The Harvests Of Fall

As summer’s warmth gives way to the cooler days of fall, our thoughts turn to cold-weather projects, and that of storing food for the coming winter.  Without that process, our ancestors would be hard pressed to get through the bitter cold months, unless, of course, you could afford to purchase all your food supplies at the local general store.  

Once upon a time, most families cultivated large vegetable gardens and raised a barnyard menagerie to put food by for the coming winter – a vital necessity.  How they accomplished it without our modern water-bath and pressure canners, and freezers, that we and our mother’s generation have used amazes me.  

In early 2003, I was concluding my empty-nest project, researching and writing an extensive manuscript which documented every family line of my mother’s parents back to the early 17th century settlers of New Netherlands.  And that was using only the pathetically slow dial-up internet for online research!  In asking for input from relatives on their memories of our grandparents, my aunt, Shirley (Tillapaugh) Van Duesen, shared how much she enjoyed working alongside her dad.  Her ties to her father don’t surprise me.  While growing up, I enjoyed time spent working with my dad, too, and that naturally evolved into enjoying time spent working with my husband on the farm and around our property. 

But, I found it especially interesting that, of all things my aunt chose to write about, she told me about fall butchering time on the farm.  And I’m so glad she did because, in many ways, what she wrote about is a lost skill.  Oh sure, we still have butcher shops in some rural communities, but gone are the days of farm and backyard butchering where neighbors helped each other with these chores.

With permission granted by my cousin, Doug, to share his mother’s words, Aunt Shirley wrote, “What I remember the most was hog butchering time which was sometime in November.  It was a community project, usually two or three days.  Everyone who had pigs to butcher helped in the process, and they were hung in my father’s garage to cool overnight or until they were ready to be cut up.  Each one took their own [pig] home to process from that point on.  I always enjoyed helping cut ours up – to cut and skin the rind (or hide) off the fat, cut fat off the meat, grind and render it down into lard for cooking, cut meat into roasts, pork chops, tenderloin, and grind other remaining meat and scraps for sausage.  My father always cut and shaped the hams, then put them in large tubs with a salt brine to cure for several weeks.  Then he would take them out and smoke them in the smokehouse.  He would do the same with the sausage after grinding and stuffing it into the casings, and then shape that into links.  The hams were then put into large brown bags and hung in the cellar, and used as needed – and the same for the sausage.”

Her description gives us a great overall picture of the process.  Further details on the butchering process can be found in the online Backwoods Home Magazine, Issue No. 23 from September/October 1993, with an appropriate article, “Slaughtering and Butchering,” by Dynah Geissal.  I enjoyed this very informative article in which Geissal gives excellent directions for the homesteader in butchering a variety of home-grown animals raised specifically for the freezer.  She describes how to cut the meat into appropriate sections, with photos to provide guiding details.  She even includes recipes for sausage, scrapple and other delicious fare.  

Raised on a dairy farm, my husband was present twice when his father and uncles butchered cows on the farm.  Like my aunt wrote, Ed agreed that the best time to butcher is in the fall, typically November, because it’s cold enough to hang the carcass to avoid spoilage.  When cows were shipped to the butcher shop, he also said it was important to keep the animal as calm as possible before slaughter.  This helped keep the meat from becoming tough and unsavory.  

On a smaller scale in backyard processing, my sister and I were the official assistants when it was time to dispatch designated unproductive chickens or specific meat birds to the freezer.  My father was in charge of swinging the axe on the chopping block.  And for those who have only heard the expression about someone running around like a chicken with their head cut off – let me assure you, it’s accurate!  After filling a 5-gallon bucket with boiling water, we sisters were given the honor of dunking and plucking.  With twine around their feet, we hung the scalded chickens from a nail in a barn beam and plucked those feathers clean off as best we could.  

My mother was in charge of dressing the hens back in the kitchen.  Dressing is the more delicate term to describe the process of gutting and cleaning the bird.  I still vividly recall my mother showing us shell-less eggs from inside one of the hens – in descending sizes from the current large to tiny!  I was utterly fascinated!  I should perhaps mention at this point that once upon a time I had thoughts of becoming a veterinarian.  As science and math were not among my strong points, that dream soon fell by the wayside.

We also raised pigs, three at a time.  And now I must confess that I had a tremendous fear of our cute little piglets simply from their noise and stench!  So, I refused to care for them, thus putting my younger brothers in charge of the feeding and cleaning of little piglets that grew into large hogs – really a good responsibility for my energetic brothers!  My dad knew when they’d reached sufficient poundage and sent them off to the butcher shop to become delicious pork in the freezer for us and our city relatives.  

Our mare (granddaughter of the famous race horse, Man O’ War), chickens, ducks and one goose (appropriately named “Honk” by my toddler brother) were my charges with the Muscovy ducks providing entertainment.  Digging a hole in the fenced-in chicken run, we sank a square galvanized tub for their bathing delight, and they regularly enjoyed “swim” time.  

