Pearl McLeod’s old-fashioned kitchen
A hallowed institution-once as familiar as the buggywhip-is vanishing before the onrush of push-button housekeeping. But in outposts like Penobsquis, kitchens like the McLeod’s still play their historic role as “the heart of a home”
The pretty girl in the advertisement for electrical appliances is wearing a chic hat and drawing gloves on to show she is going out. The text says: "Are you spending too much time in the kitchen? . . . Can you cook a perfect supper while you're shopping? Is your coffee freshly made and hot when you wake up in the morning? Can you bake a perfect cake simply by pushing a button? If you can’t you’re working too hard . .
As dawn creeps across the hills that rim New Brunswick's Kennebecasis Valley, casting a pink glow against a rambling white house by a stream at the village of Penobsquis, a slender wiry woman named Pearl McLeod rubs the sleep from her eyes, dresses quickly and quietly, and strikes a match to the pine kindling in her stove. When the kindling crackles cheerfully she shoves slabs of maple and beech into the flames. She feels their warmth and smells their faint fragrance as they chase the morning chill from her kitchen.
To the east, through her pantry windows, as she takes the cloth off the dough that has been rising overnight for breakfast rolls, she can see the dew sparkling in the apple trees.
Beyond the apple trees she can see the enormous barn that was built, incredibly, by a blind carpenter, and the tiny hut that was built, bravely, by John Wilson, her ancient uncle, when he decided he'd keep bachelor's hall—and the hell with being under the same roof with other people. She can also see the hennery that shelters her two hundred pullets.
She puts the rolls in the oven and the porridge in the pot and greases the iron skillet in which she’ll fry the trout.
To the west, through her kitchen windows, past the elms and lilacs and roses in the dooryard and past her vegetable patch and at the foot of a grassy slope, she can see where her boys caught the trout—McLeods Brook, which has been flowing through the woods, meadows and lives of the McLeods since 1795. Her two dozen snowy geese, in marching formation, waddle pompously down the slope to a pool that was once a millpond.
On the far side of the pool the elderly draft horses, Sandy and Doll, fat and lazy since a tractor left them virtually unemployed, wade in for a drink. Near them, but not quite with them, is Billy, the children’s pony.
The cattle are munching their way along the lane from the pasture to the barn to be milked. The collie, Tippy, is barking. A rooster crows. The bull bellows.
Pearl fetches her infant daughter, Katherine, from the crib and feeds her. She hears her other daughters, Donna, fourteen, and Marilyn, eleven, her sons, Wayne, sixteen, Dick, thirteen and Dale, five, and her husband, George, moving about, getting their clothes on.
She pokes more wood in the stove, measures cofTee into the percolator, stirs the porridge, fills glass fruit dishes with rock cranberry preserves and places a jug of rich Jersey milk on the table. George appears, a lean bronzed man in his forties with blue eyes and a thatch of grey hair. He is closely followed by joking laughing youngsters. Pearl drops the little brightly speckled trout in the hot skillet and they sizzle gently.
Another day is beginning and Pearl will spend most of it in her big plain strangely attractive kitchen. Indeed, seldom wishing to be elsewhere, she’ll spend most of her life in it. cooking and washing, ironing and mending, sharing tea and conversation with neighbors, planning, dreaming and watching her children grow and the crops being planted and harvested and the brook thawing and freezing.
Of the fifteen rooms in her house, she likes the kitchen best, for the heart of the six-hundredand-twenty-acre McLeod farm, like that of every real farm, is in its kitchen.
This kitchen is not yet a museum piece but does belong to a vanishing species. It is fourteen feet by twenty with a pantry twelve by twelve. Below it is a cold cellar carved from bedrock. Above it is a storeroom cluttered with fishing tackle, skates, dismantled spool beds, an incubator in which Pearl hatches her chicks, hunting rifles, a broken parlor organ. Behind it is a cavernous woodshed with its walls festooned with sleigh bells, cow bells, worn harness, deer and moose antlers, axes, saws. In many ways the kitchen is as it was when the McLeods of another generation sat in it arguing about whether New Brunswick should, or should not, enter Confederation.
