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Fifty years ago, the kitchen was more than a place to cook and eat

My Grandma, who died in 1957, wouldn’t recognize much in today’s gadget-filled kitchen, beyond table and chairs. In her day, before smooth cooktops, microwaves—even electricity—cooking called for different skills, and the kitchen itself was nothing less than the home’s heart and soul.

A good party always started in the kitchen

The kitchen’s wood-burning stove was once a house’s only source of heat. Through the winter months, it was the only room warm enough to inhabit comfortably. Even in summer, life was lived in the kitchen, where company and conversation thrived; the living room and the more formal parlour in some homes went unused, except to handle the kitchen’s overflow if there was a big crowd over—or if the Monsignor came for tea.

The kitchen was generally the largest room in the house, and—since it was blessed with many windows—it was also the brightest. Its furnishings were the family’s most important and best-used possessions. The kitchen table was where family members ate meals together; children learned to eat with fork and knife; stories were told; victories announced and celebrated; defeats admitted and mourned. And when the time came to sign over the property to the youngest son, it was at the kitchen table that Skipper marked his “X” on the deed.

Evening card games were played at the table, often with the ferocity of a blood sport; trick-winning cards were hammered down with knuckle-shattering force.

Directly over the stove, there was often a foot-square hole cut into the ceiling to allow warm air up into second-floor bedrooms. If there was company over, children who were supposed to be in bed, asleep, would gather around the grate in the floor, straining to hear the grownups talk, hoping to glean bits of forbidden knowledge—like where babies came from.

The kitchen party, icon of Newfoundland (and the rest of Atlantic Canada’s) culture, was nothing more than a typical gathering of neighbours—but with music, and often dancing as well. In communities with no public gathering place, people gathered in homes. There was music everywhere, but if by some fluke, a gathering found itself without musicians or instruments—no problem; there was always a capella singing or recitations.

Habits die hard in Newfoundland; it’s still not unusual to be at a house party here and suddenly realize that there are only three of you in the living room and 17 in the kitchen. Someone will always appear at the kitchen door and say, “Oh, there you all are. It’s a kitchen party, is it?”

Kitchen staples

Apart from the mandatory table, most kitchens had a daybed, too—a folding metal cot with a paper-thin mattress, where a child with a fever might spend the day under a quilt, while Mom kept an eye, or where the ranking male might stretch out for a while after supper. Otherwise, it was seating for three. Other general-admission seating consisted of wooden chairs placed against the walls, wherever space allowed.

Rocking chairs were also a kitchen staple. Today’s world is so chockablock with entertainment, it’s hard to believe there was a time when rocking yourself was an honest-to-goodness form of entertainment, sometimes combined with thumb-twiddling. Show of hands: how many of you can actually remember seeing someone actually twiddling their thumbs, for entertainment? I actually can. Nothing else so perfectly illustrates the light years’ worth of change we’ve seen over the last 60 years.

Those rocking chairs, it should be noted, were inherently dangerous. A toddler playing on the floor nearby, not watching his fingers, or a cat flicking its tail from side to side, tempting fate, could lead to a screech that would make Grandpa jump out of the chair, if not his skin.

Counter space in kitchens was nonexistent. The table itself was a workspace between meals, but counter space, as such, would only be found in the pantry, just off the kitchen, and that was meagre. If you had a sink, it wasn’t in the kitchen either, but in the adjoining porch.

As homes got wired through the ’50s, kitchen radios started popping up like dandelions. These were more affordable than the big, battery-powered floor models that had preceded them. Plastic-cased, AM-band only, about the size of a pop-up toaster, with a five- or six-inch speaker pumping out decent sound, they provided the soundtrack to rural home life.

The “altar”

The stove dominated the kitchen as the altar dominates a church: it was higher up and bigger than everything else around. On its cooking surface, the teakettle burbled; bologna fried; potatoes boiled; and salt herring simmered, aromatic and frothy. Bread was toasted on it using a hand-held wire toaster. If you were impatient, you lifted a round stove lid and exposed the bread to the fire itself.

From its oven came homemade bread; baked beans; rappie pie; and eels roasted in a bread pan with onion, milk, and a little butter—and lots of pepper. On the outside of the oven door, a temperature gauge that no one—not even Grandma—remembered ever having worked.

The oven’s heat could be put to other uses. A shivering child, just home from an afternoon’s pond-skate, could be installed on a chair pulled up close to the stove, legs stretching over the open door and right into the oven, numb red feet resting on a junk of firewood, roasting back to life.

“Don’t let your feet slip off the wood, now. You’ll burn your heels.”

Under the oven was a drawer where cast iron frypans might be stored, or where tomorrow morning’s kindling was bone-drying into flashy, crackling flammability.

Back up top, in the warming oven: a plate of supper, keeping warm for a husband late coming up from the wharf. On top of the warming oven: mittens, socks and scarves, defrosting. If it was an upscale stove, at the end opposite the firebox there was a deep rectangular tank providing warm water.

Lastly, behind every stove, sprawled on the floor, woozy with the heat, a large cat—possibly licking a rocker-injured tail.

The Missus’ dominion

Emblazoned with their names—Enterprise, Fawcett, McClary, Maid of Avalon—stoves were largely cast iron, with doors and drawer-fronts of (most often) white, enameled sheet metal. Some parts glistened with nickel plating; the better the stove, the more nickel.

The fire in the firebox fed on two things: fuel and air. Adding or subtracting either made the fire flare up or die down. Wood was your fuel, of course, and you could add some if you wanted more heat, but you couldn’t subtract wood from a too-hot fire. The other variable was air entering the firebox, controlled by dampers—sliders or other mechanisms which opened or closed airways.

That’s where the skill came in. Missus had to be able to regulate the heat on the stovetop, or the oven, or both at once, to meet the needs of whatever she was cooking, and it could be an entire turkey dinner with five vegetables.

There was nothing for a too-hot fire but to choke it down by closing dampers. More art was involved in adding fuel to a cooling fire—this involved choosing the right number and sizes of pieces of firewood, taking into account the species of wood and how dry it was.

The kitchen was the Missus’ dominion, over which she reigned supreme; the stove her primary tool. It was she who tamed the beast, studied its moods and quirks, learned how to bend it to her will, loved it when it worked well, forgave it when it faltered and often blamed herself when things went wrong (much the same as the way she related to Mister).

We have friends who, during the back-to-the-land ’70s, bought a Findlay Oval, the Cadillac of wood stoves. They cooked all their meals on it for 30-odd years. The temperature gauge on the oven door, as could have been foretold, failed within the first year. I asked Missus once how she decided if the oven was at the right temperature for baking bread. “Why, I just stick my hand in and feel!” she said.

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