Front Porch Review
Like many women, I run around with an eye perpetually peeled for a nifty decorating idea, antiques, wood floors and all the accouterments we see in the “country” living magazines ‒especially “country kitchens” with their miles of tile and granite counters, breathtaking window treatments, built-in appliances, cutting boards, cupboards, and islands.
The house where my mother raised us after my father died when I was ten had no counters, no island and only a couple of cupboards in the pantry. Early on, it didn’t have running water either but for the pump from the cistern on the sink. In mini-droughts we occasionally pumped up a half-composed oak or elm leaf, but cistern water was always wet, cold, and soft.
More crucially this house, one of the first built in the village, at bottom of the old water tower hill in Cascade, Iowa, had a huge garden and attached to the buggy garage a barn with a stanchion and a space for a horse. What is now lawn and garden was, when I was young in the 50s and Mom drove a 1947 Chevy, sheep pasture. Before the advent of gas-powered riding mowers and weed whackers, sheep kept the weeds down.
And we had chickens. Oh, God, did we have chickens! In those days the Dahlem Feed Store gave away ten free baby chicks to any child under ten ‒ an ingenious spring marketing device to stimulate the sale of chicken feed in summer and fall. As the Great Chicken Give-away happened in early March when it was too cold for a baby chick to be outside, we had twenty or thirty of them chair-barricaded around the oil burner (upgraded from a wood stove after my father passed away) in the kitchen until the weather warmed enough to move them outside to the barn. They kept us in eggs until my mother slaughtered them (a horrifying spectacle during which I made myself as scarce as their proverbial teeth) one by one for Sunday dinner over the fall and winter.
Chickens are notoriously stinky and stupid even when they are little, yellow, and adorable. I leave to your imagination what happened when my younger siblings got squabbling and tipped over the barricades. Altogether too mortifying for a teenager trying to be cool as Annette and Darlene on the Mickey Mouse Club!
Moreover, instead of spending our summers doing cool things, e.g., going to camp, swimming, and playing tennis, we pulled weeds in the garden, picked, peeled and canned tomatoes, beans, corn, and wild berries. Mom enrolled us girls in 4-H and taught us to make picture frames, refinish furniture and sew clothes, pillows, curtains, and dust ruffles. Along with learning to cook and hand sew hems and buttons on, my brothers were apprenticed to carpenters and mechanics.
Until I went to France on a press tour through a Denver magazine for which I worked (then a cool job) to hype skiing (a cool sport) to Denverites in 1975, I had always thought my childhood was unique to Iowa. A French friend graciously invited me to spend Christmas with some friends of his in a little town called Sallanches on the Franco-Swiss border. While I was there, they took me to a farm in the foothill country near Mont Blanc. The farmer’s cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, lived downstairs and the family upstairs. No point wasting ink describing the smell ‒ reminiscent of our chickens!
The summer of 1985 I was living in Connecticut. Folks there lived in renovated barns with miles of tile, granite, and walnut floors, replete with Inglenook fireplaces that were certainly not there when the cows were, and spiral staircases leading to bedrooms in the hayloft with Ethan Allan canopy beds and French or English antique dressers, to-die-for plaid Queen Anne, Restoration or Regency high boys and wing backs.
One day that summer my best friend drove up from NYC. Under a spreading chestnut tree, long-faced, she produced a decorating magazine featuring French country farmhouses with kitchens too sweet for words.
“God, those are adorable,” I concurred when she showed me the chairs at an old kitchen table ‒ an artfully restored one just like ours at which Mom used to knead bread, pluck, de-gut and cut up Sunday chickens on Saturday and where we ate all the meals of our young lives. One spread featured cushions with ruffles tied in overgenerous bows totheback of the posts of each chair.
“I priced those chair cushions,” she explained sadly, “they cost $150.”
“That’s bodacious; you could probably make them for $50.”
“$150 a piece!”
A couple weekends later, she returned with a portable sewing machine she had bought and some material. Well, you could make them for $25 if you bought the material someplace reasonable, but not if you went to some fancy NYC boutique that imported fabric from France. I want you to know that I was sweating bricks and blocks cutting into that fancy $37.50-a-yard French material. Nowadays, I chuckle at the irony of an Iowa woman sweating bricks in a Connecticut kitchen sewing French “country” chair cushions seen in an American decorating magazine destined for a Manhattan apartment.
That fall I returned to the “homeplace,” resolved to clean up my house decorating act and have cooler stuff. However, my life decisions ‒ managing a small progressive/socialist newspaper which lost money ‒ cost me a couple of jobs and totally sabotaged the coolness plan. Let me tell you what, country kitchens pictured in slick magazines cost plenty. Paradoxically, it is easier for people earning city salaries to have “country kitchens” than can people in the American countryside, where wages tend to be lower.
