Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Before the Refrigerator E. AYERS


Food storage before we had refrigerators or freezers took a little creativity. By the time we were settling the west, we knew all about food storage and spoiled food.
The simplest thing was to dig an underground storage area. They still exist today and they can keep all sorts of vegetables fresh for months. These underground units vary by area. Where I grew up, springhouses were common. The ones I remember were usually made of wood and bricks and that was covered with dirt. Most had a "normal" roof. They were built right over a spring. They keep the temperature fairly steady.
I have a family recipe for cookies that is somewhat laughable. The dough is supposed to be put in the springhouse to cool. Today, I leave the dough overnight in the refrigerator.
The other common storage area is the root cellar. It's exactly what you can imagine. It is a dirt cellar under the house or another building.
A more complicated one was meant to keep meats and things that you wanted very cold. It was an icehouse. Most of them were fairly large. Ice was brought in as slabs. The ice was placed on the dirt floor and covered in straw. The smaller the slab the faster it would melt. Many a settler had to make the frozen slabs, as there was no one to bring it. Obviously this did not work in warmer climates. Create a wooden box and fill it with water. Allow it to freeze. Dump the frozen slab in the root cellar and make another slab. Think of them as overly large ice cubes. Don't make those slabs too large because ice is heavy. Lucky was the woman who had enough ice left in July to serve iced tea to her family or visitors.
For those who lived in a small town or near one, slaughtering an animal meant an abundant amount of meat and it was shared because it was too difficult to store. If it was in the winter and cold enough, the meat could hang in a shed or barn. But it was also a beacon to animals of prey. It was no fun to have a couple of wolves circling your barn. Placing the meat on ice, kept it cold and hidden from quite a few animals. (And maybe because it was frozen, it didn't have as strong a scent?)
Naturally if meat was being kept in the icehouse, the lady of the house knew not to serve ice for drinks in the summer with what had once been under a carcass.
Things have changed. Back then, not a scrap of meat went unused. But that also meant that not every meal contained meat. Most families ate strictly vegetables and eggs in the summer months.
Salted meats and jerky were quite common. Planked fish was a method of drying fish by a fire. The fish were nailed to planks and dried. Jerky was made by sun drying meat or placing it over a low fire. Besides, it was easier to keep dried meat.
But a root cellar or springhouse is still a viable option today. Many people are looking for
alternative means of food storage or just to live off the grid (without electricity). In the house where I grew up, we had a root cellar and it was used. We had the big deep freezer and a refrigerator so why have a root cellar? I have no clue and no family left to ask. We used it for more than root vegetables. There were gallon jugs of apple cider, and at least a bushel or two of apples. It was my job, to cull the apples for anything that might be overly ripe. Those we fed to the rabbits and other animals that made their homes around our house. Our winters were cold and often snow coated everything. And when there wasn't an apple or two to remove, we gave them nice apples. Apparently Mom didn't feel as sorry for small creatures, because we were taking perfectly good apples. But the root cellar contained a few dozen winter squash. To me, it was the surplus even though it was purposely stocked.
I can still remember one evening asking if I could have some apple cider. My dad allowed me to go to that root cellar and pour some from one of the gallon jugs. I brought it upstairs and decided that it was delicious. I drank it and asked for more. It was close to summer and the cider had been there
for months. With permission, I returned and poured another large glass of the stuff. Mom was afraid it would upset my tummy to have too much. About half way through my second large glass, I happened to mention that I thought it was the best I'd ever tasted. My dad looked at me, got up, lifted my glass, and took a sip. I was not allowed to have any more. It had hardened. (I think I was probably eight or nine years old.) After that one time, I realized it didn't occur very often. As I got older, my dad and I would often enjoy a jug of hard cider if one were discovered. We just didn't tell Mom. (Sorry, won't happen today as the cider sold now is pasteurized.)
I guess I'm too far south to keep things through the winter without refrigeration or an honest to goodness cold cellar. My potatoes sprouted in the garage. I'm no longer keeping a big garden so I have no desire to watch that happen. If I want a few potatoes, I'll go buy what I need. But springhouses and cold or root cellars go way back in time, but they are just as useful today. With so many people looking back to pioneer times because they want to return to a more natural way and try to live greener, these underground storage areas are perfect.
There are plenty of sites on the web with directions for DIY root cellars. Dirt floors are still considered to be better than concrete. Dirt makes it easier to maintain humidity levels. If this sounds like something you want, give it a try! At least today, we aren't burying a wooden box and covering it with something to keep an animal out. Many a woman had to make do until a proper root cellar could be dug. I'm glad we no longer have to churn our own butter or worry about a warm day that might ruin everything we've stored. Our biggest worry is losing electricity for an extended time and I'm certain that someday that won't be a problem.

