Friday, October 26, 2012

So help me out here...

I'm trying to write a piece of the current book which takes place in a farm kitchen - very much an old place. No money for modernization after the mid sixties. A wood-burning range, so smoke and soot have got in and onto everything, no matter how you clean. There is electricity, but not much past a light and the old round-edged 'fridge. No freezers, no electrical appliances. Tell me what your memories and ideas bring you of such a place. I have one in my head, but it's in Africa. I want Australia, and the US and even UK - to see what they have in common, what resonates.


  1. {quote}A wood-burning range, so smoke and soot have got in and onto everything, no matter how you clean. {/quote}

    This makes no sense to me. I cooked on a wood burner in our Scout home away from home until my early twenties. And then again in Lismore in the 1990's (I'm mid 40's) because it warmed the house.

    As long as you keep the chimney clear, there is no blow back into the house. A beer can with 2 inches of methanol propped into the bottom of the chimney once a fortnight burns out the creosote and other impurities. Its fun to go outside and look at the fire jet from the top of the chimney as the creosote goes up. Its also more healthy, as burning creosote contains major cancer incentives.

    If there is little electricity in the house in 1960's Australia, it is VERY unlikely they would have an electric fridge. In fact, your description is itself a bit unlikely. In 1958 we went from and ice box to an electric refrigerator. Sydney wasn't at all like england or other backward countries. when electricity came to your neighbourhood, so did the electricians with gleams in their eyes. The government was funding wiring up homes, just as it is doing today for broadband internet.

    The Scout house had a kerosine fridge / freezer combo. It is very unlikely {quote} No freezers, no electrical appliances. {unquote} would be the situation. Old gas lines, yes, old electrical cabling, almost impossible.

    My primary school, built in 1901, was fully wired for electricity, voice communications, loudspeakers for our dance sessions (the Polka, came 5th in the State trials. Grr) telephony, and I started there in 1958. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I started demonstrating my mined set by 1960, when I took over the school library, and 1963 when I set up our multimedia lab for the dance music and films of school sports days and such.

    My sister's husband's sister was a rich very rural. Her stories of most of rural NSW - the family traveled running shearers were far more like what I've described above than that in your query.



    1. in a word, paint. You know those little lids you lift off for extra fast heat on the top of real woodburning ranges? Even though all YOU see is the flames, particulates do escape, even if that is never opened.(look up 'rayburn' for a modern example - but the stove in question would date from earlier - 1930 maybe. And yes, you used to find them in Australian rural kitchens 1)I know of 3 on the island alone. 2)they're in the books from that era - Shute and Upfield both mention them.) Trust me on this, I repainted the farm kitchen back in South Africa twice - about every 5 years. The place got scrubbed (remember lots of black domestic staff) regularly. The ceiling always slowly got yellower and darker. The farm had a brief influx of a bit more money in 1967, and the fridge would have been of that vintage or older (and yes, oddly, those old ones survive year after year. By now the gas is completely illegal, but they were well made)

  2. I think in the US what you describe dates more from the 20s-40s than 60s. I remember "helping" my grandmother make pound cake in the 50s at her farm -- very no-frills life but she had a Sunbeam mixer with the heavy white glass bowl that turned on a little ball-bearing plate under the beaters. That may have been the only electrical appliance in the kitchen, or there may have been a pop-up toaster, the kind banks tended to give you when you opened an account ;-)

    There was a lot more space on the counters when you didn't have a blender, and a food-processor, and a coffee-maker, and a toaster oven, and a microwave, and ....

    Though she had cooked on a wood stove on the ranch where my mother grew up in the twenties, this house like most of its neighbors had a propane tank for the stove, water heater, and space heaters (also had wood fireplaces).

    The REA - Rural Electric Administration - a New Deal program, started in the Tennessee Valley in 1935, and spread to north Texas by 1937, so the farms were served by a member-owned co-op for electricity. Along about 1960 some gung-ho entrepreneur persuaded almost every farm of the benefit of having a mercury-vapor street-light on a pole in the farmyard, so there went the dark skies (my grand-dad didn't get one).

