My Family's Lakeside Canadian Cottage Kitchen

Kitchen Tour

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Who cooks and eats here: Generations of the Pepin family
Where: Lake of Bays, Ontario, Canada
Rent or Own? Own

This kitchen is not at all glamorous. To call it rustic would even be too kind. It's old, it's small, it has a lot of quirks, and I wouldn't change a thing.

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My great grandfather built the house by hand in 1937. My dad grew up spending summers fishing, swimming, sailing, and running a dock-to-dock paper route with his brother by boat. Every summer when I was a kid my dad's side of the family would make the trip — us from North Carolina, my uncle's family from Chicago, and my grandfather from Michigan — to spend a couple weeks together on the lake. We'd bounce in the waves in old tractor inner tubes, feed bread to the ducks, go fishing with my grandfather, and stay up late reading or playing cards with our neighbors. It's my second home.

In this kitchen, my mom and aunt fed ten people day after day, and more when relatives and neighbors dropped by. I still don't know how they did it. The only running water comes straight from the lake, and we have to fill up on drinking water at a fire station halfway to town. For years, the oven was off by some unknown degree. The knobs on the sink turn the wrong way, and water floods the countertop whenever anyone washes dishes. Most of the kitchen tools are original to the house. The whole house is uninsulated, meaning very few spices last the frozen Canadian winter. But somehow, they always made healthy, tasty meals, and still spent the afternoon swimming with the rest of us.

One of my favorite memories is picking cup after cup of wild raspberries with my sister to make a gigantic raspberry pie. The raspberries don't grow any more, and the whole family's schedule at the cottage hasn't overlapped in years. But every summer I count the days until I can make the trip north to my favorite place in the world.

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10 Questions For My Mother, Karen Pepin (and Her Kitchen)

1. What inspires your kitchen and your cooking?
I am inspired to keep things simple and quick, and to make things that are tasty and at least somewhat healthy. At times, there have been as many as 10 family members of all ages at the table. I do not want to spend the day in the kitchen. So, I do as much prep as possible in the morning to free the afternoons to enjoy the lake and family in the afternoon.

2. What is your favorite kitchen tool or element?
Many of the tools are 50-75 years old. Some have a history that goes with them, therefore we hold onto them. One of the oldest and certainly the most unusual is a large double-sided knife. One side is serrated and the other has a straight edge. This not only makes it hard to store but it is very tricky to use, but it was handmade by a relative many years ago.

Every so often we do acquire something that is actually new. This year I added an electric griddle. Now I am wondering how I managed all of those blueberry pancakes over the years without it.

3. What's the most memorable meal you've ever cooked in this kitchen?
The one creation that stands out wasn’t a meal, rather it was a dessert. When my daughters were little girls, wild raspberries grew all along the road near the cottage. The girls loved to pick them. One particular year there was a fantastic bumper crop and the girls collected many quarts of them over several days. We made raspberry breads and a cobbler, but what they really wanted was a pie.

I was not, and still am not, a pie baker, but I reluctantly promised to try. We were all out of butter and Crisco. So I pulled out the cottages ancient Good Housekeeping cookbook and found an old recipe for an oil-based pastry crust. My little helpers and I then struggled away on the crust and, miraculously, that huge deep dish wild raspberry pie came out perfectly. We still talk about it every year partly because the wild raspberry bushes are now sadly all gone.

4. The biggest challenge in your kitchen:
The biggest challenge is a lack of space and storage.

5. Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I wish I had brought up that griddle many years ago!

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6. Biggest indulgence or splurge in the kitchen:
It sounds silly now, but the microwave oven was an exciting indulgence when we first added it. The other splurge was the compact washing machine that hooks up to the sink. Before we had that there was a wringer washer!

7. Is there anything you hope to add or improve in your kitchen?
I would really like to find a way to accommodate the refrigerator in the kitchen rather than have it in the main living area.

8. How would you describe your cooking style?
I guess that I am a practical yet creative cook who can whip up something with whatever is available. I enjoy making the old standbys but love to try something new as well.

9. Best cooking advice or tip you ever received:
Clean up behind yourself as you cook.

10. What are you cooking this week?
Beer can dry-rubbed chicken on the grill with garlic and parsley oven roasted red potatoes and steamed broccoli with parmesan cheese. Also a side mixed green salad with fresh pears, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese topped with apple cider, honey and garlic vinaigrette. And rhubarb pie for dessert!

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Resources of Note:

  • Frigidaire apartment-sized electric range
  • Danby microwave
  • Gevalia coffee maker
  • Vitapur water cooler
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(Image credits: Lisa Pepin)

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Lisa is a photographer, videographer, world traveler, editor, designer, and otherwise wearer of many hats. When she's not shooting, she can be found making homebrew, eating fish tacos, and planning her next trip.

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