of course, Kellaway is aware of how lucky she is. To have a roof over one’s head, a secure job, and a home project or two. And yet she worries about feeling so happy while in lockdown.

Maybe we feel good when we make things with our hands. Maybe it makes us feel better to root around in our own cupboards for things we can re-use rather than replace. It might even do us all some good to sit for a moment in a sunny corner and feel grateful for the warmth on our face.