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“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.

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Litsa Dremousis LITSA DREMOUSIS' work appears in The Believer, Esquire, Filter, Hobart, The Huffington Post, McSweeney's, Monkeybicycle, MSN Music, Nerve, The Nervous Breakdown, New York Magazine, Nylon, The Onion's A.V. Club, Paper, Slate, the Seattle Weekly, on NPR, KUOW, and in sundry other venues. Her essay, "The Great Cookie Offering", appears in Seal Press' anthology, "Single State of the Union", she has a piece in Smith Magazine's HarperCollins anthology, "It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs" and she's completing her first novel. She frolics at on Twitter @LitsaDremousis and you can read her archived published work at http://theslipperyfish.blogspot.com/.

33 responses to “Kurt B. Reighley, Author of United States of Americana, Makes You Want to Make Things”

  1. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Oh! I need to pass this on to a friend of mine who once offered her college students extra credit if they could bring something useful to class they’d made entirely by hand. Great article as always, Litsa. This book is going on my must-read list. Thanks for covering it!

  2. Thanks so much, Cynthia! Huge all is well in Austin! Definitely pass the word along to your friend and read it when you can: like I said in the piece, I’m not the kind who’s like, “Yeah! Canning! High five!” and the book makes me want to knit and crochet again and develop new skills.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      The same friend I mentioned sparked my interest in hand-stitched quilting. Which I can get really obsessive about, so my quilt-in-progress has been tucked away for the time being for my own sanity. However, when I was working on it, it occurred to me how much what I was doing corresponded to the craft of writing. I was revising something at the time, and the act of quilting actually gave me an idea about how to restructure the piece of writing I was working on.

      And, oh, I should clarify, I actually live closer to San Antonio, though I pine for Austin daily. More of a literary scene there. I think if a TNB event were to happen anywhere around here, it would do best in Austin. That’s where Literary Death Match makes its stops as well. But, I’m sure all is JUST GRAND in Austin right now. Perfect, in fact. *sigh*

      Irene, if you see this comment, teach me to make bread without a bread machine! I make bread-bricks.

      • Cynthia, that makes sense re Austin. I saw “San Antonio” on your Twitter feed this morning (thanks for the RT!) and thought maybe you’d moved.

        I think you underscore a wise point about the overlap between quilting and crafts of that nature and writing: both require meticulous attention to detail and absorb one’s concentration completely. Wonderful that resuming work on your quilt spurred new writing ideas. Hooray! As you know, I always look forward to your words!

  3. Irene Zion says:

    I make all my own bread without a bread machine.
    Do I make the grade, Litsa?

    • Judy Prince says:

      Irene, you darling woman, you’ve returned to us—-and I’m almost afraid, as usual, to ask what you’ve been up to,,,,,you and that wild Victor! Doubtless your next TNB post will let me know what hell you’ve wrought in the world. Heh.

      Now to the most important issue of our lives: Please tell me how you make homemade whole wheat bread, no machines other than the oven. I did it once and totally adored the doing! ‘Twas super-easy but I’ve lost the recipe. Kneading the dough has to be one of the most sensual experiences ever. Plus I found m’sel’ kinda mesmerised as I kneaded, like praying or meditating. The breads and pastries over here in England blow my mind. They call whole wheat “wholemeal,” and it’s very popular, and they have lotsa varieties of it with, for example, other grains with it.

      Big mistake, me talking about food at 2 in the morning. Now I have to look in the fridge for a snack.

      Welcome back, Irene! And apologies to Litsa for hijacking her comments column.

  4. Sounds excellent, Irene! What a delicious *and* practical skill to have mastered! When we’re finally in the same locale, I will mooch a sample. 🙂

    • Irene Zion says:

      Oh my,
      I may have mislead you.
      I don’t use a “bread machine,” but
      I do use a mixer, although I can do it without, but it takes way longer.
      It’s easy.
      Come on over and I’ll show you!
      It’s the sort of thing you have to feel to understand best how to do it.