    Grandmother's kitchen was built by my architect parents in 1951, and had all built-in cabinets. But many older farmhouses had a big kitchen, maybe with a counter and a built-in sink, but with cabinets that were free-standing pieces of furniture - drawers or cabinets below, a work surface, and shelves, maybe with glass-in doors, above. A bread-box would have a screened front or perforated tin. A very classy piece of furniture, probably in the dining room or parlor instead of the kitchen, was a china cabinet with walnut-stained shelves and a curved glass front. My great-aunts had them, but not my grandmother. I always wanted one.

    All my great-aunts and Grandmother had kitchens where the sink was under a window, so you could look out while you washed the dishes. Out to the back-yard, or maybe out through an added-on porch to the yard, but out, not at a blank wall.

    There was likely a phone sitting on a table near the door to the rest of the house, not near the sink. And a calendar on the wall, maybe with scenic pictures or maybe a give-away from the bank or the feed store. Maybe a radio - about the same size as the breadbox. TV in the kitchen?? I was astonished when I first encountered such a thing, in the 80s maybe.

    1. The dating probably makes sense. I've set things up so the family lost out on Australia's agricultural/wool heyday. Yep, freestanding cabinets, probably a meat safe? (we had one, even if it wasn't still in used for meat)
      And a single sink, correct, looking out (I think it was for light too)
      A kettle- probably 2 or 3 always on the edge of the stove.
      We had irons above the stove, but that may be just TOO old (only had power from a generator).
      I was thinking about laundry too. The farm had a big galvanized tub (no power spare for more than lights, but this was Africa) , but I did go to places where a concrete one with a sloped skiffle front had been made. It may be simpler to go for an old washing-machine though. Hmm. Might have it broken down and kid fixing it.

      The old Sunbeam mixer - good! that brings back memories

  3. What you describe sounds like my great-grandmother's house in the late 60's. She lived in the mountains of Virginia. The house got electricity sometime in the 40's as the TVA and the REA ran lines, it was just too expensive otherwise. There was one light in each room and only two plugs in the whole house. One in the front room where an old black and white tv was and one on the other side of the wall for the fridge. It was _very_ rural.

    I was only there twice and was quite young. I more remember the second visit when we moved her out to go live with grandma. There were some smoke smudges but what I remember was that the kitchen was brightly painted. One assumes to cover up the smoke and stains. Great Uncle Ned, Great Grandmother's baby brother, then lived there for many years. He lived off his WWI disability (he was gassed)and a little moonshining.

    After he passed away in the early 80's, he was born in 1899, one of the cousins took pictures for the estate as he died without direct heirs and intestate. The place looked pretty grimy. So the state of the kitchen, I think, would be more a reflection of the owner then of the stove. As for decorations and furniture Abigail's description of the older farm houses is pretty much right on. But no radio in the kitchen, they'd just crank up the TV and listen to the Soaps.

    Grandma, though she retained her country roots and went to the river almost every day, always kept her house as modern as possible. So I think your place has to be very rural. Most old farm houses converted to propane in the 50's. That's kind of the big gag behind the American animated TV series "King of the Hill". Hank Hill is a very old fashioned fellow trying to cope with the modern world...he's a propane salesman by trade. The idea being that even the hicks have moved past propane.

    I would guess the only reason that the old home place was never converted to propane was the age of the occupants and abundance of hardwood. If your rural location is not in the deep woods it would have been economic sense to convert to propane.

    As a final note. Abigail, I'm getting that walnut stained china hutch with the glass front and curved glass sides. It was my great-grandmother's and my mother left it to me when she passed. It's being shipped next month from Charlotte to our new home in Ohio.

    1. Wood is plentiful. A problem in fact. The setting is Australian, but I wanted elements readers from elsewhere would recognize and identify with. That's very important. Quilly, as I said to Ian re-painting the kitchen was something that had to happen quite often, no matter how one cleaned. I was was in the kitchen of a 1950 built house here recently, very Italian houseproud owner (she scrubs the floor so that you could eat off it)... and yeah, the ceiling needed repaint and had that 'yellow' to it, that I remember so well. I'll have the grandmother comment on it needing a repaint.

