When memory takes me back to my childhood, one of the first places I visit is Grandma Trausch’s kitchen. How well I remember the special smells in that kitchen; the sweet smells of apple pies and sugar cookies; the pungent smells of vinegar and sauerkraut; the mouth-watering smells of fresh ham roasting and of fresh baked bread.
It seemed to a child that Grandma was always in her kitchen busily preparing food for her large family. She always wore a huge apron, one of those bib types that covered the entire front of her dress. In the large pockets were items a child might need, handkerchiefs, pencils, safety pins and maybe even some hard candy.
Grandma’s kitchen was a large high-ceilinged room. Along one wall was the big oak built-in cupboard Grandpa had made by hand when the house was built in 1913. Tall wooden doors reached almost to the ceiling. To a little girl they seemed to reach almost to the heavens. Behind those doors were Grandma’s every day dishes and utensils used for cooking and baking. What secret things were hidden on the top shelves I never knew as they were unreachable. The countertop was of dark red linoleum with a metal edge. Under the countertop were the big, deep drawers and doors. Here was located the tip-out flour bin. It held fifty pounds of flour. Grandma needed that flour bin because she baked eight large loaves of bread every other day. She used large, flat bread pans that each held four loaves. Two pans went in the oven at once. Fresh baked bread was the main ingredient of the simplest, and yet to me the best, treat Grandma made. It was her “cream schmear”—a thick crust of fresh bread, spread with thick sweet cream, sprinkled generously with sugar and love.
On the east wall of the kitchen was located the big, heavy, yellow pine, swinging door that led into the dining room. I was always in awe of that door. I longed to shove it just to see it swing, but I knew I shouldn’t. I was also a little afraid of that awesome door, afraid someone would come hurrying from the dining room and swing the door into me if I stood too close.
The kitchen range that I remember was an extra wide gas stove with double ovens. She needed the extra space. It was not unusual for her to prepare fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, green beans, cabbage slaw and cake or pie for a dozen or more people. On top of the range on either side of a clock sat a pair of large white and black salt and pepper shakers in a special frame.
Just west of the range, between it and the refrigerator, was the large, white enameled, cast-iron wall-hung sink. It had two faucets, hot and cold, on the high back-splash.
The only refrigerator Grandma had on the farm was natural gas powered. She had gotten both it and the gas range when the Kansas-Nebraska Natural Gas pipeline cut across the farm in the late 1940s.
Just off the kitchen, under the stairs was the pantry. It was small and dark. In there Grandma kept a jar filled with her special frosted sugar cookies. They were plump, soft cookies with a hard white frosting. How good those cookies tasted to perpetually hungry children. The pantry shelves were filled with huge kettles and roasters, baking pans and small crocks filled with special treats. How long the minutes were while I waited for Grandma to emerge from the pantry goodies in hand.
When I grew older, Grandma would occasionally send me down the long flight of steps into the dark, scary basement to bring up a jar of canned goods. Each summer Grandma canned hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables, which were stored in the basement. My most vivid memory of the basement is of the doorway which led even further down into the room where the pressure tank for the water supply was located. In my childish imagination all sorts of creatures lurked in the dark depths of that room. I hurried to grab the jar I was sent for, and then ran fast as my child’s legs would carry me back up the stairs to the safety of the kitchen.
If I listen carefully I can still hear Grandma’s kitchen clock chime the hours. The clock stood above the sink, high on the wall, on its fancy oak shelf with a drawer underneath. It had been a wedding present from Grandpa’s Schifferns grandparents and was treasured by Grandma. It was a typical clock of its vintage, decorative pressed design in the wood around the front, full length glass door that opened to allow the clock to be wound with the key. Why the clock was so high on the wall I never knew. Grandma was only five feet, two inches tall. Perhaps Grandpa had nailed the shelf on the wall. He stood six feet six inches, very tall for a man of his time. Perhaps it was because Grandma wanted the clock out of the reach of the scores of children who passed through her kitchen over the years. Whatever the reason I remember being impressed by that fancy clock so high on the wall.
Buster was also a part of Grandma’s kitchen. As a pup he had appeared at the back door one day, long before I can remember, looking tired and hungry. Kind-hearted Grandma took him in. By the time I was about twelve he was a grizzled, scared, arthritic old dog who spent most of the day sleeping on a rug by the back kitchen door. He had earned every one of those scars protecting the barn and chicken house from marauding possums, raccoons and coyotes. I remember how careful I was not to step on Buster and awaken him from his dreams of rabbit chasing. If accidentally bumped, he yelped and struggled to his feet, tail wagging in forgiveness. It was a sad day when Buster joined the many other pets in Grandma’s private pet cemetery, her flower bed.
The kitchen table I remember was a large wooden one, painted white and decorated with red, stylized flowers that Grandma had painted in the corners. The wood chairs were painted white with red seats. Red was Grandma’s favorite color. Tons of food must have been set upon that table, yet it outlived Grandma. It was still straight and sturdy when it was sold at her estate auction.
The auction was a sad affair for me, watching the items accumulated during Grandma’s long lifetime being sold to strangers who neither knew her nor shared the happy memories connected with each one. Perhaps Grandma’s belongings will serve their new owners well, becoming part of the memories of a new generation.