It has electric lights now, instead of oil lamps. There are taps in the sink instead of a pump— taps to which water is piped from an upland spring. The stove is white, and neater than the black monster it succeeded. But the white stove, like the black, hums with the pleasant sound of burning wood, and the kettle sings, and baking bread exudes a yeasty aroma that mingles with the smells of new peas being shelled, of mustard pieklcs, of doughnuts, of apples, of gingersnaps and blueberry pie, of pork roasting and soup bubbling — the fine tempting smells of a country kitchen.
continued on page 34
Continued from page 27
Pearl McLeod’s old-fashioned kitchen
“It is like a stage on which the history of the family has been acted out, scene by scene”
The sofa, new when the kitchen was new and now an antique, still stands against the wall, flanked by straight-backed black chairs from which the years have almost erased a stenciled gold pattern. The huge bow-legged bathtub still squats in one corner by the stove. It is covered, except during the Saturday night bath parade, by a wooden lid and a blanket; John McLeod, Pearl’s father-inlaw, liked to lie on it when he was tired.
"Out of the great laboratories,” says a sales brochure, “where researchers and engineers look far into the future, where fantasy is molded into reality, where tomorrow is as important as today . . . comes another dream for tomorrow—the amazing RCA Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen. Here, truly, are the appliances of the future ... . that perform fantastic chores and services at the touch of a button or mere wave of the hand.”
When Pearl thinks of kitchen devices that perform fantastic chores and services at the touch of a button or mere wave of a hand she thinks, with an affectionate smile, of her father-in-law. John McLeod had no great laboratory, just a workbench. He wasn’t a researcher or an engineer but he could fix machinery nobody else in Penobsquis could fix and he invented for the fun of inventing. The drawers of Pearl’s kitchen cabinet, which used to get stuck, open and close at the mere wave of a hand because John equipped them with tracks that roll on ballbearings.
Once, John tied one end of a string to the clapper of an alarm clock and the other end to the trigger of a mousetrap. He ran a second string between the mousetrap and a switch that turned on an electric hotplate with a coffee pot on it. The idea was that when the clock rang in the morning it would spring the trap, flip the switch, and start the hotplate boiling the coffee. It worked until a kitten pawed the string and the trap closed on its tail.
John, a chunky man who looked as though he might have been carved out of Bay of Fundy granite, died in 1950. But in the changeless atmosphere of the old kitchen, where memories cling to every familiar object waiting lo be set adrift in the stream of talk by a chance word or fleeting thought, he never seems to his son, George, or to Pearl, to be far away. Pearl can close her eyes and see John at the kitchen table sixteen years ago. Her first son, Wayne, was a few days old and John was writing Wayne’s name at the bottom of a large sheet of heavy brown paper—a record of all the McLeods since William, a soidier from the Scottish Highlands, settled in New Brunswick. John had no vanity about his family tree. He simply believed, as a man who devoted his life to raising purebred cattle, that pedigrees should be carefully kept.
Births, deaths and marriages are now entered on the sheet of brown paper by John’s widow, Nina, who stays part of the year with George and Pearl and the rest with her other children..
At the top of the sheet under the name of William is that of William Jr., born in 1769, married in 1795. William Sr., according to the story that has come down, gave him a cow and a beaver hat for wedding presents and he traded them for the land at Penobsquis, which was then wilderness and had been granted by the Crown to a United Empire Loyalist who didn’t want it.
George and Pearl are the fifth generation on this land and their house is the third on the same site. It was built in 1861. A sawmill the McLeods had in those days, powered by a waterwheel on their brook, provided the lumber. George has a tattered receipt signed by John Geldart, master builder, showing that, excluding the lumber, the total cost of the solidly constructed house, with its fifteen high-ceilinged spacious rooms, was four hundred dollars.
"Without sacrificing one whit of its scientific precision . . . your New Freedom Gas Kitchen can he both charming and individual,” says an American Gas Association pamphlet. "The right use of color does it! Not only adds warmth and personality—hut actually works a kind of optical magic.”
In the ninety-seven years since Geldart, the builder, packed his tools and moved on to his next job, nobody has worried much about the right use of color in the McLeod kitchen, but its charm, individuality, warmth, personality and magic have always drawn people to it while the front parlors have stayed empty and silent.
It has been the room where life is lived and tales are told and retold—the background against which the past is remembered. It is like a stage on which the history of the family has been acted out scene by scene, the characters making their entrances and exits by the door opening to the elm-shaded side yard.
