Queen Of The Majestics

From “Poems from North Dakota” by Florence F. Renfrow (1926-1996).

Copyright 1979.

Reprinted with express permission of her family. Further reproductions prohibited.

 

QUEEN OF THE MAJESTICS

 

It stood in Mother's kitchen,

many years against the wall.

Blazing torment in the Summer,

Gentle comfort in the Fall.

Black as sin and as contentious...

orneriest thing you ever saw,

When the wind was from the northwest

and the chimney wouldn't draw.

Puffing smoke and spewing ashes,

casting dust upon the chrome,

But as the heartbeat of our family

and the center of our home.

 

Like a magnet in a nail bin,

everyone who crossed our door

Was drawn in fascination

to that monster on the floor,

To spread their hands in comfort,

and survey each bubbling pan

And inhale the hearty odors

that meant sustenance to man.

Like a queen before an audience,

she sprawled in mighty ease,

A living, breathing symbol

of harmony and peace.

 

When her bread was in the oven,

Mother's kitchen smelled divine.

And her apple pies and coffee cake

were better far than mine.

Her cottage cheese was scrumptious,

warming slowly through the day,

 

And her stews and soups and dumplings

are a memory's step away.

Lids and grates and swinging dampers,

shakers, pokers, pots and pans,

And cobs and coal and clinkers

were part of living then.

 

 

 

Majestics and Threshing Crews

 

 

Florence's verses and warm memories of her mother invoke in me comparable recollections of my grandmother, who cooked with a similar range until she was eighty years old. By the time that Florence was married, most farm families in our part of the country were using cook stoves fueled by propane, kerosene or some other petroleum derivative. In truth, modern stoves made things easier and simpler.

Queen of the Majestics speaks of a period in which cooking was done with ovens that used some kind of none-fossilized fuel (as opposed to petroleum products or electricity). The Majestic took coal, wood or dried cow manure.

In most cases, coal had to be hauled by wagon from mines and sometimes the round trip would take two days. Also, coal cost money (often in short supply). Trees on the prairies were few and far between and valued for shelter belts, so wood was rare. Dried cow dung, known as cow patties or cow pies, was extensively used for cooking on the high plains grasslands.

Farmers who ran cattle always had a ready supply of bovine biomass. When the first settlers came into my part of the country (North Dakota), meadow muffins – dried buffalo dung – was available in abundance. Cow pies had multiple utility. Not only did they burn well, but they were (sort of) the original Frisbee. These were the days before Amazon and Netflix. My sprawling, rambunctious family made entertainment where it was found. Flying cow patties are part of my earliest memories.

(Our mother's 78 RPM long-playing phonograph records actually flew better than cow patty Frisbees but the consequences of such usage was dire, to say the least.)

During threshing time – fall in the Dakotas – the cook's day began at 5:00 A.M. It took at least a half-hour for the fuel to be lit and the stove heated to cooking temperature. The threshing crew sat down for breakfast by 6:00. In dry weather when time was of the essence, work started by 7:00.

Huge machines called threshers (or threshing machines) were essential to harvest in the first half of the 20th century, but were costly and not owned by all farmers. Sometimes there was joint ownership, especially amongst relatives. Most threshers traveled from farm to farm in a route called a threshing ring. Threshing crews were largely staffed by members of ring families.

A threshing machine was stationary and powered by a belt-driven pulley connected to the flywheel of a tractor. Grain was cut earlier and bundled with twine. The bundles were gathered into shocks by standing several bundles on the cut ends with the upper ends supporting each other. Farm hands would pick up the bundles by pitchfork and load them into wagons pulled by tractor or horse. Wagonloads were driven to the thresher and the bundles fed to the machine, which separated the grain from the chaff for market. It was hard, hot and dirty work demanding many calories. Thus meals were plentiful and preparation time was lengthy.

My father had a dry wit and an earthy sense of humor. He frequently shared a story of a scene that he claimed to witness more than one once. A cook would be flipping a pancake at the stove, it would fly too far and land in the fuel box containing cow patties. In nimble observance of the five-second rule, the cook would instantly toss the flapjack back onto the griddle. I can neither confirm nor deny such an account. To do so breaks the magic.

Thank you, Florence, for the great memories.