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February 21, 2004
While cruising bountiful produce aisles in a supermarket recently, it dawned on me that there were lots of people who never had the pleasure of growing their own food and putting it by for the winter. With postage-stamp-sized lots these days, few people can have a vegetable garden. Fewer bother to can, pickle, air dry and cellar because they know they can pop into the nearest mega-super-duper- market for whatever they need, or desire, at any time of the year. Fresh green beans in January? No problem. Fresh peaches in February? Not a big deal.
Putting food by was an economical way to ensure that you ate well during the winter months and that you saved money in the process. Vegetables and fruits couldn’t be bought outside their harvest months. Those exotics that were available were too expensive for the average household income. Most folks, who had a vegetable patch, never wanted for basic food even during the Great Depression and Second World War when Victory gardens were encouraged. With the exception of purchasing the staples i.e. flour, sugar, salt, spices, many rural and small town families were self-sufficient as far as fruits and vegetables were concerned. If you had a garden, you preserved what you needed and shared the bountiful harvest with your neighbours. Until the 1950's most homes were built with root cellars and a generous supply of shelving in the pantry or cellar for storing preserves.
I was fortunate to be raised, and to raise my children, during a time when ensuring that you had an adequate supply of vegetables and fruit for the winter meant that you grew your own and preserved it. When Ted and I were looking for property, one of the prerequisites was that it had room for a huge vegetable garden and fruit trees Grandmother and mother were consummate canners and picklers. They prided themselves on doing down more than six hundred jars of goodies every year.
The most popular method of canning peaches, pears, apples and cherries was by open-kettle method. This process, which was also used for jams and jellies, took care of bushels of fruit in an easy, efficient manner. Treasured family recipes were used for relishes, chili sauces, chutneys, and pickles that called for fresh picked beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers and beans. Hours were spent chopping and grinding ingredients. Our reward was the smell of spicy concoctions bubbling on the stove. In the middle of winter there’s nothing beats home-made chili sauce on boiled potatoes or sweet beet relish with pork roast.
Pickles were crock-made which meant a few days of stirring and sampling cucumbers that were pickled in brine in large crocks. When sufficient time had passed, the salty brine was replaced with a vinegar and spice solution. How many of you as youngsters ever sneaked into a dark pantry and sneaked sweet pickles from a crock? How about the taste of that crock-made crunchy, chunky dill pickle? Pickle crocks had crockery lids or were covered with layers of cheese cloth but that didn’t discourage pickle hounds.
Sauerkraut was always made on a fine autumn day. A bee was called for the occasion because strong backs and arms were needed to shred the cabbage using an old-fashioned cabbage cutter. The kraut process involved shredding cabbage then layering it with pickling salt in a large crock. Grandmother and Mother both had the “salt touch”; too much and the kraut was ruined; too little and it would spoil. Each crock was filled with cabbage/salt layers, pounded to “bring the juice” then topped with a dinner plate and heavy kraut stone to keep pressure on the mix. I still have one of grandmother’s blue granite kraut stones. Curing sauerkraut meant tasting the bubbling, fermenting mass until it was proclaimed “just right” for eating. Each tasting meant a drink of water afterwards, although some substituted a glass of elderberry wine.
Wine was another home made commodity. Dandelions, beets, plums, choke cherries and elderberries were among some of the ingredients for crock wine. Yep, our folks made wine in crocks. Dandelion and elderberry wine were the favourites. We children were sent out with six quart baskets to collect dandelion heads in the neighbourhood. We were paid the generous sum of one penny per head. Think about it. How many heads can you stuff into a six quart basket? Lots! Pay was good for a six year old child!
Dad was in charge of collecting elderberries. That meant we got to travel some interesting back and side roads in Nichol and Pilkington Township in our quest for several bushels of the purple, sour fruit. One of the best spots for elderberry picking was along Bog Road, now known as Beatty Line/Allardice Road. Another prolific spot for elderberries was the abandoned trail at the end of Gartshore Street, known then as Swamp Alley. Getting the fruit was the easy part. Removing it from the stem was a daunting task which took hours, several wine loving neighbours and a lot of cussing. Dad’s favourite saying was that the end result was worth the aggravation. I wouldn’t know. As children, we weren’t allowed to drink wine.
Crock wine involved a process of mixing fruit, sugar and yeast in a very large crock, covering it and letting all ferment in some warm place. Dad’s choice was beside a wood burning stove in the kitchen. Grandmother preferred her pantry. If they had several crocks of wine on the go at the same time, the rooms smelled like fermentation cellars. Heady stuff! Bottling involved dad, Tony Fardella, any number of wine bottles and an ancient hand-operated corker. Proper corking was important. If the cork wasn’t firmly pushed into place, there’d be fun and games later on. Wine was racked in the cellar. Many’s the time while sitting around the dining room table, we’d hear a loud pop than crack. This was the sound of a cork that had blown off the wine bottle, hit a wall or bounced off the basement ceiling.
Some vegetables and fruits were stored in a specially constructed root cellar - in the cellar. Good root cellars had dirt floors. Grandmother’s root cellar was constructed under her substantial front porch. Mother’s was under the kitchen and only accessible through a trap door in the pantry’s floor. Proper root cellars contained wooden bins, raised off the floor. These bins were usually about one foot deep. Potatoes went in one bin and covered with burlap. Carrots were placed in their own bin and buried in sand. Celery was treated the same way as it was brought roots and all, into the cellar. It was covered with burlap too so the celery would “bleach”. Apples went into another bin or were stored in barrels with lids. Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and turnips were trimmed and tucked into their own bin, again covered with burlap or heavy cloth.
Hams were salted and hung from the ceiling as were, in grandmother’s case salamis and summer sausage. Bunches of fresh herbs i.e. dill, sage and parsley were hung from the ceiling as were strings of onions and garlic. Large bunches of field tansy were hung to discourage flies.
Root cellars always had doors that closed firmly. With all that fresh sand in bins and the dirt floor, the last thing you wanted was to have a pussy cat invade the place, an unfortunate circumstance because there were always mice to contend with. The last thing that was placed in the root cellar were mouse traps. You didn’t want four legged critters chewing up the winter’s food supply.
It’s interesting to note that no one would dream of living, or spending much time, in the dark, and often damp, area under their house. Underground was for rodents. Folks didn’t carve living space out of their cellars like people do today in their basements.
There are still those folks who believe in self-sufficiency.
A drive through the countryside reveals well tended vegetable gardens. Mennonite
and Amish communities hold with the tradition of preserving and drying their
winter’s food supply. At last count, our Mennonite friend Elsie, had
more than seven hundred jars on her shelves. It’s a pleasure to walk
into her kitchen when she’s cooking up a batch of jam or pickles.
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