Seventy-five years ago Winslow McLeod, George’s grandfather, who had raised Shorthorns, bought a little Jersey calf, Daisy Bonheur, and led her to this door to be admired. Daisy was the beginning of the herd of seventy purebred Jerseys George has now.
After he'd arbitrated the bitter QuebecNcwfoundland dispute about the Labrador boundary, Chief Justice Sir Zeke McLeod of New Brunswick, George’s greatuncle, came through this door to sprawl on the faded sofa in this room in his boyhood home and talk of how much deeper the snow had been when he was a lad, and how much taller the pines were.
Richard Chapman Weldon, first dean of the famous Dalhousie Law School at Halifax and another of George's greatuncles, also came often through this door. He was six feet three and weighed two hundred and twenty pounds and was a member of parliament and a phrasemaker as well as a teacher. In the McLeod kitchen, with the critical ears of his kinsmen as an anvil, he hammered into shape such phrases as the one in which he said of the United States and Canada, during a controversy between the two: “They are a people of sixty millions, conscious of their strength; we are a people of six millions, conscious of our rights.”
For years not even Richard Weldon's eloquence could persuade Winslow McLeod to allow fishing in the brook, which he had banned because nails left in logs by anglers who put together rafts had smashed the teeth of saws in his mill. One day looking through the kitchen windows at the millpond, the surface of which boiled with rising trout, Winslow had a change of heart. “Go ahead," he said to his son John, who was in his teens and had a friend visiting him. “Go fish it." Bursting with excitement, the two youths danced out the kitchen door to catch so many trout they had to get a horse and wagon to bring them back.
John ran out the kitchen door a few years later on an unhappy but memorable errand. His father, Winslow, had been stricken with a sudden serious illness and Penobsquis had no telephones. To summon a doctor, John drove Clayson. his father's trotting horse, eight miles up hill and down dale to Sussex in thirtythree minutes. After that. Clayson wasn't fit for racing, but news of the speed and endurance the horse had shown on the extraordinary trip spread through New Brunswick and horsemen sent their mares to Penobsquis from far and wide. Clayson’s stud fees exceeded any purses he might have won at the track.
John McLeod, as a husky handsome young farmer, brought his pretty bride Nina Morton home through this kitchen door and their children, Helen. George, Ruth and Robert, learned to crawl and then to walk in this room, as John himself had. They pushed their toys around its floor and romped with the dog here and cuddled the kittens and licked the icing bowls and had their snow-caked clothing peeled off in the corner by the stove when they’d been out playing on a winter day. George, the elder of John and Nina's sons, agreed in this kitchen that he'd help John run the farm while Robert attended high school in Sussex. When Bob graduated George was to have a year to travel, working as he went.
Bob did so well at high school he was offered a scholarship at the University of New Brunswick. He was determined to refuse so his brother, George, could go wandering. George was equally determined not to deprive Bob of the scholarship. Late at night in the old kitchen George, his parents and his sisters prevailed on Bob to take the scholarship. “Well,” said his mother, Nina McLeod, who had ironed a basket of clothes during the family conference, "that's settled. Who'd like tea and doughnuts, or would you rather have milk and chocolate squares?”
George still intended to travel when Bob finished college. The farthest he'd been from home was the Royal Winter Fair at Toronto to represent New Brunswick in a junior cattle-judging contest. He wanted to see more of what lay beyond the hills of his valley. But, in Bob's final year, the war broke out. Bob. a member of the officers' training corps, was called up. In the kitchen at Penobsquis George told his father he planned to enlist in the army.
"When will we hold the auction, son?” asked John, who by 1939 was crippled by arthritis and using crutches.
"Well,” said John, “we'll have to sell the herd. I can't handle it alone.”
The truth of this struck George like a punch. He thought of all the years and effort and hope that had started with Daisy Bonheur and built a herd of fawn Jerseys with soft brown eyes.
"I guess I didn’t realize,” said George. "We can't sell the herd."
George stayed with his father and early in the war brought blue-eyed Pearl Smith home as his bride—home through the door from the side yard to the kitchen. His older sister. Helen, had already departed through this door as a bride, and his younger sister, Ruth, soon would.
