Gardening season on the northern plains is short. The rule of thumb is: don’t plant before Victoria Day (May 24) and pray the first frosts don’t come until mid-September, preferably later. Assuming the garden isn’t eaten by various bugs or frozen out or dried out or rained out, then comes the task of preserving all that bounty for the coming winter.
Food preservation is not an issue today. We have access to chain supermarkets with fruits and vegetables from around the world. One hundred years ago, grocery stores stocked only basic produce. When I was a child in the 1950s, our little store sold only potatoes and onions, apples and oranges, cabbages and carrots, head lettuce and turnips, and wan tomatoes in a cardboard sleeve with a cellophane window. Bananas were rare, and usually black. Avocados, bok choy and pomegranates didn’t exist.
Today, those of us inclined to grow a garden and preserve its bounty have freezers to keep that food. My grandmother had only one option – can everything. Addie did it all on a wood stove, and in the midst of harvest when she had to cook for a crew of up to 20 men.
September 11, 1936: Drove to village . . . Addie going along in p.m. when we bot more fruit for preserving.
July 21, 1937: Drove to Woodrow where we bot 1 cwt sugar, ½ crate raspberries & one crate apricots.
September 27, 1935: Edith preserved 24 qts plums in a.m.
Tuesday, July 20, 1926: Helped pick gooseberries in pm
Imagine standing at a hot cook stove, stirring jams and jellies, or minding the canner boiling to process the glass sealers of fruit and filling the kitchen with steam, and all the while feeding wood or coal into the cook stove. You didn’t do this once or twice as the spirit moved you. You did this repeatedly as vegetables matured, as the cases of fruit you had ordered arrived at the store, all summer long and into the fall, year in, year out. It wasn’t because you liked doing it – you had to do it.
October 11, 1932: Addie & I drove to Hazenmore & bot 300 lbs apples from A.F. Haddad.
I reread this diary entry several times. Three hundred pounds of apples? Surely, that was a mistake! What do you do with 300 pounds of apples? You make jelly, apple butter, spiced apples, and apple juice, over and over until all 300 pounds (minus what you had eaten in a fresh-apple-frenzy) are gone.
October 11, 1932: Addie & I dug carrots, beets & parsnips in early p.m.
Vegetables such as peas, corn and tomatoes could be canned but root crops went into the basement (or root cellar, if a farm had one). Abe and Addie’s “potato bin” was a room that took up a corner of the basement. It held two large bins for the many bushels of potatoes they dug each year, and another large bin, filled with sand, in which they buried carrots, parsnips and turnips. Cabbages hung from the ceiling, winter squash were piled in a corner.
Cucumbers became pickles – dills, nine-days, bread-and-butter, sweet mixed, mustard – or various kinds of relish. Beets, beans and carrots were pickled, too. That entailed more standing over a hot cook stove, sterilizing the sealers and boiling the brine.
How Addie must have heaved a sigh of relief when it was all done. I can see her putting her feet up and pouring herself a well-earned cup of tea. More than relief, though, was the sense of security – those hundreds of jars of produce, filling row upon row of shelves in the basement, meant they would have plenty to eat through the coming winter.
(What did prairie wives do with dried salt cod that was often included in the relief shipments of the 1930s? Read Chapter 35: “Living on Relief” in “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead, available at bookstores and in e-book format)
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