The first meeting of the Cabin Fever Abatement Salon took place yesterday afternoon, while the sun shone brightly on the new snow. A young woman, the farm manager at that pearl of West Pawlet, Consider Bardwell Farm, told the touching, often sad but ultimately victorious story of her father, a fifth-generation farmer, and his struggles to continue working on the land. It was clear as she spoke that in her own case the farming vocation has not, as so often happens, skipped a generation.
Afterwards, I sat by the fire rewarding myself with some leftover hummus and a glass of wine, and thought about those seventeenth-century Parisian ladies who, sick of rowdy parties where drunken noblemen got into fights, spat on the floor, and abused the servants, invented a kinder, gentler entertainment: the salon.
It should have been called not the salon but the chambre a coucher–the bedroom–for that was where the gatherings were held. The hostess lay on her bed (I never could find out whether she got under the covers), which was on a slightly elevated platform. The space between the bed and the wall, technically known as the ruelle, or little street, was occupied on one side by the servants standing ready to pour more of that exotic delicacy, le cafe, and on the other by her friends. Depending on the degree of their favor with the hostess, some friends sat on chairs, others on mere stools.
As the drafty palaces and spartan furniture of the 17th century gave way to the cozier interiors and welcoming armchairs of the 18th, the gatherings moved from the bedroom to the salon proper. Eventually, the in-home salon was replaced by the more democratic coffeehouse around the corner. But the custom of living room entertainments persisted until the early 20th century. The young lady playing the piano for her parents\’ dinner guests; the fledgeling poet reciting in a tremulous voice; the returning traveler astounding the company with stories of naked savages–all are examples of the human talent for making entertainment out of home-grown resources.
Then, with the advent of radio, the movies, television, and the shopping mall, people stopped looking to themselves and their friends for entertainment, and the salon was no more.
Now that foes both natural and man-made assail us on every side, self-reliance–that grandmotherly virtue–is once again looking like a good idea, even an attractive one. Some people are growing their own vegetables; some are making their own soap. Some discover that within their friends and neighbors lie rich deposits of wit, adventurousness, quirkiness and passion, just waiting to be exploited. And the quaint old salon, updated as locally-grown, sustainable entertainment, makes its long-deserved comeback.