Esprit de vinegar

THE real estate dealers love to push these old Maine homes with ``mud rooms,'' and anything with a valid summer kitchen is fetching a half million, anyway, and half as much again if you can look out the window and see water. On the other hand, I went into our mammoth, super, state-of-the-art, one-stop-to-shop market and couldn't find any cider vinegar. What, may I ask, do the new owners do with mud rooms and summer kitchens when pickle time comes and there is no vinegar? There was a clerk o'erhung with electronic gear who slowed down when I said hey-there, and he said to turn right at the deli and in aisle 28, right next to the generics, I'd find vinegar. ``In pints,'' he said as he sped away; ``just pints.''

Disbelieving, I checked this out, and the store had just pints. Well, a mud room was the place to haul off your barn boots and tidy before coming into the rest of the house, and it was about the same as a summer kitchen, where summertime chores could be done apart from the gracious living that went on.

In context is the typical Maine rural home that began with a parlor toward the road and extended itself all in one package through the living room, front hall, kitchen, butt'ry, summer kitchen, pantry, shed, woodshed, carriage shed, wagon shed, henhouse, shop, dairy, barn, and finally to the ``convenience,'' so nobody had to go from under the combined roof except to get the mail at the RFD box. Along in late summer and early fall the summer kitchen became a pickle mill, and it is no compliment to modern grocery merchandising when a Maine store hits mid-August with only pint jars of cider vinegar.

True, in the days when the summer kitchen was important, vinegar came up from ``down sulla,'' where it had been stored as sweet apple cider at least two autumns ago and left to acetify. When the pickle grist was ready - cukes, green tomatoes, peppers, and such as that - one of the men would descend with a jug, and shortly a summer kitchen would be singing with the rich redolence of all the spices from silken Samarkand to cedared Lebanon and way stations, until men working up in the far field would whiff it and drool.

There is no harbinger of prosperity that can match the wafting o'er yon meadow of simmering piccalilli once the spices have been added. Mainers used a lot of piccalilli on the Saturday Night Baked Beans, and still do if they can find vinegar. ``When will you have gallons?'' I asked the store man, and he looked aloft in a gesture of meditation and said, ``Wednesday.'' He added, ``The truck comes Wednesdays.'' But he was doubtful: ``Maybe we'll just get pints again.''

``Why don't you sell me eight pints at the gallon price?''

``Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, etc.,'' he said.

Recovering from this hilarity he went on, ``Today's Monday - yes, Wednesday.''

``Today,'' I corrected him, ``is pickle day, and I shall take my custom across the street.''

When our rambling Maine farm buildings were put up, lumber was plentiful and carpenters got two dollars a day. Usually a man was his own carpenter, and after he framed a building his neighbors would come and lift the sections into position. The summer kitchen of our family farmhouse was 15 by 20 feet, and the door opening into the yard was the ``back'' door and used for all traffic. There was a front door, but it hadn't been opened since the house was built in 1790. The floor of the summer kitchen was ``old growth'' pine, called punkin-pine, and the two-inch planks had been sawn ``'live,'' which means the logs hadn't been squared and the planks had the natural taper of the tree. By laying one plank butt-end that way and another butt-end this way, things came out even. These planks had not been planed, but were ``faired'' with an adze and left to gain further smoothing by use. (You have an explanation of our phrase ``fair and square'' there - a board that was finished four sides.)

Every Monday, unless it rained, our summer kitchen floor was washed. The hired girl ``het'' wash water, and tubs were brought from the shed into the summer kitchen: two tubs, set on a long wooden horse with the wringer between. That house had no plumbing, so when the laundry was finished and the duds were on the line, the hired girl would just tip the wash water onto the floor, and sweep it out the door with a broom. As a consequence, those planks were a rich golden brown and the summer kitchen always smelled nasty-neat clean with an overhang of soft soap. Except, of course, in pickle time, for good cider vinegar brooks no bedfellow. And why $385,000 for a summer kitchen (or mud room), when vinegar comes in pints?

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