Only one duck decided to set on about a dozen eggs.  Four hatched properly and soon waddled behind their Mama to explore the great outdoors.  Feeling sorry for the fifth duckling who was late emerging from its shell, this writer took it upon herself to assist the poor little thing.  Unbeknownst to her at the time (she forgot to study), fowl do not need, nor do they desire, our assistance to hatch from their shell.  They have a “tooth” on their beak which assists them quite well; but, they also must do their own hatching in order to survive.  So, you guessed it – this little duckling did not live long once it had been helped out of its shell.  

Then, a few days later, this caretaker came home from school and eagerly went out to care for her critters only to sadly discover one little duckling had drowned in the 2-inch-deep water dish in their pen.  That left three cute and fuzzy ducklings to follow the adults as they grew like weeds.  And, though a bit more greasy than chicken, they were absolutely delicious when my mother roasted them! (Yes, that was their intended purpose.)

During the years that I stayed home to raise our children while my husband farmed with his dad, I grew a large garden every summer, canning and freezing a year’s worth of vegetables and fruit.  It sure helped save on grocery bills.  It was only natural I delved into this venture since my parents raised a large garden every year for as long as I can remember, as did both sets of grandparents.  But, as children, when we were sent out to weed our garden, my sister and I opted instead to run and play between the rows!  Truth be told, we even tossed some of the green beans under the lilac bushes when we decided we were tired of the chore of snapping them.  However, when they were my own gardens with food to be put up for the coming winter, I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the process.

But, as mentioned above, I’ve often wondered how our ancestors put their veggies up. They didn’t have the benefit of a freezer, nor could they efficiently use water-bath jar canning let alone the fine tunings of a high-pressure cooker/canner like I had available.  

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So, in looking for books to study this subject, I recalled my bookshelf held my mother’s, “Putting Food By – The No.1 book about all the safe ways to preserve food.”  It’s a very useful book for beginners as it discusses all the prerequisites to canning and freezing vegetables and meats, including explanations of the old-fashioned methods our ancestors used to put up their food.

Another excellent resource obtained through Spencer’s interlibrary loan system was “The Little House Cookbook, Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories” by Barbara M. Walker.  What a genuine treasure this book is as Ms. Walker expands on Wilder’s descriptions of the foods they ate by explaining how their food was prepared with innumerable appropriate recipes.

A classic from the 19th century, Housekeeper and Healthkeeper (available only online and not through interlibrary loan) by Catherine E. Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) discusses virtually every conceivable household dilemma for the housewife of the late 19th century.  Beecher’s own foreword is written to “My Dear Friends, – This volume embraces…many valuable portions of my other works on Domestic Economy…  It is designed to be a complete encyclopedia of all that relates to a woman’s duties as housekeeper, wife, mother, and nurse.”  Beecher includes five hundred recipes of which I perused a few.  She is completely thorough in all of her explanations to assist the housewife who often entered her new profession without foundational training.  I was impressed by Beecher’s ability to address every possible home situation from cooking and putting food by, to cleaning and caring for the sick family.   

In our ancestors’ time a few hundred years ago, even through the end of the 19th century, most rural families had a milch (milk) cow or two.  Not only was the family’s delicious milk and cream supplied by their very own favorite pet cow, but Bossy’s milk also provided them the ability to make butter, cheese and ice cream.  Things just didn’t get any better than that!  And, extras could be sold or bartered for other necessities not readily available or too expensive at the general mercantile.

Without electricity, one either had an ice house to keep foods cold, a storage area in the cellar, or a springhouse.  Root cellars were a popular place to store vegetables below the frost line.  Attics were often used to store food during the winter including hams, pumpkins, squashes, onions, and dried vegetables.  Perhaps the home had a storage shed just outside the back door.  Here, the family could conveniently store meat in a “natural freezer” during the winter months (though I’ve wondered about wild critters enjoying the free cache), along with stacked firewood, other supplies, and kettleware.  

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Then again, many homes had a large pantry just off the kitchen.  I remember well my Grandma Tillapaugh’s huge pantry with shelves on all sides and a door to the cellar, which I never did get to explore.  It was in this pantry that she kept her big tin of large scrumptious molasses cookies that we could help ourselves to when she gave approval.  Try as I might, I was never able to duplicate her delicious cookies though!

My mother shared with me that their cellar held crates of apples and potatoes and other root vegetables. Not a root cellar per se`, my mom said that what was stored in crates kept quite well through the winter.  She also recalls her mother did use both pressure and waterbath canners for fruits and vegetables, along with canning pickled tongue and other meats at butchering time.  As my Aunt Shirley wrote about butchering time, their meat was put into a salt brine and stored in large wooden barrels or the old pottery crocks.  This process meant keeping the meat well covered by brine, held below the surface by a heavy weight.  Smoking was another great way to cure and preserve the meat to prevent spoilage and bacteria growth during storage over the long winter.  