      Curtains? Anyone remember the curtains? Floors? (my own memory has those net curtains always open (I remember one crumbling when it was taken down. It had not been closed for 30 years I reckon). I have the floor as concrete polished red. But that may be pure South African.

      The radio/tv Good point! I had forgotten that.

      And I do love furniture that has family history :-)

    2. Concrete floor. Never seen ein in an old farm house in the States. She had crochet net curtains. I imagine the heavy cotton threads could withstand the repeated washings. They were on the window that looked out through the back porch toward the hill side.


      There was a small stove on the back porch that was used in the hottest parts of summer to reheat dinner. Grandma did that too. When I stayed with her in the summer we'd get up at 5...just me and her...and I'd help her cook the whole day's food. Then she'd reheat it, or finish fried things, on a range in the breezeway. So the house wouldn't get hot.

      She'd make me coffee, though I think it was 1/2 sweetened condensed milk as I had trouble with breakfast even back then. Then off to the James River for whatever we could harvest there. At night as dinner was cooking in the breezeway we'd all sit around the kitchen table and talk and cut up onions, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers for the salad. Never had lettuce with it though, Grandma thought it distracted from the "good stuff".

    3. Linoleum floors is what I remember, light-colored print patterns, yellowish and cream, or light green. Maybe sort of pink-and-beige at Aunt Mary's.

      I don't remember curtains. Or maybe I do, white sheeting with eyelet embroidery. My great-aunts crocheted doilies from white thread. But those were on the dressers and sideboard in the parlor and bedrooms, not kitchen.

      There's an old laundry wringer (mangle), with the rollers to squeeze the clothes through, out in a shed at my grandmother's house. Don't remember if I saw her use it. Actually I think it is a tub for washing - up on legs so you don't break your back - no electricity, maybe you used a washboard in the tub. Then you lifted up the pieces and put them through the rollers mounted on the side, and the water was squeezed out to (mostly) run back into the tub.

      Water was pumped up from the shallow well by the windmill, and you didn't waste it. It was pumped up the hill to a large rock storage tank by the house, and then there was a little electric pressure pump with maybe a 10 or 20 gallon tank that supplied the house plumbing. My great-aunt Isla's farmhouse had an actual water tower, a wooden tank (that dripped) up on legs maybe 15 feet high. I'm not sure if it supplied the house, or just the stock, when I remember, but I'm sure it supplied the house originally. Don't know how much pressure you get from a flow height of 15 or 20 feet.

      Aunt Isla supplied the classic family word about using the soft well water. It had no calcium, and just a tiny bit of soap was needed, which seemed still slippery even after it was certain to have been rinsed off. Upon returning home to this water after a long visit to her sister, she remarked, "It's like bathing in okra."

    4. Lino floors it will be. And I just love bathing in Okra description. Had that!

      My mother, briefly, had a mangle. After ONE incident, it was junked by the old man.

      The crocheted doilies are very much a thing in the other rooms... which are not used much. Bedroom is slept in, and the kitchen is the part of house that is used.

  4. Quilly, I haz a jealous...

    Around here the propane companies seem prosperous enough -- or company, they may have merged. Anyway I still use it; I wouldn't cook on an electric stove. Have to SEE how big the flame is.

    1. er. Me too. I would far rather cook on gas (we use bottled gas) than electric.

  5. I'm the opposite; I prefer electric to gas. Yes, I've used both.

    Can't help with the kitchen. My only set of grandparents had a fairly modern (1930s-40s) city kitchen. Actually, they had two, one upstairs and one down.

