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Reet's Kitchen

Copyright Chuck Bealke, 1999

 

As my 12th Summer drew to a close, I discovered that the neighbors to the West of our farm had a wondrous museum of a kitchen and also that that they would tolerate my dropping by almost every afternoon to ask a fresh load of questions. Their house did not have indoor plumbing or central heating, but at one time had been one of the best around. It had character, and stories about past and present inhabitants were everywhere within. The kitchen was the center of operations, the living room, and the work room of the home. Rita Shotwell, a hard working, widowed lady and ever after my friend, was it's ruler and slave. She was generous and good hearted but still carried a few scars of the depression. Though her family had been fairly well off then, she remembered others who had been through a harder struggle. Used string, rubber bands, old boxes, sacks of all sizes, worn clothing and much else that would be pitched out now without a thought was stored permanently in her house - sometimes in volume.

The kitchen had one of the earliest Fridgidaires. Although that appliance was a bit ancient even at that time, it was easily the most modern thing in the room save for the party-line telephone and the radio, the household links to modern times. There was a window on the North of the kitchen with a view mainly of the rear entrance to the house, and one to the South looking out over a small field and a woodpile close to the house. Neither window had a particularly attractive view, but the Southern window let in wonderful sunshine in the Winter. This was warmth, light for sewing, and daily promise of renewed life. Water for the kitchen and all other rooms was drawn from a cistern a short walk from the back door. To cook and wash dishes, Rita, called "Reet" by her brother Joe, took a porcelain bucket from the kitchen, filled it at the cistern by drawing and emptying another bucket into it, and brought it in and set it on the porcelain sink. When dishes were washed, another bucket in place under the sink caught the water and eventually had to be carried outside and emptied. Reet normally cooked for Joe, herself, and two distant relatives, Jim and Mamie. These two suffered many of the physical impairments of advanced age but were not encumbered by offspring or wealth. They had found themselves with no place or person to care for them until Reet took them in. During my first year on the farm, she also fed her mechanic brother Hank, but he died suddenly of heart trouble one day, and then there were only four to feed. Occasionally, the inquisitive boy from the farm next door took a place at the table. If life in that home was a bit short on creature comforts, it was not without a delicious abundance of food.

The woodpile outside the South window was fuel for an imposing metal wood stove on one side of the Kitchen. Operating the flue handle on the pipe over this room heater was as much an instinctive skill in Winter as dialing a phone. Cooking was done on a coal oil (kerosene) stove near the North window. The coal oil stove was rather smelly, and took lots of work to keep clean. It also must have taken some practice to cook with. The stove had to be refueled by walking outside, turning a cold metal valve on a 50-gallon drum and carrying in the new oil. A large container was used to carry the coal oil, as this fuel also powered two large bedroom heaters. While oil was not needed as often as water, there was no way to comfortably fill either the oil can or the water bucket in windy, freezing weather. This was especially true when the paths outside the house were slippery with ice or snow. Of course, Reet and Joe were somewhat used to walking out to use the outhouse in all kinds of weather, so they were no strangers to discomfort. They had chamber pots under the beds, but they were not often used. Water for the light metal bath tubs and cleaning had to be heated and emptied by hand. There was not much wasting of water or much else in that home. The two-story frame house was larger than ours but shared the same lack of insulation from Winter. During the most frigid days, the wood burning in the kitchen kept it a warm haven from the cold without. Only in the darkest early morning hours of Winter was it not by far the best place to be in the house.

Whatever it took to master the coal oil stove, Reet made it a tool of culinary prowess. Her kitchen table was not a place often abandoned with hunger or dissatisfaction. Seems to me that she seldom looked at recipes or ingredient measurements. Her food preparation looked memorized and was a study in constant, often rapid motion. This was likely learned at an early age and honed through years of helping to cook the yearly meals for the wheat threshing crews that came through our area - the last of them not too many years before we became neighbors. Her menu had variety and substance. Joe and Reet kept a cow for milk, helped some of the other older German farmers in our area butcher hogs, grew acres of strawberries, potatoes and other vegetables, and raised their own chickens. One of my clearest memories from that time is of Reet carrying water to a big kettle in the back yard, building a wood fire underneath and then killing and removing feathers from chickens to be eaten that evening. It was a far cry from microwaving Tyson's best for a quick dinner.

As I grew older, I found I could slip out and visit Reet's kitchen to sneak a few smokes on a cigar, cigarette or pipe. That would never have passed muster in my house at my age, but was accepted there. Never did like smoking immensely or become addicted, but it was a relatively safe, seemingly manly thing to do at the time. I'm not sure that I really hid this practice from my mother, as she had a keen enough nose for such things, but she never mentioned it. By my thirteenth Winter, I would often be driving a big tractor by day and smoking like a sailor in the evening. In Reet's kitchen, I also learned much about earlier farming and the history of the area. Reet was patient, not judgemental, and generous with her time and labor. Joe was a splendid fellow. He shared freely of the joys he found daily in farming with his Belgian-Percheron team and the fun he had experienced growing up on the farm. Talks in the kitchen were a window to the past, and I learned from them and saved much. Joe truly loved his creator and working the land. He never began or finished a meal or retired without a prayer and was a sterling example at a formative time for me. He did not preach or try to change your religious beliefs - his persuasion was by example. To this day I miss his smile and friendship - sometimes greatly. And I fondly remember the times I spent in that grand refuge of a kitchen.

 

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