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Food and drink: A hard domestic is good to find

The world with – and without – our stainless steel friends

Ach, the espresso machine is on the fritz — is a regular coffee OK from the coffee machine?

Scheiße, the egg cooker poached these eggs way too hard. What’s the matter with this thing?

Here — use this hand blender to mix the pancake batter. Oh no, you’ll have to use a spoon — the batteries are dead!

Ever think it’s the end of the world when your little white molded plastic and stainless steel friends in the kitchen give up the ghost or don’t perform flawlessly? And God help us if it’s one of the bigger guys who goes on the fritz — a bonky refrigerator or freezer can throw the most stalwart stoic into a cold sweat.

While I discernibly flinch whenever I see an electric wok dangled in front of my face at Future Shop and have thus far managed to lead a perfectly happy and fulfilling life without a George Foreman grill, thank you very much (although it’s taken me some counselling and subliminal food binging to get over it), there’s a heck of a lot of us out there — too many, in my humble opinion — who go ga-ga over the latest and greatest in home appliances without so much as batting an eyelash as to how much packaging alone each engenders, or how the bruised and battered hulk will look in the landfill in 18 months when “it” finally busts because of the shoddy power switch some poor bastard in a badly-lit Chinese factory installed without the ground properly connected because he was half-asleep after delivering the truckload of melamine to the powdered milk plant up the street, his second job.

As the “Happy Holidaze” ads and commercials for home gadgetry reproduce like fruit flies right now, I finally understand why people need 18,000-sq-ft homes with 3,000-sq-ft kitchens and 2 km of counter space.

To put things in perspective, you can still order your copy of Rosemary Neering’s The Canadian Housewife: An Affectionate History from in time for Christmas. Then marvel, especially if you’re a woman, at your own good fortune to be alive now.

This from Alice Barrett Parke, who lived on a ranch near Spallumcheen Valley, just south of Armstrong and north of Vernon, where she kept house for her brother in the 1890s:

“Mr. Hays was here this morning so I had the men to dinner. I had intended ironing this morning, but I had to churn, attend to the bread, cook beets, carrots and potatoes, boil a shank and cut the meat up for the hash — & just as I thought I’d have a minute’s breathing space, Mr. Hays ran over a hen in the meadow, cutting its legs half off, so Harry cut its head off & brought it in — & I had to pick and clean it. I roasted it for tea…”

Bet she didn’t use a Crock-Pot.

Neering, a Victoria-based author who describes herself as someone who has great respect for the domestic arts, especially when they are done by someone — something? — else, has scoured a bushel of resources from the fonds of the Women’s Institute of Saltfleet (Ontario) to Archives Canada and Eaton’s catalogues harkening back to 1884 to come up with this gem.

The photos alone are priceless. I love the one of the Ottawa woman, circa 1893, bedecked in long apron and dress with mutton-legged sleeves ironing on the brick-lined back porch with the handle of her flat iron thickly wrapped in a cloth so she doesn’t burn her hands. Gee, I wonder if she has the steam setting on delicate?

Wandering through stories like Alice’s and those of the women who ran their fingers through wringer washers or learned to make decent coffee in a tin can hanging over a campfire, makes me want to go downstairs right now and cuddle my toaster and vacuum cleaner.

Which reminds me — we were over at a friend’s house the other day and a little round flying saucer of a vacuum bumped into my foot before it backed up and headed back across the carpet, sucking up the bits of corn chips and cake crumbs left over from dinner. Now if you’re going to go gadget, an automatic vacuum is at least cute — and smart. My pals had it programmed not to go into certain rooms, plus it knows when to recharge itself. Bonus: it really did suck up all the rogue chips and crumbs while the cat studiously ignored it at work.

Personally, in terms of domestic help, I say go big or go home. Screw the sensitive (heated) hand soap dispensers, the garbage cans that sense you coming and lift their lids for you before you get there, or the automatic fish feeders, that, granted won’t help your domestic life in the kitchen but will keep your buddies in the aquarium happy. I’m personally holding out for my own QRIO or Motoman.

QRIO, a cute, shiny curvilinear kind of guy, is Sony’s humanoid robot, the first that’s capable of running — and jumping — in case you need him to lift both feet at once to move the rug while he’s serving you pre-mixed martinis. (Older humanoid robots needed to have at least one foot touching the floor as they negotiated space; walking is controlled by the opposing force produced by contact with the floor.)

Motoman is pretty cutesy, too. He looks like a skinny, more angular See-Threepio, plus he can cook! Built by the Japanese giant Yaskawa Electric, he’s got a sweet-looking boxy but blank head with one giant eye in his face and articulated arms in molded blue and off-white plastic that are strong enough to hold 20 kg and agile enough to whip you up a batch of pancakes for breakfast, as he did at a recent trade show in Osaka.

If neither of these guys can help me out enough to give me the leisure time I crave, guess I’ll just have to get me a Wakamaru robot. Capable of remembering 10,000 words and able to sense other human or robotic movements through lasers and cameras, they were part of a “live” theatre production at the same “ultimate appliance” tradeshow.

Their one-act play featured the story of a housekeeping robot who becomes bored and bitter about its role as a cleaner. Sound familiar?


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who laughed when she saw Edward Burtynsky’s footage of a factory in China that pumped out identical coffee makers and put them in countless differently branded boxes.