    Lisa S. in Seattle

  6. My grandparents lived in a 3 room house, with 8 kids, in rural Minnesota very small town. Most of my memories are from the mid to late 40's and early 50's. The kitchen was the biggest room in the house. It had a wood stove. Electricity was only installed after my mother moved out and her mother had died. The kitchen was always full of people. There was a large table where everything happened, making meals, eating meals, putting the clean dished there until everything was washed. Water was brought in from the well, pumped with a long handled manually operated (usually by whatever kid was in range) pump, outside and kept in a large porcelain pail with a dipper for drinking and any other water. The stove was lit all the time, even in the summer when it was very hot outside. There was an icebox in an attached shed. The kids (or grandkids) were responsible for making sure there was always ice. Whenever we visited (usually 3-4 times a year) one of us was always delegated as the "wood getter" from the separate shed in the back yard where wood was kept. I spent one summer there when I was about 10. One of the best years of my life. A very small town in a rural area is wonderful for a kid.

    Marty Halvorson

    1. Marty, your last line is what I'm trying to capture in this book. City kid, resents being sent there, and finds there other places besides the mall. The kitchen is very much the heart of this house.

    2. Thanks Dave. I'm that person. I was raised in a city, Minneapolis, but spent summers from the time I was 9 till I was 14 with aunts and uncles. I was either in a very small rural town or a farm.

      In the small towns, my cousins and I would travel down the river to hunt with their 22's. We'd go downtown, carrying a rifle, to the local drug store and buy a box of shells for a quarter. Then off we'd go. Shot a lot of rocks and trees. My cousins were better a shooting than me.

      On the farms, there was a lot of work that needed to be done. I remember turning the crank on the cream separator so my aunt could collect cream to sell. Everyday, there were eggs to collect. And then cow shit to scoop from the milking stalls into the troughs behind them. On grand outings we'd get to ride with my uncle on the tractor to wherever he needed to go in the field. At harvest time, my uncle and my Dad would go into town and bring back cartons of ice cream. You'll never taste anything quite as wonderful when you've been working behind a harvester in the heat of the day and are sweaty, dirty, and itching from the wheat chaff.

      And all the time the kitchen was waiting for us to finish and come to eat. What a grand time I had.

      Marty Halvorson

  7. Technically I'm too young to contribute to this. :-) I do however own a lovely wood cookstove that I do wish I could set up and use.

    However, I can remember three kitchens that fit to this era. One was my Great-Grandma Ella's kitchen, with her gas stove. It may be too modern for your tale, but I do remember the big sink vividly, under a window covered in bright curtains and the yellow painted walls. Her floor was much-worn lineoleum tiles. I grew up eating elk minemeat she made in that kitchen.

    Another is the "back kitchen" in my Great-Aunt Moya's house in Alaska. Because of the great cost of, well, everything, up there, electric came very late to the tiny Athabaskan village they lived near. Her front kitchen had been modernized, but the kitchen where I learned to can salmon was floored in painted plywood. I scrubbed fish slime off that… Feeding the woodcookstove with its tiny woodbox meant splitting everything really small, and there was always wood debris on that floor, too.

    Finally, the last kitchen like that was in my Uncle Fred's cabin. It had been his bachelor cabin in the 40's and 50's, and after his death (I never met him, he was my Great-grandfather's brother) it became a family vacation spot, but left untouched for sentimental reasons. The big soapstone sink was fed by a hand pump, and next to it stood the pot-bellied woodstove, not a proper cooker but you could still do a lot on the flat top. The whole cabin was dark from ages of people living there who didn't paint and didn't know how to properly feed the stove so there was undoubtedly a lot of smoke in that one. It's not a good example unless you want a bachelor dwelling, though.

    If for no other reason… thank you for the memories!

    1. If you can remember it... you're not too young. What was the big sink made of? Yep, me too. Just thinking about Game Pass kitchen made me nostalgic.

  8. I lived on a farm in Western Australia until 1956. We had water off the corrugated iron roof into a tank and from there into the terrazo sink. Dish cloth was an old rag. Detergent was laundry soap in a wire dispenser that you put in the washing up water and jiggled about until the water was soapy. My dad pumped water up from the Canning River for bathing, garden, cleaning etc. (The bath water was heated via a wood chip heater.) The old Metters (sp?) stove used wood, and had an oven door that opened downwards. In winter, washing was sometimes dried on a string line in front of the chimney. Things were kept hot on the side of the stove (brick I think?). Everything was spotless! Hot water in the kitchen came from copper piping that ran past the back of the kitchen stove. The frig was run on kerosene and had a clock on top -- and a ginger beer plant in summer.

