Stories by Kathy Willis
Cooling Food in the Past
At one time, before electricity was available, cooling was not as easy as plugging in the refrigerator. We had an icehouse built of square logs near the shoreline and in the winter ice blocks were cut from the river ice and hauled on a sled pulled by horses and stored with sawdust liberally spread among them in the ice house. In the summer these blocks were used in a wooden ice box in the kitchen. The one ice box I remember was a lovely wooden cabinet with a shelf inside for the ice block and a compartment to store the milk and butter etc. When the ice melted the water ran down a pipe at the back and into a large metal tray on the floor under the unit. Occasionally, the ice would melt faster than anticipated and the water would run over the top of the tray at which time the floor would get a quick wipe down and the tray emptied. Mother, being an expert seamstress, used canvas to fashion a sturdy carrier for the ice blocks. This carrier was also used to haul ice blocks from Winnipeg’s Arctic Ice on Langside Street in the trunk of the car once the river supply was exhausted. I remember my Dad being approached by another customer asking where he could purchase such a carrier. Mom could have patented her idea! If this doesn’t sound too intriguing, remember that the ice blocks were cut with a hand saw – not a power chain saw!
Do You Remember……….The Summer Kitchen?
Do you have a summer kitchen on your property? Do you remember when it was an important part of summer life? Do you and your family still use your summer kitchen? We don’t and sometimes, I miss the experience. Ours was built by 13 year old Carl Arvid Erickson in l933 and the height of the original doorway indicated he wasn’t very tall. It’s amazing how well it’s stood the test of time.
At this time of year, in years gone by, my family would make a transition from the warm, wood stove heated house along a short path to a one room log summer kitchen. This structure, still standing, had an open ceiling, windows all around and couches, called Toronto couches, along two walls. There was a wood stove with an oven, but certainly not as large a wood stove as was in the house we had left behind. Many trips were made to transfer the condiments, the bread box, the cutlery, extra cooking utensils and spices to the summer kitchen.
In the morning, one would rise, dress and proceed to the summer kitchen. One corner had a washbasin and the toothbrushes and limited cosmetics had been transferred there as well. In the house, Mom was the chief cook and bottle washer but things changed when we “moved” to the summer kitchen. There, Dad took over and coffee would be perking on the stove, sometimes porridge cooking and on weekends, the aroma of bacon and eggs permeated the air as we arrived in the morning.
Many family discussions would take place at the large dining table during meals and plans for the day would be solidified. Water had to be heated on the wood stove before dishes could be washed and put away. You see, we had no electricity! Hence, no refrigeration or light switches. We kept the foods that needed to be cool in a small wooden ice box – a little cupboard with shelves in it and a large container underneath to catch the drips as the ice block melted. One family member had to remember to empty that container morning and evening or be prepared to wipe up the floor if it overflowed!
We used coal oil lamps – special ones for the summer kitchen – to light the small space if we stayed up past dark. Sometimes visitors would drop by and be entertained there as well. All of the windows had screens on them so it was most comfortable with a fresh breeze wafting in off the river. At bedtime, we’d blow out the lamps and walk the short path to the house, to find it was kept cool by being closed up all day.
Now and again a skunk family would decide that the space under the building could serve as a new home and of course, they had to be discouraged in whatever way necessary.
In later years, we were privileged to be the proud owners of a propane stove, complete with 3 burners and an oven and also a small propane refrigerator. We thought we were so modern!
When it came time to preserve the vegetables from the garden, blueberries, wild strawberries and raspberries and even fish if there was more than we could eat, the huge navy blue canner would come out and the perspiration would be evident on Mom’s brow. These canned goods would provide sustenance during the winter once we moved back to the house and left the summer kitchen behind for another year.
Unfortunately, once we had hydroelectricity installed in the house, the summer kitchen wasn’t as important and the moves seemed unnecessary because if it got warm in the house, a fan could be plugged in. Those precious memories are just that now as the summer kitchen seems to have become a storage site rather than a meeting place.
The Smoke House
Memories remain of a fire in the smoke house and golden skinned Goldeye hanging there in the heat. The smoking took a full day, after the fish had been scaled, cleaned, salted and put on hooks. The wood was very important – usually oak or some other hard wood, but well dried and definitely not green wood. The flavour depended on using the correct wood. Consistent temperature of the fire was key and on occasion, many of the fish would have to be rescued off of the shelf below the bar and hooks. Either way, the fish were still delicious and are a delicacy served to Queen Elizabeth. In later years, Mother became the expert and eventually taught us how to do the job.