10 comments:

  1. When I was growing up, in the 1960's, (I was born in 56) my grandparents still used a root cellar. In their basement. They had shelves full of canned good that my grandma put up every year. Bins full of root vegetables and they lasted all winter. I loved going down there with my grandma and choosing things to make for meals. She canned everything from berries to meat. It was the most wonderful room. In the spare bedroom she had crocks full of dill pickles and saurkraut that she also made. I loved visiting them.

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    1. What delightful memories! Thanks so much, Sandy, for stopping by our blog. Your comment conjured the scent of a root cellar and that feeling of abundance that came with it. Those grandparents had known tough times and a well stocked cellar meant everything to them. For us, it was simply storage. Yum, homemade sauerkraut!

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  2. Sure enjoyed your interesting and nostalgic look back. I remember my Dad telling me about cutting ice on Lake Michigan to use in the ice cellars.

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    1. It that long ago that it was very common. I can remember seeing the ice trucks. It's our southern neighbors that have a hard time imagining ice thick enough to cut with a saw.

      Thanks for stopping, Gini. This is such a fun blog filled with all sorts of tidbits from years past.

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  3. I remember my grandmother keeping canned goods in the cellar. On the farm, it was a scary place with bugs and salamanders. Once she moved into town, though, the cellar was under the house and entered through a steep stair in the kitchen broom closet. I thought it wonderful, but she fell once when she saw a centipede near her hand and jerked her hand back and overbalanced. When we were in Tennessee visiting the farm my husband's great grandfather established, we saw the smokehouse still standing that he had built. On a ranch in the next county from us, we were able to tour and saw their smokehouse and cold storage, which was a diverted part of the creek. I loved that tour and have used the information from that ranch in my stories. The family has preserved everything and the smokehouse is now a pantry and the cold storage now visible from a hallway as the improvements on the original cabin have enclosed those features. The original cabin is now a bathroom. Hard to think of a family living in a 10 x 12 foot cabin but it's a lovely bathroom.

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    1. Even now in my area of Virginia, many smokehouses still exist and are used for smoking meats. (Hmm, another blog post, anyone?) But the cellars are not something that shows, although some are built above ground and bermed. But in today's back to basics, these old practices are still very much in use and have been made even better with some of today's materials.

      I'd love to tour that old homestead! I can picture that bathroom. We are so spoiled by square footage today. And we're spoiled by electricity that has made things easier, but as it freed up time, it also meant we could do more. So we did, and we keep doing more and expecting more.

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  4. I was a teen in the 1950's when we returned to Franklin, NY...a "Washington Slept Here" village. I'd go with my cousin at milking time, watch er and then to the tiny spring house where the milk was "purified" by pouring it thru cheesecloth and stored....Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

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  5. My maternal grandfather used his 12-foot deep concrete-block well house as a refrigerator/root cellar/springhouse. I have vivid memories of fending off the Granddaddy Longlegs on the climb up and down the ladder. *shudder

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    1. Those daddy longlegs aren't too scary . But if they were there, what else might be there? I don't think I'd be doing that ladder!

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