Bob. who is now lieutenant-colonel commanding the reserve of the Eighth Princess Louise Hussars, and a Veterans’ Land Act official, and lives at Hampton, N.B., fought in Italy and Germany. The war ended and one day, tall, straight, older and more military than the boy who had gone overseas. Bob walked in the kitchen door again. While Pearl and her mother-in-law, Nina, got out the doughnut crock and the cake tin and brewed tea. Bob sat on the sofa, asking questions about Penobsquis and answering questions about what he’d done. For a farm family, one of the things he mentioned had a special interest: in Italy, Bob’s unit had rescued a wounded colt and the medical officer had patched the spindly animal up and the men had named her Princess Louise and smuggled her to Germany with them. She’d be transported to Canada as regimental mascot when they could find space for her on a ship.
Bob stood up, presently, and glanced through the window at the cattle zigzagging lazily through the green pasture. He said the herd was growing. By and by there would have to be a bigger barn. John, his father, and George, his brother, nodded.
In 1949 John and George engaged a blind barn builder, Rutherford McFarlane, to erect a concrete, tile and metal barn two stories high and a hundred and eighteen feet long. They threshed out the details in the kitchen. When the work commenced men gathered from miles around to lend a hand, as neighbors will in a farming district. McFarlane assigned them tasks and skipped up and down shouting orders, seeming to know by a sort of sixth sense what everybody was doing at a given instant and whether he was doing it right or wrong. In the kitchen Nina and Pearl prepared mountains of food for the volunteers. A year later, faces tear-stained, they again prepared mountains of food—food for a country funeral. John McLeod was dead.
One of the mourners was grizzled old John Wilson, Pearl’s uncle, whose small tidy shack stands in the shadow of the big shiny barn on a patch of land the McLeods gave him permission to use. Wilson had boarded for years at The Corner, as the clump of stores, service stations and dwellings that is the centre of Penobsquis is called. After he’d passed seventy he entered the McLeod kitchen and announced that a man his age, without a wife, shouldn’t try to live with other people—that he should keep bachelor’s hall. The shack, which he put up himself, is Uncle John Wilson’s bachelor hall, his clapboard declaration of independence. Sometimes if he's lonely he opens the kitchen door without knocking and takes a chair by the stove and sits there silently, departing with hardly a word when he feels he’s had enough human companionship to last him for a while.
“At the touch of a button on your control panel,” says the brochure describing the RCA Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen, "you can change the entire lighting and color scheme ...”
Pearl McLeod’s kitchen has no button to touch on a control panel—just a string to switch on a naked bulb suspended from the ceiling. But the lighting and color scheme in the room seem different in the evening. The sunset strikes the brook and bounces through the kitchen windows, as golden as clover honey, and the gold deepens to orange and red. Pearl has fed her geese and chickens, collected the eggs, washed the supper dishes. George and the children come in from the barn, the milking done.
In the pantry, with its flour barrel, its sugar bins, its shelves of flavoring and spices, Pearl kneads a batch of bread dough and covers it with a white cloth. At the kitchen table George studies the records that show the milk production of each of his cows. Penobsquis Valiam Pride, who took a Ton of Gold certificate for producing two thousand and fifty-eight pounds of butterfat in four years, is still going strong.
Pearl switches on the light. The children do their school homework in the kitchen and some young friends drop by and they practice square dancing—also in the kitchen. Pearl, a smile on her face, watches them across the ironing board.
Wayne, Donna and Dick ask if they may go to The Corner for a while with their friends. Pearl says they may if they won’t stay too late. She writes their names on a piece of paper and ties it to the string of the light.
Katherine, the baby, is sleeping in her crib. Dale drifts off to bed, and Marilyn, George and Pearl McLeod have a cup of tea and eat chocolate squares and decide to turn in They leave the kitchen light on.
Donna gets home. She crosses her name off the paper on the light string. Dick straggles in a little later and crosses off his name. Then Wayne comes in and sees, by the crossed - off names, that Donna and Dick are already home. He crumples the paper and pulls the string. The light blinks off. Another day has ended where it began—in Pearl McLeod's big old-fashioned pleasant kitchen, which is a vanishing kind of kitchen full of memories and life and laughter and tears and wonderful smells and comfort and warmth and toil and satisfaction and has no buttons to touch, no dials to twist. iy