How they keep 'em down at the farm on PEI

From behind the red door issued a soft paawwk-puk-puk-puk; it was a coolish day -- sweater weather, really -- on Prince Edward Island, and all the chickens had retired to their private barn on the MacKinnon farm.

Withing, all was weathered boards and dust and scuttling chickens; along one wall were about 14 silent nesting birds. One of those birds was sitting on my breakfast.

I sat down the metal pail lined with hay and delicately insinuated a hand under the first bird, a gentle-faced red hen. Her eyes widened; I could feel the bones under the hot feathers, hot narrow scaly feet -- and then two small, slightly rough hot eggs.

Breakfast at the Churchill Farm Tourist Home, owned and run by Jeanette and Waldron MacKinnon, is no ordinary experience. For one thing, eggs right from the chicken taste milder than eggs from a plastic carton. There are also homemade plum preserves to slather on homemade bread, biscuits, and bran muffins, warm from the oven. After doing justice to one of Mrs. MacKinnon's breakfasts I frequently had no need to eat again for the rest of the day.

There is also the possibility of instruction if you take advantage of it. I learned from Mr. MacKinnon, for instance, that chickens don't have twins; that in fact one of my two eggs must have laid by a previous chicken.

The MacKinnons are among the 75 farm families on Prince Edward Island -- Canada's smallest province, located above Nova Scotia -- who have opened their doors to visitors from "away." And it must be among the best accommodation deals anywhere. My small room (bathroom across the hall) those incredible breakfasts, one lunch, plus amazing evening snacks (more homemade biscuits with preserves, cookies, and raspberry-coconut squares) cost $63.60 for one week. The room alone was $45 for a week; each additional person is about $15 a week.

Prince Edward Island's farms are half of its honest beauty. A typical scene, viewed from a typical roller-coaster two-lane road, bordered four feed deep on either side by purple lupins, might include furrowed, brilliant rust-red fields dominated by a bright red tractor; a green field stretching down toward a blue sea; and a white gothic farmhouse with red-red trim set on the top of the hill so that through the windows you can see sky.

Then there is the water; the narrow red beaches, the lakes and rivers that seem to be everywhere, It's as if the Midwest had shrunk enough to fit on Cape Cod.

The amazing thing about Prince Edward Island to a city dweller, accustomed to pale, educated persons between the ages of 25 and 50, is the variety of life here. The MacKinnons have a barn full of pigs with their piglets and a field of heifers who first rush forward ("Thought you were going to feed them," laughed Mrs. MacKinnon) then back away in unison like a chorus line as the stranger plods by. Their cows, black and white, can be viewed from all windows. And in addition to its official attractions, the nearby Anne of Green Gables Museum (where Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of the well-known children's story, was married) boasted a cat with her kittens and a bevy of fuzzy gray junior ducks whose motto seemed to be united we stand -- and sit and waddle and quack. They moved in the tightest possible little bunch, but completely aimlessly.

I also encountered more children in a week than I'm used to meeting in a year: from children in the distance, pounding on bicycles down the red clay roads, hair flying, to Mrs. MacKinnin's granddaughter, a curly haired cherub of two who, when asked "Whose your friend?" replied, with a smile of unmistakable radiance, "Piggies."

In fact Prince Edward Island is the place for children -- if you don't have any of your own, borrow a nephew or grandchild to bring. I enjoyed the chickens; it was interesting to enter the barn to admire the little squealing porcine treasures within; I had fun riding the tractor, balanced gingerly on one foot, my teeth humming in my head (tractors are jiggly). But far more enjoyable than doing these things by myself was the pleasure of sharing some of these delights with the son of some Vancouver people staying on the farm. We admired the chickens, feeding grass to them through the wire fence ("They're very military, the way they walk," he pointed out.) Mr. MacKinnon let the boy and his brother drive the tractor; they were in ecstacy. He also picked up a piglet by its back feet for the boy to hold. "That's the way you catch a pig -- by the foot," said Mr. MacKinnon.

Almost all Prince Edward Islanders are friendly. I took a brief stroll down the street by the MacKinnon farm; the occupants of almost every car that passed honked and waved. That friendliness is contagious. The first night I arrived at the Churchill Farm Tourist Home, the MacKinnons were hosting two retired Canadian couples; the kitchen -- supplied with informal sitting arrangements, a couch and a number of rockers, in typical Prince Edward Island style -- and the dining room were overflowing with cheerful talk. In the dining room the women were passing around pictures of grandchildren and greatgrandchildren, everyone admiring everyone else's picture and supplying information about their own. "I'll take the farm every time," said one lady.

Visiting here reminded me of the Midwestern cousins I've never met; it also reminded me of a gigantic church bake sale, the kind of place where everyone knows who makes the lightest biscuits, and where people laugh delightedly when you order your fourth helping of pie.

Nostalgia is frequently expensive. But that's not true on Prince Edward Island, where things are still the way they were in the good old days -- maybe even better.

You can get information on farm vacations on Prince Edward Island from any of the 14 Canada Tourist Board offices in the US; if you don't know where the closest one is, write to the Canadian Government Office of Tourism, 235 Queen Street, Ottawa, Ontario KIAOH6.

And here's the recipe for Mrs. MacKinnon's Raspberry Squares:

1 1/4 cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 cup shortening

1/4 tsp. salt

1 egg

1 tsp. milk

Put shortening into flour which has been sifted with salt and baking powder. Cream together; add egg and milk. Roll out size of pan. Bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees F. Top with raspberry jam, then cover with the following, well mixed:

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup white sugar

Butter the size of an egg

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla

1 1/4 cups coconut

3 tsp. flour

Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes.

And as you eat, pretend there are cows outside your window.

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