  5. Jude says:

    I have been involved in crafts for most of my life. It began out of necessity as I was a single mum and I needed supplementary income. I began a few businesses based on my craft and was reasonably successful with them. Painting, crocheting, knitting and now sewing. Even made fruit loaves, jams and pickles…
    It’s been interesting watching what has been happening with the craft movement in the past few years. Young women and men taking up the old traditional crafts such as knitting, crocheting, embroidery and even cooking (a la the phenomenal cupcake movement!).
    But what’s really enjoyable is the spin (pun intended…) they are putting on these crafts. Reworking old ideas into fresh contemporary and amusing ideas – some practical, but a lot of ‘doing’ just for the fun of it.
    One I particularly enjoy is ‘knit bombing’, which is the latest form of urban graffiti. Knitters express themselves and spiff up their community by adorning inanimate objects with their knitted or crafted creations – brightening up the urban environment and adding a bit of fun to what can be a fairly drab and stark place. (Easier to remove too than paint…but hopefully they are left there for people to enjoy).
    Check this video out…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bJ2uXFK3KU

    • Jude, you must be quite talented to earn supplementary income from what you make. Sounds like you’re gifted at an array of crafts, too. Fantastic! (And fruit loaves sound delectable right now.)

      Thanks for sharing the video on the “knit bombers”. Whimsical and clever in unexpected ways. Wonder who came up w/ the original idea? Everyone, if you get a chance to watch it, I think you’ll get a kick out of it. (Not to be Debbie Downer, but my only concern is that birds or other animals might eat the results. Still lovely from an aesthetic standpoint, though.)

    • Jude – I discuss Knitta and knitting graffiti in the “One Stitch at a Time” chapter of my book, and have gone out tagging with some of the crew. I wrote a longer Stranger piece about the subject here back in 2006.

  6. Aaron Dietz says:

    Awesome piece, Litsa! I often think about how useless I am in terms of survivability. Like, I can barely cook, much less grow things successfully (except corn–I did spend many summers growing corn in Iowa). And I can’t fix or make anything anymore–the electronics are too complicated, and the clothing I never understood. Oh yeah–and I’m useless with cars, though I don’t have a car, so I feel like I can let that one go. Sounds like a great book to read!

    • Thank you, Aaron! Yeah, that’s part of why the book is so relatable: it doesn’t judge the reader according to which skills he or she might already possess; it’s tone is encouraging and fun. And I hear you: I’m a decent cook and know a bit of knitting and crocheting, but I have no idea how to can or even how to make a number of the cocktails discussed. Like you said, a great book to read! (Can’t wait to dive into yours, for that matter!)

  7. Judy Prince says:

    “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.”

    Indeed, Litsa!

    Thank you for the heads-up on Reighley’s delightfully titled Reighley’s delightfully titled _United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties & Handmade Bitters; A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement_ .

    I’m a love-freak for books that tell me how to kill, gut, skin, butcher and roast or salt animals while canning the hell out of homegrown peaches and peas. Yet somehow, after digesting the fun of the descriptions and processes needed, I get rather sleepy—–no, Very Sleepy—–and never really get around to manifesting the books’ important lessons.

    I once had such a strong premonition of our need in the USA for such lessons that I stayed at the computer, typing all day every day for a month, writing a play about how folks coped after a debacle that threw them back upon old and nearly unknown skills for survival. Few days go by that I don’t wonder how stoopid I’m being by not actually learning those skills.

    Your post just might motivate me…..at least to attempt one or two of the skills Reighley describes.

    Perhaps I could start a small group of like-minded folk, and we could learn a couple skills, teaching them to the others in the group. Not a bad idea, that.

    I’m looking now at the deerskin I bought a couple weeks ago from the man who shot the deer. He has a kind of reverence for the animal and for its skin, as I do. The meat provided food for his family. He hadn’t intended to sell the skin, but I loved it when I saw it in his hunting and camping supplies shop, and I wanted to see it each day. It looks as if it would be a beautiful simple garment for a child.

