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Now and Then - Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
The well equipped country kitchen
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

In a typical country home mid-20th century and before, the kitchen was the most important, most heavily used room in the house. It was the place for both cooking and eating.

It was a large room separated from the rest of the house for fire precaution and accessed by a breezeway commonly called a “dog trot.” In addition to the equipment used in food preparation, it contained a long “eating table” with a bench alongside and chairs on the other side and at both ends. Usually, the kitchen had a small room attached, a pantry, designed to store canned foods, some cured meat and bulk bags or barrels of sugar, flour, rice, corn meal, etc.

The central piece of equipment was the wood-burning stove, or as the people of the day called it, “the cook stove.” The big “Home Comfort” stove was prized. Both sets of my grandparents had one. It had a large cooking surface and an oven that would accommodate the big pans needed to bake enough biscuits and sweet potatoes for a big family with appetites fueled by work. There were removable round plates in the stove top that permitted direct contact between frying pan and fire for fast cooking. At the top, on each side of the smoke stack, were “warming closets,” for food that had been prepared and was stored there until completion of other items for the meal. A tank on the back of the stove was used to heat water for washing dishes or people.

The stove had other uses: heating the heavy flat irons used on most items of clothing, turning the kitchen to a dressing room on cold mornings, preparing treats like candies and cookies. It should be noted that in summertime ironing clothes near a hot stove was something close to torture.

Near the stove was the wood box, which males of the household kept stocked with dry stove wood. (One young husband who failed this responsibility found that his wife had served up an axe on their eating table.) The standard fuel was pine split into pieces about two-by-two inches and the length of the stove’s firebox. It was not the “fat lightered” pine of older trees (other than “splinters” to start the fire). For even heat that was easy to control, younger trees were selected, cut, sawed in proper length rounds, split and dried in stacks that allowed air flow for drying. There was also a bucket of water to be used in cooking and cleaning.

The kitchen of my paternal grandparents had a coffee grinder mounted on the back wall. After coffee is roasted and ground, its flavor declines quickly. Today’s cans and bags are a relatively recent innovation based on vacuum sealing technology. My grandfather bought coffee beans in bulk on his infrequent trips to town. At intervals of three days to a week, Grandmother roasted some in her oven, then stored them in a jar or can. She started breakfast each day grinding the roasted beans to make the full-flavored coffee that she enjoyed. My father said that the sound of the coffee grinder was his alarm clock.

Leftover food intended to be eaten at the next meal often remained on the table covered by a sheet to protect from houseflies. Another means of storage was a “pie safe,” a small cabinet on legs. Its name came from its use to store cakes and pies that had been prepared in advance. Some had screened “windows” for air flow.

With so many activities centered in the kitchen, space became a problem. There was a table where dishes were washed in “dish pans.” Shelves were mounted on walls to store cooking utensils. Similar racks were used for dishes when there was no China cabinet. Cool places were sought for milk, butter and lard. 

Some people kept milk cool by sealing it in a gallon jar and lowering it into an open well by a stout cord.

The kitchen was the gathering place for the Branch bunch. My father had a half dozen siblings, all with spouses and children. On holidays and other special occasions, the assembled clan filled the house and yard, packing the kitchen at eating time. Quite a number congregated almost every Sunday. There was not a finicky eater in the lot. The wives — some more than others — labored hard to feed them. There was a strong patricentric culture in feeding priority: grown men first, then women and children. There were only so many sitting spaces at the table, meaning it sometimes it took three “tables” to allow everyone a chance to eat. All had hearty appetites. The husbands of some of Daddy’s sisters were bottomless pits. Mother revolted and set up a small table on the dog trot to feed a couple of my cousins, my brother and me at the same time as the men. Nobody crossed that woman when she got a certain look in her eyes.

Of all of the revolutions from Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, surely the one that most lifted the burdens of country wives/mothers was rural electrification. My mother went from cooking on a small stove, washing clothes in an iron pot and wash tubs, ironing by a fireplace, struggling to protect us from bedbugs and trying to deal with leaky roofs to electric appliances and air conditioning. 

Thank the Lord.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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