I wrote the above story in 2004. Bert’s memories were taken from reminiscences taped over several years.
Bert’s Memories of His Mother’s Kitchen
For many years the kitchen floor was plain oak. In the 1940s a linoleum was glued onto the oak floor. This was considered a great improvement at the time as the linoleum was much easier to clean.
The first kitchen table my father remembered was a huge rectangular oak table. It had three leaves which were permanently in the table because the top was covered with a geometric patterned linoleum, which was glued on. This table was large enough to seat thirteen family members plus an occasional hired hand, friend, neighbor or relative.
The first cook stove Grandma had in the brick farmhouse was a huge cast iron affair called a “water front stove.” Water circulated in pipes around the firebox, then into a hot water storage tank in the pantry. This was the only source of hot water in the house.
Water front stoves can be very dangerous. Since the fuel used in cook stoves was corncobs and wood, the fire went out quickly. During severe Nebraska winters, it was not uncommon for the water in the pipes at the front of the stove to freeze during the night. When the fire was lit in the morning, steam built up in the pipes at the back, but was blocked by ice in the front pipes. Steam can build up a great pressure. If this happened the front of the stove could blow up.
My father always delighted in telling of a man who arose after a long winter night, lit a fire in the cook stove, and was sitting on a chair with his feet in the oven warming up. He had just gotten up and gone into the next room when the stove blew up. The chair he had been sitting on was blown to smithereens.
Next to the fire box end of the stove stood a wooden fuel box. This box was usually filled with cobs and wood. Coal was not used in cook stoves because it burned too hot. Cobs made the best cooking fire as they burned quickly and the fire was easily regulated. However, they also took more time as someone had to keep hauling cobs in and putting them on the fire. After corn shelling Grandpa and the boys scooped a wagon load of cobs into the basement through a window.
In the old frame house the basement had a dirt shelf all around the outside. We set fruit and beer there to keep it cool. In the new brick house we stored potatoes in the southwest basement room. We put them down through the window on the west side, usually about 70 bushels. In the fall everyone who could walk helped dig potatoes.
Repairing shoes was one of the chores Grandma performed in the kitchen. Shoes were handed down from older to younger children and when the soles wore through the shoes were half soled again. The metal shoe last had three sizes of feet. The shoe was placed onto the shoe last and the new sole nailed on. When the tacks hit the iron last they clenched over, fastening the sole to the sides of the shoe. During the depression Grandma used old leather belts from farm machinery to make new soles for the kids shoes.
About thirty steps south west of the kitchen door stood the windmill and next to it was a brick building which was a combination smoke house and wash house. In this building was a large cement cooling tank. Water from the windmill ran into this tank and then flowed out from it through a pipe into the horse tank. Well water is about 55 degrees, and in this tank were kept perishable food items in cream cans or crocks. Grandma never had an icebox.
The cream separator stood beside the cooling tank. Grandma, Martha, Elmer and Charles milked eight to twelve head of cows twice every day. The cream was separated from the milk, put in cream cans and lowered into the cooling tank.
Twice a week Grandma churned butter in a barrel churn that stood on a stand. A handle turned the barrel over and over. The five gallons of cream inside made about one gallon of butter. When her children got old enough, turning the handle was their job. The butter was packed into a crock and put into the cooling tank. For special occasions butter was pressed into a one pound mold with a design on the top.
Cooking for her large family was a tremendous chore for Grandma. When Martha grew old enough much of the kitchen work fell to her. Three large meals were cooked every day, plus in summer a lunch was served about four or five in the afternoon. This was often taken out to the fields where the men were working. Lunch was necessary because in the summer supper was eaten about nine o’clock in the evening, after the days work was done. Lunch was usually sandwiches made of cured ham or scrambled or fried eggs and something to drink. During threshing in July and corn shelling in October or November there were always extra hands to feed.
Bert reminisced “In the winter we spent the evenings in the kitchen. I played checkers at the kitchen table with my brothers. If the checker game got too violent, Dad put the board away until things cooled off, clear up on top of the kitchen cupboard. He always kept the rifle up there, so the kids wouldn’t get it. He had a 22 short rifle; never had a shot gun. Winter evenings we listened to the radio. It was in the kitchen for a while then they moved it into the dining room. In the winter bed time was nine o’clock. We got up early, did chores first thing in the morning, and we walked to school, two miles to Assumption. We had to be at school at 8 o’clock.
These pages don’t give you even a glimpse at the amount of labor Grandma performed. Besides cooking she raised a large garden, canned food, fried down meats and packed them into crocks, salted and smoked meats, raised hundreds of chickens, ducks and geese, milked cows, butchered cows twice a year, butchered hogs in winter, made homemade sausage, head cheese, and blood wurst, kept the fires burning in winter, sewed clothes in winter, and mended clothes during the evening.
In the early years she hitched up the horse and buggy and went to Juniata to sell butter, cream, live and butchered chickens, ducks and geese. The weekly trip took two and a half hours each way. Laundry and ironing were big chores in the days before electricity. Besides all this she had time for a flower garden and took in stray dogs and cats.
My Dad often said “Women now days don’t know what work is. Two days of Grandma’s routine and they would raise the white flag.”