The Country Kitchen

by Della T. Lutes
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $1.75]
OPEN the red-and-white checked gingham cover of the book and you step at once into a kitchen of Southern Michigan in the 1870’s: a kitchen with bare floor, braided rugs, rocking chair, sewing basket, geraniums, a map of the world, a steeple clock, two cats and two almanacs, and a big wood-burning range with an ‘Elevated Oven.‘’
Little ‘Delly,’ daughter of the household, while the cooking was going on, played in the corner with bits of broken china dishes, corncobs, and the more coöperative of the two big cats. But when the foods were done she helped to eat them. Inheriting a happy combination of her father’s exacting gusto and her mother’s technical skill, she now tells us about all this, and about the ways of her father, who ’grew vegetables and fruits as other men paint pictures,’ and about her mother, whose prime article of faith regarding cooking was this: ‘ You have to stand over things to make ’em right.’
The book is not all about cooking, but sooner or later in every chapter there comes a moment when we eat. We eat strawberry shortcake — ‘no mean matter of one small rangy biscuit,’ but a generous phenomenon of flaky perfection over whose lower half crushed strawberries were ‘thickly poured,’ and upon whose top half, ‘ fulsomely buttered,’ another canopy of strawberries was laid. A proper shortcake, in short. We eat also more humble foods — mashed potatoes, for instance, in a ’drift’ of whiteness. Follow the instructions if you wish to win a ribbon as a Mashed Potato Queen. There is out-of-door cooking for a fishing party, in which we not only get ready to cook the catch of bluegills and perch and bullheads, but also hear the ‘cronk-cronk, cronk-cronk, of rusty oarlocks’ as the fishermen come rowing home.
Halfway through the book, one reader paused to wish that there might be an index, so that the actual recipes might conveniently he looked up. And sure enough, there at the end of the book the index appears, beginning i with ’Apples: butter, cake, and Dowdy,”and going on with such things as ‘Bubble and Squeak, Chicken fricassee. Cookies, Bop-overs, Switchel,’and ending with ’Tarts,’and ‘Turkey, roast.’ Not all foods en| joyed ill the text are thus documented with rules. Scalloped oysters, for instance, were a matter for ecstasy in this Middle-Western home, though the oysters came in a tin. The ecstasy is described, but the recipe is not.
Wise with the wisdom of a born cook, the inland author does not try to tell the seaboard world what to do about oysters. But when it comes to the cherries from a certain cherry tree in the South of Michigan, a hungry universe is confidently invited to regale itself upon the cherry-pie paragraph and the cherry-pudding page.
There is wit in the book, and a gift for landscape, and perception of characters, and a flavor as unforgettable as the fragrance of wild grapes in autumn, and the recorded memories of a lovely industrious home. One shuts the book and looks once more at the cover. Somebody’s grandmother’s piece-bag might have been rifled to get that authentic checkered-apron print.
Yes, the outside of the book makes us think of a gingham apron. The inside of the book inspires us to put one on.