We call it “putting-up,” the processes we used to preserve food for future use. There were many of them used by frugal mountain folk, industrious people “to the Nth degree”, as we say here, to save what we grew and gathered by the sweat of our brow to grace our tables in winter’s cold. Drying, pickling, barreling, canning and mounding-up were a few processes that come to mind.
Drying included stringing green beans twice. First, “stringing” them to remove just that, the strings from white half-runners, our favorite variety to grow in the mountains. Then came stringing the unbroken beans by pushing a threaded needle through the middle of each until a goodly string was saved. Next came the drying process—hanging the “strung” beans from a nail in a safe, clean, out-of the way place or over a rafter in the attic to await winter’s need for them. The end product of this process had an interesting name, “Leather Britches.” When the housewife-cook was ready to prepare a “mess” of them, she washed them thoroughly, soaked them until the dryness gave way to plumpness as the beans hydrated again, and then cooked them slowly (in an iron pot) with a piece of “fat-back” pork meat.
Drying included many mountain products, among which were October beans (somewhat like present-day Pinto beans), peas of various sorts—the early spring sweet peas to make split-pea soup, several varieties of “field” peas, as black-eyed peas, Crowder peas, and purple-hull peas. These were shelled, dried in the sun, and put into bags to await winter meals. On my Daddy’s farm, we grew a lot of peas, and the dried peas were “beaten out” on a tarpaulin on the ground, and when the peas were thus out of the hull, they were put into a bucket, and held up and “winnowed” to blow the husks out. Then the beautiful dry peas were ready to store, labeled by kind, for winter use. Sometimes we sold a few bushels of the winnowed peas, what we would not need. The extra money for a few bushels of peas always helped out in our shortfall of cash.
Drying fruits was another skill. We used scaffolds on which we dried fruits—apples and peaches cut into slices, and dried carefully in the sun for several days with a screen-wire covering over the scaffold to prevent insects from harming the fruit. The scaffolded fruit was always brought inside at night to prevent its getting wet with dew.
One of the most delectable desserts imaginable was dried-fruit (apple) cake, with the layers stacked several high and a mixture of cooked dried apples with sugar and cinnamon added, spread on each thin cake layer for icing.
Pumpkin was dried, too, much like green beans, by stringing strips on a thread and hanging this cache to dry. The country cook knew how to turn dried pumpkin into pumpkin pies or how to add just the right amount of dried pumpkin to winter soups with potatoes, onions, carrots and stew meat, to make the soup delicious. The drying process guaranteed winter use of pumpkin, for this product, unless properly preserved, would not last through the winter. It had a short “shelf life” in the pumpkin shell.
Pickling was another process altogether. We pickeled beans, corn, cabbage and cucumbers, to name a few vegetables thus preserved. For these “putting-up” processes, we had to have crocks, or ceramic churns, in which to layer, process and then store the prepared vegetables.
Beans and corn were cooked (separately) until done. Then they were placed in churns with salt between each layer and set aside until “pickled.” The pickled product was then washed, and in more recent years, canned. But a long time ago, the products were washed off and returned to the crock pots, covered with clear water, to lessen the saline taste. The cabbage were chopped, and place raw, in layers of salt, in the pickling churn. The housewife knew, by daily examination, just when the process of pickling the kraut was finished, and washed the cabbage thoroughly and either returned it to the pottery jar with fresh water to await winter’s need, or else canned it. Cucumbers were helped along in the pickling process with a seasoning of dill herb and salt in much the same manner as the cabbage from which kraut was made.
Barrels of fresh apples were preserved by wrapping each in a piece of newspaper and storing in what we called “the apple barrel’—a wooden barrel made from upright wooden staves and secured by iron bands. Likewise, green tomatoes were wrapped in newspaper and stored in the “tomato” barrel. We usually had these stored apples and tomatoes to feast on through Thanksgiving and maybe until Christmas or after.
It was a happy day for the mountain housewife when Mason jars became available. At first they had a tint of green, but when food was placed in jars and sealed, and cooked a long time in a water bath (pressure cookers were a twentieth-century invention), the food the jars contained was a welcome addition to the winter menu. As a point of pride, each housewife who set her jars in neat rows, arranged by category of food along her cellar shelves, had a virtual showcase of accomplishment. One of the country ways and pastimes was to visit from farmhouse to farmhouse and see each lady’s handiwork in the cellar, her assurance against winter hunger.
Mounding for food preservation purposes was mainly the task of the man of the house. He prepared an outside place for the vegetables that could be “buried” for the winter. Potatoes, both Irish and sweet, turnips, carrots and cabbage were “mounded” up, covered in straw, and then with dirt and a plank roof overhead to protect them from freezing in the winter temperatures. When a “mess” was needed, he went to the appropriate mound to retrieve vegetables for his household.
All of these methods of preserving the harvest from the farm have not included sorghum-making, that fall festival of sweetness from sorghum cane, which, at the Dyer farm was a September and October activity for the whole community. My father, Jewel Marion Dyer, was the “syrup-maker” for a broad area. The syrup, when made, was stored in tin buckets of half- and gallon-size. This product was our main money crop to pay taxes and get fall and winter clothes and shoes. It was also our “sweetener” when sugar was scarce, and could be used to sweeten the best gingerbread imaginable and various other desserts, as well as being eaten as a food itself with farm-fresh butter and hot biscuits on a cold winter morning. And have you ever tried sorghum syrup over kraut? If not, you might like to taste this evening meal dish with pork sausage.
Both ingenuity and necessity led our forebears to find various means of preserving and providing food for their families in days gone by. Maybe we need to relearn these lessons for this twenty-first century.
c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Aug. 27, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.