Over time though, I have begun to realize that the purpose of these magazines that so generously purport to give us decorating ideas is to cultivate demand. Stimulate coveting. My only consolation for being duped all those years is that I am not alone. While my adverse financial circumstances are the primary reason I am not as cool as I intended be, I also became something of an environmentalist. “Cool” requires a fair bit of casting off, tossing out plain old waste. Along with the “homeplace” where I live, I have inherited both from relatives and miscellaneous townswomen, lots of quilting and rug-making material, not always the coolest color and/or design (ones other people don’t want). I also developed compunctions, which is what makes an environmentalist an environmentalist.
Though perhaps the greatest irony of decorator magazine “country” kitchens is they are anything but. The ancient smelly, dirty, bloody connection between kitchen, garden and barnyard that I smelled in the French farmhouse and experienced as a child has been severed. The other country kitchen I was most familiar with was my Aunt Viola’s. I recall it best during threshing season when I was most often there, along with a crew of half dozen men, a dozen kids and usually a couple crew wives to lend a hand. From Vi’s gargantuan garden, women and girls picked messes of peas, green beans, mountains of leaf lettuce and tons of tomatoes, which we sliced onto platters. We dug pecks of new potatoes, boiled and served them mashed in heavy bowls alongside patters of fried pork chops, chicken fried steak and savory gravy. We made strawberry, rhubarb, apple, or berry pie for dessert. Spring, summer and fall, there seemed always to be something in season.
I suspect there is a lot of fast and prepared food, some of it very good, purchased from expensive delis and eaten in city “country” kitchens. The modern urban lifestyle is a Disney sort of fantasy featuring ersatz kitchens more convincing than real ones like Aunt Vi’s or ours, now mine. This is an authentically urban capitalist vision designed to stimulate consumption and further the overall Washington goal of urbanizing America. Once, when I published the socialist newspaper that got me in hock, I interviewed Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz. He told me the grand government plan was to get rid of 10% of the farming population every year. At that point less than two percent of Americans earned a living farming. His reasoning was that more economically productive high-tech and factory farming should take place here, and that “less productive” farming should happen in Third World Countries. Well, we see where that has landed us ‒ states with high numbers of confined feeding operations (CAFOs) and 1,000-acre farms have experienced massive erosion and levels of toxic chemicals in their water that has landed at least one water districts in court.
Farmers selling to developers have removed a few hundred thousand acres every year to facilitate the building of “country homes with country kitchens,” which furthers Shultz’s plan. Farmers under duress ‒ most of the small ones ‒ can hardly refuse the lucrative return that selling a few acres nets. Dairy farms in the Midwest trying to compete with sprawling milk factories in California have little choice.
From William Dean Howells to Sinclair Lewis to today, “house” is a well-honed American class and socio-economic construct, part of the one-up ethic that underlies it. In my Denver days, the woman who lived next door, clearly on a higher trajectory than I was (then driving a taxi), married up and moved into an enviable house across the street from Washington Park. Every time I ran into her at the post office or grocery store, she invited me over saying, “You’ve got to come see my house.” It was abundantly clear to me that I was to go and ooh and ah a lot, evidence high levels of envy.
I never went. Had I gone I would never have been invited back. Friendship was the last thing she wanted from me. Most of the towns of Eastern Iowa clearly demonstrate these class and social divisions ‒ the well-heeled in new houses on the hills or in subdivisions, the country equivalent of “moving uptown or out to the suburbs.”
In addition to waste, this artificial house ethic leaves one forever in the wrong place. I have felt embarrassed entertaining Europeans. This house (constructed in stages for a family of seven or eight people) is too large for one person, but it’s the homeplace, and I can’t bear to part with it. I recall it in pentimento with no counters, and a hand pump on a long- since defunct sink and Mom’s homemade café curtains. Likewise, I have been apologetic and/or embarrassed that my kitchen has not been remodeled for fifty years, and I have no deck or patio on which to station my unmatched yard chairs. For most of the time that I have lived here, if I had had the money, I would have spiffed the place up, remodeled the kitchen, bought a new this, that and the other, poured a patio, hired a carpenter to build a deck, etc. Now, I can’t be bothered.
Though now, because of the time I spent in Paris and Provence, Korea and elsewhere, my garden features arugula, Italian parsley, Swiss Chard, Belgian endive, boo-chou and bok choi. My beans are purple, yellow, and green. A far cry from the plain fare that came out of Vi’s or my mother’s kitchen gardens. (May they rest in peace; they made me a true country woman.)
I have lived here the lion’s share of my life with that connection between the kitchen and garden intact, now essential to my well-being. I treasure the picture frames and sewing boxes (I keep garden seeds in them.) we made in 4-H. When mom’s cotton curtains bit the dust, I put them as mulch on the walkways of the garden, and they returned to the earth from whence they came. Now the garden is where the sheep grazed, and this place feels more authentic than any I have ever salivated over. You have to love country.
S. Keyron McDermott lives on the “homeplace” in Eastern Iowa where she writes, quilts, gardens, braids rugs, plays pickleball and rags the city council, which, like the Israeli Knesset trying to control the Supreme Court, is currently trying to pass an ordinance to limit public comment to two minutes. Her book review of Superabundance is in the spring issue of Free Inquiry, and her portrait of an eccentric uncle is in The Wapsipinicon Almanac, Selections from 30 Years.