    • Hey, Judy! Glad you weighed in: I always enjoy your views. You underscore one of the book’s key points, too, that learning is often more fun and accelerated in a group. I.e. in addition to reviving important skills, we can revive a sense of community. Also, your story of the merchant and the deer skin is lovely. As you say, reverence for the animal.

      • Judy Prince says:

        There you are, then, Litsa—–Reighley book sold to Judy! As long as I don’t have to knit, crochet, quilt or sew!!! AARGH!!! P’raps I could just staple my clothing together. 😉

        • I hear you: all my knitting and crochet projects have resulted in scarves. 🙂

        • Judy Prince says:

          HA!

          Litsa, I once knitted a lovely really lovely blue/white striped sweater. Its body was the same width as its two sleeves; hence a 3-sleeve, no body sweater. Didn’t even make a decent scarf, that. Then there’s the time I made my now-infamous pair of trousers which our family calls “Judy’s mouse leg, elephant leg pants.” I’d sewn the like-width pieces together for each leg. No scarf there, either, as it happened.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Litsa, I forgot to say I’ve just bought Reighley’s book at The Book Depository (free postage worldwide)!!! Eager to start reading about EVERYTHING!

        • Ah, you’ve both met with the ugly reality of “UFOs” (unfinished objects). Litsa heard me read this piece last Friday about my own heartbreak at the hands of crafts. It happens.

        • Judy Prince says:

          A lovely, laffy, pointed read, Kurt. Here’s a peek at what I especially enjoyed:

          “This city is lousy with folks who have already suffered the indignities of a hundred off-center screens and ink spills (not to mention run up massive student loans for degrees in design) just to get to the point where they can manufacture something eye-catching that speaks to your sense of style. And you’re a hell of a lot less likely to run into someone else wearing your new favorite top if you go made-in-Seattle rather than picking the latest off-the-rack number from Old Navy.”

          ” . . . local artists put themselves on the line when they ask you to open your wallet. When you snatch up that handcrafted belt buckle and demand of the vendor, “How much?” you atone for every Father’s Day gift he or she slaved over in shop class, then subsequently watched vanish into the recesses of Dad’s sock drawer, untouched until that fateful garage sale. You get a new accessory, they skip a month of psychotherapy. Everybody wins.”

          Hoot!

        • Thank you so much, Judy. I read that piece at Elliott Bay Book Company the other night and it was well-received; I think I’m adding it to the “USA” reading repertoire.

  8. Totally cracked up re the elephant/mouse pants. And hooray! Thrilled you purchased the book! And I didn’t know about The Book Depository: thanks for sharing that information. Cheers, Judy! Here’s to whatever you concoct!

  9. Matt says:

    Time was I could set a snare, catch a rabbit, clean it, build a fire, and cook it – other than building a fire, I can’t do any of that anymore! (I can still read a compass, rescue a swamped canoe, and build an emergency shelter, so my Scout skills haven’t completely atrophied.

    I can cook, though. I lived alone for most of my time in college/graduate school, and learned very quickly that it was a choice of either learning to cook and clean up after myself, or starve to death in my own filth. I chose the former, and I’ve been the better cook in every relationship I’ve been in. I’ve also started teaching myself to mend my own clothes, as I’m tired of the “disposable” culture we live in and am trying to reuse as much as possible instead of just replacing it.

  10. Matt, I share your attitude re disposing of things: I’d much rather repair them or hire someone to do so than consign them to a landfill. As someone who had pet rabbits for twelve years, I’m never going to eat them, but I salute your myriad other skills. Hope you’re well, dude.

    • Matt says:

      Oh, I’ve had pet rabbits before as well! My ex-girlfriend from New Orleans and I had a couple of them one year when it looked like a hurricane (a year or so pre-Katrina) was going to hit the city. She was nonplussed when I expressed my willingness, in a pinch, to eat them.

      But only if, you know, survival depended on it.

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