October 01, 2010
“As a growing number of discerning young Americans opt out of gambling on fads and fashion, the currency of ‘authenticity’–and the connotations of history and experience that word carries–rises in value. Companies like Red Wing and Pendleton Woolen Mills have survived two world wars and the Great Depression, which speaks volumes about the quality and reliability of their products. There’s also some magical thinking afoot here: we want to believe not only that Carhartt knows what it’s doing after 120 years of of manufacturing work clothes, but also that by wearing their product we connect with some of that accrued wisdom and experience.”–Kurt B. Reighley, United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties & Handmade Bitters; A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement, p. 5
Kurt B. Reighley and I meet at the Capitol Hill outpost of Seattle’s Top Pot Doughnuts on a rain-splattered fall afternoon to discuss his wholly engaging and critically lauded new book, United States of Americana (HarperCollins). He called earlier in the day to say he was running late because of sundry promotional commitments and I’m happy for him: USA deserves the attention it’s receiving. It’s a testament to Reighley’s talent and passion that I relished each page, though I’m not necessarily of the demographic for this book (more on that in a sec). He arrives in a well-proportioned wool button-down and is so pleased by the apple fritter waiting for him that he insists on adding to the tip jar. Reighley’s manners are as sturdy as his sartorial choices.
USA is essentially a wit-dipped, nostalgia-free instruction manual to skills our forbearers had because their forbearers had them, too. Of course, as technology pervaded each aspect of our culture, grandma’s method of salting pork became quaint, unnecessary in terms of survival, and we stopped listening. So while most of us can perform textual and photographic magic on our laptops, few of us could live through winter without Whole Foods or Safeway. And that’s where Reighley steps in.
“I had a journalist ask if the people reading this book would also have iPhones,” he says, bemused. “And I explained, of course they have iPhones. Readers want to learn from the past, but they’re still contemporary.” I mention one of USA‘s strengths is the way it integrates bygone talents with how we live today, referencing web sites on everything from butchering to soap-making, and Reighley notes this was intentional. “It’s great Martha Stewart has a fleet of interns, but most people don’t. They have to acquire these talents themselves and that frequently involves the web. Then they often find putting this knowledge to use is even more fun in a group, swapping tales while small-batch canning. With canning in particular, you discover if you’re able to work together because you can kill someone if you make a mistake,” he says, referring to the threat of botulism that looms over the process.
Which brings us to why you, like me, might find yourself initially dubious but ultimately swayed by USA‘s central tenet: it’s valuable and fun to make things. My dad emigrated to the States from Greece in 1952, having survived World War II and Greece’s subsequent civil war. Dad and everyone on his side of our family can perform many of the tasks in the book with reasonable proficiency and–guess what?–they’d sooner gargle lye than have to make soap with it again. When my dad encounters spinning wheels marked at hundreds of dollars in antique stores, he swears in two languages. The women in his family stitched the family’s clothes because they had no other choice and, also, they were forbidden to attend school. I grew up viewing such endeavors as work, long on toil and free of charm. And why should I risk the effects of deadly poison while canning tomatoes when the folks at Muir Glen Organic churn out such lovely products and ship them right to my neighborhood?
For starters, there’s the monetary factor. “HarperCollins approached me about this book in early 2009 and I signed my contract in April that year. The financial collapse had occurred and that placed a higher premium on making things instead of buying them,” Reighley says. Perhaps more importantly, as he writes in USA, “Picking your own strawberries involves understanding how strawberries grow, in relation to seasons and weather, soil conditions, in a way that simply buying a prepackaged pint doesn’t. This prompts us to examine our own place in the overall ecosystem, which in turn leads to a greater sense of connection and interdependence.” From an existential standpoint, it’s deeply fulfilling to create the stuff of our lives or to respect the work of those who do. Handing a clerk your Visa can’t replace this. So while most of us will find USA‘s section on taxidermy compelling but probably won’t affix elk hide to a mannequin anytime soon, we’re likely to find the parts on butchering or choosing a pair of leather boots that will last decades hugely instructive.
And in many ways, no one else could have written USA with Reighley’s aplomb. “I started embroidering when I was ten,” he says. “I was a craft geek and then I was a music geek and I brought the same level of scrutiny and thoroughness to both.” His tenacity and attention to detail still serve him well: he’s a respected and beloved DJ for Seattle’s legendary independent music station, KEXP, author of Marilyn Manson and Looking for the Perfect Beat: The Art and Culture of the DJ and his work appears in Rolling Stone, Details, MSN.com and The Advocate. Plus, he knits the hell out of a ball of yarn.
In venerating the past, Reighley brightens our future.