Down on the Farm, Each Season Brings its Own Smell

In the country farm kitchen, you always know what season it is just by the smell of what's cooking.
By Phyllis Hobson
May/June 1976
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Farm life has its own circuit of seasons, each marked by its own smell.
ILLUSTRATION: FOTOLIA/MALCHEV


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In our midwestern country kitchen, you can always determine the season of the year without looking at the calendar or checking the outside thermometer. Just glance around . . . and let your eyes and your nose identify the month.

When the kitchen has a green aroma—a smell of wet clay pots and potting soil and spindly tomato plants growing on the windowsill, of pungent marigold seedlings, of tiny but perfect green pepper plants, it's early April. No matter how cold and rainy it may be outside at that time, the room is filled with the warm and humid atmosphere of next summer's garden. Its countertops are covered with boxes of fresh vegetable seeds from Henry Field and Burpee . . . and envelopes of " oldies but goodies" that we've saved ourselves from last year's crop. And tucked into one of the containers (right beside the first-to-be-planted radish seeds), is a folded, much-erased, out-of-scale, out-of-perspective drawing of the coming summer's vegetable patch.

By the middle of May, our early garden is in the ground and the air has warmed so much outside that we opened the kitchen's windows just a crack. The scent of purple lilacs waft into the room where it mixes with the smell of tiny, just-up green onions brought in from the salad bed and the aroma of the season's first asparagus shoots as they're blanched for the freezer. A pan of bright-pink rhubarb simmering on the back of the cookstove adds its tang to the room's atmosphere, and the faintly yeasty perfume that occasionally drifts up from the basement comes from the rhubarb wine that is already working away downstairs.

Just inside the kitchen door is a bucket of grape roots waiting to be planted. And over on the countertop - between the stainless steel milking pail and the egg basket - are a pair of root beer bottles capped with black rubber nipples. . . a sure sign of new kids in the barn. It's mid-May all right. Can June be far behind?

June is strawberry month here in the Midwest and we're soon keeping a running tally of the number of boxes of the fruit that pass through the kitchen. And we revel in the mouthwatering, sweet fragrance of the berries as they're washed and stemmed and coated with a syrup made of honey. As they're sealed in milk cartons and stored in the freezer. As they're simmered into red, juicy preserves.

And then - suddenly! before we've finished the last of the strawberries we're bringing in peas from the garden. Baskets and sacks and buckets and pans of green-podded peas.

The kitchen-is filled with workers. With shellers and blanchers and chillers. With packers and sealers and canners. Every possible container, it seems, is filled as we hurry the fragile (but delicious) vegetable from the garden to the freezer and the canning jars and the drying trays. The lingering smell of the fresh peas is everywhere.

By July the goats are in full production and our farmstead kitchen has been turned into a dairy processing plant. Pans of surplus milk chill in the " extra" refrigerator out on the back porch. jars of skimmed-off cream wait to be churned into butter. Slabs and rounds of cheese are drained and pressed and aged in out-of-the-way nooks.

The kitchen's windows are opened wide by early morning on most July days and the rich aroma of "good eatin' " pours from them as this spring's chicken fries, last fall's beans bake, the summer's first sweet corn steams in a huge enameled kettle, and fresh green beans gently bubble with a slab of ham.

As July turns into August, other savory odors are added to these summer smells . . . as peaches simmer and are sealed into glass jars, raspberry jelly boils over, and early apples cook into applesauce. And once a day the tiny gherkins soaking in spicy syrup, ,the sliced cucumbers and onions covered by sweetened vinegar, and the fat dills submerged in salty brine contribute their own tang to the room when they're skimmed and stirred and heated.

Tomatoes dominate our September kitchen. Tomatoes being canned. juiced. Pureed. Peeled. Cored. Cooked into ketchup. Seasoned into sauce. Canning jars line the counter. Empty jars, fresh from a sterilizing boil, drain upside down in the sink. And sealed jars filled with tomatoes cool over in a corner, out of the draft.

Just before October's first frost, the remnants of the garden are brought into the kitchen. Basketfuls of tiny, green tomatoes are chopped and ground and mixed with onions, ripe peppers, and cucumbers . . . then simmered in vinegar and spices and bottled and sealed as relish. In another kettle, ground green tomatoes are stirred with chopped apples and raisins and cinnamon . . . and canned for Thanksgiving's mincemeat pie. The snap and tang of the relish and mincemeat seasoning combines well with the fragrance of late?apple apple dumplings and the irresistible aroma of simmering apple butter.

When the smell of pumpkin pie blends into the odor of celery dressing baked with the fattest hen in the chicken yard, you know it's late November. And when the kitchen is bursting with the aroma of baking fruitcakes, it's December.

In January the kitchen is a warm haven after the outside chores are done. Its bubbling pots of homemade soup . . . its crunchy, crusty loaves of brown bread . . . and its warm rice pudding provide the background as we spread out the year's bright, new seed catalogs and plan the coming summer's garden on graph paper.

Friends and neighbors - restive after months indoors - stop by during February. They stomp into the kitchen in their heavy barn boots, yellow work gloves, and fleece-lined coats. They fill the room with the steam of their breath and the sound of their hearty farm humor. And we all consume great pots of smoking coffee and piles of fist-sized oatmeal cookies.

By March, the scents of brown earth and black potting soil, of peat and rich compost, are beginning to creep back into the kitchen . . . and it's time to start all over again.


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