Erin Bried: The PBJ Interview

If you had to, could you start a fire? How about sew a button on a sweater? Make a great pie? Fold a fitted sheet? Tie a tie (correctly)? Fix things around the house? Save money? Change a flat tire? Make the perfect martini? Buy a house? These are all very basic things to know how to do, but it seems like a lot of people nowadays have forgotten those basics.

Luckily, Erin Bried realized that. She’s the author of two fantastic, must-have books, How To Sew A Button – where she sought the wisdom and advice of grandmothers – and How To Build A Fire – wisdom and advice from grandfathers. I talked to her recently about how she got the idea for the books and what she learned herself.

So, how did How to Sew a Button come about?

It all started with a lousy pie. I had some friends over for dinner, and I tried to make them a strawberry-rhubarb pie for dessert. Only, I accidentally bought Swiss Chard instead of rhubarb, and I made the pie using the bitter vegetable’s stems (ahem, the parts you usually throw away).

When I was kid, I used to clip rhubarb out of the garden with my grandmother, and as an adult, I found myself in a position where I couldn’t even identify it in a grocery store. It got me thinking, What else had I forgotten or never learned in the first place? How to Sew a Button is the answer to that.

Since my own grandmothers are no longer alive, I reached out to ten grandmothers, ages 80 and up, from all across the country. They taught me not only how to bake a pie, clean with baking soda and mix a good martini, but also how to have a happy marriage, be a good friend and find self-confidence.

And of course, after learning so much and hearing so many wonderful stories from the grandmothers I interviewed for Button, I couldn’t help but wonder, What could our grandfathers teach us? That’s when I decided to write How to Build a Fire.  

Did you find that you didn’t know a lot of this stuff yourself?

Well, I knew how to do a few of the things myself, like wielding a hammer, hanging drywall and painting a room. That’s because I bought a fixer-upper in Brooklyn many years ago, and after getting so many shockingly high estimates from contractors, I decided to, for better or worse, take things into my own hands. (I sure wish my grandfather was around to walk me through it. Instead, I had to rely on library books.) Many of the rest of the skills in the book I learned for the first time, and I firmly believe that if can do them, then anyone can.

Do you think these tips are somehow lost or overlooked by younger people? This is very wise, back-to-basics advice that seems older generations would know but younger people might not, like how to start a fire, sew a button, how to cook a steak, or write a real letter (not an e-mail or a text message). It really is like Chuck Tatum says, that people would be better people if they read books like this.

Thanks! I think many of these skills tend to skip a generation because of either our reliance on or rebellion against our parents. That is, if our parents know how to do something, like sew a button or build a fire, we, as children, rely on them to to perform these services for us. Or often times, because they know how to do these things, we rebel against learning how to do them for ourselves in an effort to chart our own course (or maybe just annoy them). But now that the economy has gone into the crapper, we no longer have the luxury of relying on others do for us what we should do for ourselves. We’ve got to step up and learn how to take care of ourselves. I’ve found that doing so has not only saved me time and money, but it’s also given me a new sense of confidence and pride.

What surprised you the most when talking to grandmothers and grandfathers?

I was surprised at just how blurry the gender lines were between what we think of as traditionally male and female tasks. Al Sulka, an 88-year-old steel bender near Chicago, told me how he learned how to iron at age 17: “When I was in the CCCs [Civilian Conservation Corps], I had a side job. I used to iron shirts for 15 cents and pants for 10 cents. I’d have to put three pleats in the back and one on each pocket. We had no electricity, so you had to heat the irons on a stove. Later, I used to iron my daughter’s pleated skirts for school. One day, the nun says to her, ‘Boy, your mother does a good job!’ She says, ‘My dad does it!’ I was so proud.” And Lucile Frisbee, 80, of Delhi, New York, told me how she’d do whatever was required of her, even the so-called typically male tasks, like chopping firewood, to help her family. She explained that during the Depression, there was just so much work to be done that, when it came down to it, there was “no men’s work” or “women’s work.” “There was just work,” she said, “and whoever was around was expected to chip in.”

I’ve heard a lot of people say How to Sew a Button is “”the girl book” and How to Build a Fire is “the boy book,” but our grandparents surely wouldn’t have thought of them that way. As they’d tell you, everyone, man or woman, should know how to cook a meal, sew a button, change a flat tire, and make his or her own fun. 

Have you given any idea on what the third book in the series will be? You’ve done grandmothers and grandfathers, so who’s next?

Stay tuned!

(Buy How To Sew A Button. Buy How To Build A Fire.)

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