Down on the Farm, Each Season Brings its Own Smell

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ILLUSTRATION: FOTOLIA/MALCHEV
Farm life has its own circuit of seasons, each marked by its own smell.

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.