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Recently, I saw an image of an old-fashioned Hoosier cabinet, a popular kitchen feature during the mid-20th century. This image triggered thoughts of kitchens of our country relatives and neighbors in Wilson County during my childhood.
Kitchens of that era were what everyone expected them to be, yet they might seem old-fashioned and foreign to today’s young people, many of whom are accustomed to state-of-the-art kitchens.
Here is a little bit of charming kitchen history for interested people of any age.
Our little history lesson starts with Hoosier cabinets mentioned above. The Hoosiers were free-standing cabinets that had compartments, shelves and drawers used to store kitchen equipment, bottled products, spices and other items.
One memorable feature of the Hoosier was the flour-bin/sifter built into one of the compartments. Flour was used daily in most kitchens for biscuits and many other things, so the sifter must have been a convenience and a time-saver for the resident cooks.
I remember the old-fashioned wood or coal cook stoves in kitchens before electric stoves were installed. Children learned early on not to touch the stove, which was red-hot when cooking was in progress or when the stove was used for heating the kitchen area. I remember seeing wood or coal being put into the door near the bottom and seeing adults stoke the fire from time to tine.
I also have flashbacks of someone removing an iron eye of the stove with an instrument and then stoking the fire in the opening. The sound of the crackling fire in the cook stove conjured warm and cozy feelings and made stomachs growl, since a good meal was usually in the near future.
Another image associated with the cook stove was seeing my grandmother open the oven to stir the old-fashioned, grated sweet potato pudding numerous times during the cooking process. I can smell the pudding right now and feel the heat from the oven as the door was opened.
I also know that many people in the country did not have running water in the kitchen until the ’50s and had to prime the outdoor pump, draw water and haul it into the kitchen and heat it for washing and rinsing dishes and for bathing. Men and older boys probably took care of these arduous tasks.
Homes that did not have electric refrigerators relied on the icebox to store perishable foods. The ice man periodically delivered big chunks of ice from the ice house in town to keep iceboxes functional. I have vague memories of the ice man carrying chunks of ice from the ice truck to the kitchen. The ice man’s work was also arduous.
I remember that just before dinner or supper was ready, someone would use the ice pick to get a smaller chunk of ice, put it into a cloth bag and pound it with a wooden mallet to get crushed ice for tea. Family members who were in the yard knew to head to the kitchen when they heard that distinctive pounding on the ice bag.
Kitchens of that era had a dinner table covered with oilcloth that was cleaned off after each meal. Sometimes after the noon meal, the leftovers were left right on the table and covered with a tablecloth until supper. Whether the family had an ice box or a modern refrigerator, they would put leftovers into serving bowls after supper, cover the bowls with waxed paper and place a serving plate on top of the bowl. Aluminum foil, plastic wrap and plastic storage containers came along much later.
A few table scraps might end up in the yard for the dogs or cats or in the bucket of “slops” for the hogs. Families of that time threw away much less food that we do today.
The kitchen floor was usually covered with linoleum, which might be worn from use near the kitchen door or in front of the stove or sink. Occasionally, the kitchen might be outfitted with new linoleum, giving the kitchen a new, clean look.
Then there was the kitchen pantry, which was used to store a cornucopia of things used in the kitchen. Canned goods, kitchen equipment, potatoes and onions, lye soap, a string of red peppers hanging on the window frame to dry, cracklins and pork skins, lard stands and, of course, the bucket of “slops” were all stored in the pantry adjacent to the kitchen. Who could ever forget that distinctive pantry smell?
There are numerous other memories from the country kitchen: tea with added saccharine and a pinch of soda to reduce bitterness; the sound of a knock on the kitchen door made by a stranger asking for just a little something to eat; the note on the kitchen steps left for the milkman, along with empty milk bottles, an order for dairy products and correct change for the order; scrubbing the kitchen floor with lye soap and a rag mop and the squeaky sound of cleaning kitchen windows with newspapers and vinegar.
Those kitchens had a purpose, an aura and a charm that speak well of a bygone day. I just wish that my kitchen could produce chicken stew like the stew that came out of my grandmother’s kitchen and a tasty sweet potato pudding as good as those cooked in the wood stove.
Maybe my kitchen is too modern.
Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life.