    Lino on the floor, over a jarrah wood floor that was rather uneven, so it was covered with newspaper to prevent ridges form in the lino. A wooden table that was covered in oilcloth served for both a kitchen bench and a meal table. A dresser for plates with drawers for cutlery. Pantry a small separate walk-in. Pressure cooker on stove top. Cream separator on a bench. Huge copper preserving pan on top of the dresser. Pots and pans in cupboards. There was always at least one cat... sometimes there'd be a motherless lamb or some chicks that need to be kept warm in a cardboard box as well!

    It was a room where everyone gathered, and it always smelled great! My dad had his special cane chair and would fall asleep in front of the oven in the evenings in winter...

    Window was over the sink, and I don't remember curtains.

    The back door of ALL Australian arms always leads into the kitchen and NO visitors except real clueless city slickers EVER went to the front door, which was invariable closed. All other doors had the flywire door and the wood door, the latter only closed at night or on cold or wet days...

    Our laundry was a separate building (which also had the loo --my dad acted as nightsoilman), with a copper and an electric washing machine with a roller wringer on top, cement sinks.

    The house was built around 1901, I believe.

    I loved that place and cried rivers when we left. I was eleven.

    1. (grin) Terrazzo has two zees - I know know this because the other is a book about slave abuse in Peurto Rico - or so Wikipedia tells me (yes, a word I had no idea what meant, although I have seen the stuff all my life.) What a wonderful description, Glenda. The smell combination of farm kitchen is something I want to try to carry through - it depended on the time of day, from toast, lightly scorched linen (ironing) bread baking - the smell of onions, the smell of roast. And always a hint of smoke, and a trace of steam. The big chipped enameled kettles that sort of cycled from hot to hotter, steaming and And noises... Because the range was iron, the pots iron, utensils steel, clacks and clanks above the voices. Always the radio in the background... often a chick peeping, or a lamb telling you about the sad state of tummy time... Yep. A lost world, I think.

  9. Ah, the radio...ours was in the adjacent room and was so large it stood on the floor. It had bakelite knobs. The Country Hour (at lunch time when the farmers came back to eat) was all important because so much information was obtained that way, about the weather, about everything from fertilizer to latest farming techniques or coastal shipping or wheat harvest collection times. Google "The Lawsons", later called "Blue Hills", the long running serial that every farming family listened to...

  10. I mostly remember the Findlay Oval Cookstove, with its white enameled doors and drawers. When we renovated the kitchen at the farm the floors were pine and whatever was used to clean or preserve them had turned them black (the pine floor had been covered with linoleum). Mom used to make chilli sauce on the cookstove, a big black enameled stock pot full of sugar, tomatoes, onions & celery simmering on the back of the stove for days at a time in the autumn.

    My grandparents always had a big gray couch in the kitchen since it was the warmest room in the house.

  11. My grandmother's kitchen in rural NSW had a checked lino floor that need waxing and polishing every two weeks. The 14 foot ceiling was painted dark red so it never really got that grubby look from soot etc. The stove was an oil-burning Rayburn that also heated the hot water and there was always a pot of tea quietly stewing at the back of it. One summer was so terribly hot that we let the stove go out and ate cold food. I don;t remember how we boiled the kettle, but we must have found a way, that kitchen ran on tea.

    The main cooking I remember doing was catering for shearing, in the 1960s shearers still got morning tea, a cooked lunch and afternoon tea. I have strong memories of carrying huge tin trays of date loaf and coconut slice down to the shearing shed twice a day. I was too little to carry the tray with the huge teapot, milk jug and mugs.

    My grandfather updated the house in the 1950s, the main innovation being an indoor toilet that flushed. The old outhouse is still standing, covered in grapevines and used in emergencies.