Putting food by

By Elizabeth Donaldson
Special to the Times

Threshing was certainly an exciting time on our farm but there were other aspects of harvest that were important even if not as dramatic or thrilling. With shorter days and a chill in the air we all helped prepare for the long cold winter.

The chicken house was banked and repairs were attended to if needed. If more carpenter work was needed Uncle Bill Strachan helped out with that.

A room that was my least favorite in the barn was cleaned and got ready for storing the potatoes and other root vegetables. We called it the root cellar but it was a room with no windows on the north side of the barn separated from the stables by alley ways. We avoided it even in our games of Hide and Go Seek. It was dark and even the beams of the lantern did not reach the corners. Spider webs would catch in your hair, it smelled musty and damp and a mouse might run over your foot. Shelves around two sides held the vegetables off the floor. The potatoes took the most space but there was plenty of room for the carrots, turnips and onions. Our small house had not much room for storage and sometimes the two quart jars of pickles or rhubarb were stored there. It was a dark and smelly and to me, imaginary things lurked in the corners but it served a purpose. Later I thought what a difference one electric light bulb would have made to that room.

Cabbages were left in the ground until late fall and then came sauerkraut time. The trimmed heads were thinly shredded by my mother and then put into a large stoneware crock. A certain smooth block of wood was used to carefully tamp the cabbage down until the juices started to flow. Then coarse salt was added a bit at a time. At first it was fun, then tamping got laborious but Mom kept shredding and we kept tamping. Salt was added very slowly until it was pronounced salty enough. By then the cabbage was very juicy and when it was weighted down with a plate and heavy clean stone the juice would come up over it. It took about two weeks for the cabbage to be fermented enough and it could be smelled throughout the house. Some was packed in jars but often a crock would be put outside to freeze. In the winter a pan full could be dug out with a strong knife to be cooked for supper.

Other preparing of our food supply had less pleasant aspects but were necessary and the butchering also took place in the fall when it turned cold. Bob McCoy, a neighbour, came to handle it. My mother tried to shield us from some of it but the memories are there. Some of the beef may have been sold but in the winter I recall a hind quarter of beef hanging in the top part of the barn, wrapped in a clean flour sack sheet, frozen solid. It could be let down with a rope and pulley and Mom would saw a piece off to be cooked and then pull it back up away from marauding cats etc. Some of the meat was canned also.

We also had pork and I do have memories of the carcass being dipped in a big vat of scalding water and then all of us with knives helping scrape the hide clean of hair. There were different ways of preserving pork by soaking it in a special brine. Mom also used a product called Habacure which was rubbed into a pork belly to cure it. It had to sit for a while and then became bacon. Nothing was wasted and the extra fat was rendered out in the oven into a clear oil which became nice white lard when it cooled and solidified. I also recall the process of making headcheese.

With no way of keeping food cold many methods were devised and most places had a cellar. There were others like us who had a very small cellar accessed by a trap door in one of the rooms-the back bedroom off the kitchen in our house. The space was about 3′ by 5′, I think, quite deep, and you could step down into it by means of a well placed stone. There was a space of about 18 inches between the floor and the earth acting as a shelf. It was really quite cold and held the cream can, things like butter and lard, and leftovers, even in the summer.

I often think of the ingenuity of those earlier homemakers and the methods they devised for storing food for the long cold winters and I have touched just briefly on that.