Brine, made of sugar, salt, saltpeter or sodium nitrate, and mixed with water, covered and cured meats placed in large crocks.  After the curing time of up to two months, the meat was typically smoked and then hung in the attic or cellar.  Or, you could fry the meat, place it in a crock, covering it with a layer of lard, then a layer of meat covered by lard until the crock was full.  The homemaker had only to dig out the amount of meat needed for a meal and reheat it.  These ever-handy crocks preserved other foods such as butter, pickles, sauerkraut, and even vegetables.  Apple cider was fermented to make hard cider, often a staple on the old farms.  Lard or paraffin was used to seal a crock’s contents, keeping out contaminants causing spoilage.  Read “The Many Uses of Pottery Crocks” by Jeannine Roediger (09/18/11).

Before modern conveniences came along, root vegetables were typically stored in the cellar, or root cellar – especially potatoes, turnips, onions, beets, cabbages, carrots and even apples.  Areas that are cool, dark and dry help keep vegetables from sprouting, and slow any spoilage that might begin.  It was also a wise idea to store apples, potatoes and cabbages apart from each other and other produce so their odors/flavors did not spoil each other.  It was also a must to keep an eye on everything for early signs of spoilage.  Vegetables and certain fruits being stored could be wrapped individually in paper, or kept in baskets covered in sand, soil or dry leaves.  

Reading the requirements in “Putting Food By,” we need to know a lot about the root cellar process that, on the surface, seems like such a simple idea – but it’s really not.  There are specific temperature and dryness or moisture requirements for the various vegetables and fruits to prevent mold and spoilage.

I recall that in the early 1980s, I had an abundance of good-sized green tomatoes.  After picking them, we lay them out on the basement floor on newspaper to ripen, storing the greenest in a bushel basket with each one wrapped in newspaper.  They kept for a good while out in the garage where it was cold but not freezing. 

Another popular method was to dry fruits and vegetables, often simply by drying them in the sun.  Meat dried in this manner is called jerky.  If the home had a cookstove, drying could be accomplished on trays in the oven, or the vegetables and fruit could simply be put on strings and hung to dry in a warm area of the room.  The warm attic space near the chimney was another good place to dry food, using protection from dust and bugs.  Reconstitution by adding sufficient water for stewing was all it took to use these otherwise scarce foods during the cold and barren winter months.  Though they often lost some of the original flavor, dried veggies and fruits must have been a welcome addition to their diet during the cold winter months.  In the latter half of the 19thcentury, special driers with built-in furnaces became available on the market for home use in drying various fruits and vegetables.

When thinking about the types of food eaten by our ancestors on the frontier, we need to remember that their salty and fatty dishes were necessary for their diet considering their involvement in extensive physical labor.  And to this any modern farmer can attest as their own hard work all day in the barn or fields contributes to a rather hearty appetite – I do remember how much Ed ate without gaining weight!

Farmers and homesteaders had not only the typical farm chores to attend to in the hot summer and bitter cold winter, but they would hunt to supplement their meat supply, and put in a garden to reap the harvest of both vegetables and fruits.  If the homesteader did not have a ready supply of fruit on their own bushes and trees, searching the nearby forest often gave them a bounty of seasonal fruits and berries.  Yet, even in that venture, there was the ever-present danger of wild animals, especially bear.  The homesteaders’ hearty appetites and wide variety of unprocessed food allowed for a healthy diet which did not require today’s supplemental vitamins.

My mother shared her memory years ago of pouring maple syrup (or cooked molasses and brown sugar) over snow which Laura Ingalls and her siblings did to make a delicious candy.  (Not recommended nowadays with the pollutants in our snow.)  As a teen, I remember making ice cream the old-fashioned way with a hand-turned crank – nothing tasted better when it was ready!  And my sister and I attempted to make divinity, once – it wasn’t perfect, but it was delicious!  Now, a favorite of mine is to make cashew brittle – the key being a candy thermometer which neither my sister and I nor Laura Ingalls’ family had available years ago.

It required a lot of work on the part of every family member to hunt, raise and grow the family’s food, and then to put it up for the coming winter, year after year.  If they didn’t carefully follow the steps to properly preserve their food, a good deal of spoilage could and would occur due to various elements or critters.  And, at the time of which we write, the early 19th century, canning was not yet an available option for our homesteader.  Actually, the glass Mason canning jar with rubber ring and wire clasp was not available until 1858.  But then, of course, if you could afford it, you could simplify life and buy quality foods at the grocery or butcher shop in town to maintain a well-balanced diet throughout the unproductive winter months.  

All things considered, we really do have an easier way of life.  But, what satisfaction our ancestors must have felt in putting by their own food!  I sure did when canning and freezing the produce of our gardens years ago.

Linda Roorda writes from her home in Spencer.

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