Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer Kitchen

From Northern Farm by Henry Beston

"All morning long the farm has been in a fine, cheerful, and uproarious confusion.  Our friend Louis French the plumber having come to help us, we have been changing over the kitchens, connecting our water system, tuning-up gas engines and redistributing the furniture.
Out went the winter stove and off came the storm shutters, and while we men folk were going upstairs and downstairs checking for leaks and turning on sputtering faucets, Elizabeth and our kind neighbor Barbara Oliver were hunting the winter out of his last hiding places in the closed bedrooms, and putting him to flight through the great front door.  It was hard physical work for all of us, but now that the place is in order again, the house positively glows with a vernal and country saisfaction.

To explain the turmoil, I had best make clear the summer and winter ritual of the house.  Like may of these older farms, we have two kitchens in the ell, a summer one and a winter one, each with its own sink, its chimney, and its running water.  Of the two, the "summer kitchen" is the cooler and more airy, and in some ways the easier to use.  It is a pleasant room with painted white walls, pearl-grey woodwork, old beams left "natural" and a brown linoleum floor.  We sometimes call it the "St. Lawrence kitchen" because some of the old-fashioned jars and containers were picked up by Elizabeth in the river villages.

The "winter kitchen" is the room we turn to when the late autumnal cold begins to close in upon the house.
This is the room which is our final stronghold against the snow.  It is warmer than its summer counterpart and nearer the main house, and there is a sort of primitive cellar lurking beneath the floor.  A huge red brick chimney firepalce built out into the room is here the center of life, cheerful all autumn long with hardwood fires.  Unwilling as we are to close it off, there is always some November day when we seal the fireplace cave with a "fire-front", and set up an old winter stove we store in a corner of the shed. The summer kitchen is then drained, the last fire suffered to go out, the pots and pans tranferred, and the room abandoned to the cold.  Beyond the partition, the pail from the spring becomes our drinking water, the cistern supply our washing water, and the winter range our household diety.

It was on this winter economy we descended this morning like a vernal wolf on the fold.  Lawrence and I worked at the house, the plumber and his helper at the lake, and in an hour or two we had the lake water up the hill and humming in the pipes, and the engine going and the great cypress tank overflowing like water over a dam.  The familiar clank of the cistern pump would be heard no more awhile.  The next thing on the program was the summer kitchen, and here the ladies came to our aid, abandoning whatever they were up to in the front of the house.  In three shakes of a lamb's tail, or so it seemed, they had it in proper order, its pots and pans hanging on the wall, a fire burning in the range and a kettle steaming.

Only one last thing remained to be done, the moving out of the winter stove.  We had built but a small fire in it that morning, and this was now only a bed of ash.  Elizabeth says that we all went for it in a kind of "solemn rush."  It is not a heavy stove, and surrounded by plumbers and by Lawrence and myself, it went very peaceably into the shed.  An easy tug at the fire-front, and there stood the fireplace yawining black, and looking rather sooty and in need of sweeping. I made this my job and, when I had finished, Lawrence drove us all forth and took a pail and mop and did the floor. Tonight, if it is cool, Elizabeth will light the first fire for it is one of my pet superstitions, inherited from a wise and ever-honored grandmother, that the first hearthfire of the year must be lit by the woman of the house.

The winter kitchen now looked very large.  Its windows were open, and all the pleasant world outside seemed full of the singing of birds.  Summer was at hand, the trees were in young leaf, the fields were really green, and the skies were mild and blue,  In the house, too, it was summer again."

Henry Beston was not a prolific writer.  He was a perfectionist, described by his daughter as laboring and groaning over each sentence until it was crafted to his satisfaction.  Henry Beston's beautiful essays have been some of my favorite reading for the past 40 years, during which time I have worn out several copies of his books in paperback editions.  If you would like to learn more about Henry Beston and his wife, Elizabeth Coatsworth Beston, also a writer, you can visit this link, which also has photos of them and of their "northern farm."

If money were no object, I would design a house with a "summer ktichen".  It would be on the coolest side of the house, and would have a large sink, propane range, a huge work table and a tile or slate floor. There would be room for baskets of garden produce and all the cumbersome kettles and jars that belong to the season of canning and pickling.
I have always believed that the old farmhouse we once owned in Vermont had, at one time, a summer kitchen. There had been a long covered back porch which connected at one end with an ell room complete with its own chimney and back door.
My grandfather's farmhouse didn't have a summer kitchen. The long ell housed the kitchen and dining room, leaving the main house cool in the summer.
The Amish houses we have viewed here in Kentucky usually have vast heavy wood ranges which provide winter heat as well as the means of preparing meals.
Many of these houses have at least an improvised cooking area for use during hot weather, usually a propane range set up in the shed room which is also used as a wash room.
Our little cottage has a smallish kitchen which J. has renovated with lovely new cabinetry.  The house has central air conditioning which has been chugging away for weeks from mid-day until midnight.
The kitchen floor gets sticky as I carry steamers and kettles from stove to sink.  Garden dirt comes in on the bottom of baskets and buckets.
I have cooked and baked and canned in a tiny inefficient kitchen for years in Vermont, then presided over rather grand custom kitchens in a climate where gardening was a frustration of late spring frosts, early fall frosts, grasshoppers and disputed irrigation rights.
Just now we are climbing over baskets of produce, ranking filled jars along the edge of the counter to cool.
And we think of winter when all this good food will be stashed a few steps away in the basement, a tasty reminder of summer's labors.


  1. I did enjoy this post, I love to read about my friends domestic goings-on. I would love to read that book too.

  2. What a lovely read from a different era. Thank you for the link.

    Your bounty looks great and I think it is wonderful that you can take care of your family in this way. Enjoying the fruits and veggies of your labors will be fantastic come winter.

    Your header picture always makes me smile.

    Have a lovely day ~ FlowerLady

  3. My summer kitchen would have no stove, it's too hot for cooked food.

  4. Thank you for the lovely excerpt from Beston. What a keen observer and delightful writer he was! Your essays remind me a lot of his. Wouldn't a summer kitchen be wonderful? Then all that heat and mess could still go on, without heating up the whole house. I think in the South the summer kitchen was actually a separate little building, which makes an awful lot of sense, when you figure that heating the water for washing and the hot work of ironing with irons heated on the stove also all took place in the kitchen.

  5. As thh heat continues [as does the canning] I can only dream of a summer kitchen--and yes, as QC mentions, in the south they were often a detached building.
    For those interested in Henry Beston's writings, some have been reissued and can be ordered, at least in the US, through the Beston website and possibly Amazon. I have over the years found a few second hand copies to give to friends, but they are rare. He is not as well known as he deserves.

  6. Those canned tomatoes look so good! I can only imagine the delicious soups and stews you'll make this winter using those!