Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Root Cellars and Ye Olde Yankee Stores

There are two things in life that tug at my curiosity to harken back to the past, old country stores and root cellars, with each related to one another.

My son in the middle of my families early 19th century root cellar.

Old country stores, in particular, Ye Olde Yankee general stores were always filled with hogshead barrels of crackers, meat, codfish and pickles. There would always be a wheel of true, aged Cheddar cheese ready for the store keeper to cut a wedge for the customer whose hands were full of crackers and pickles just plucked from the wooden barrels before him.

Of course what would a country store be without that barrel of soft and hard cider laying on its side to draw from and quench with.

Then there were the old root cellars that every single household had, whether you were well-to-do or not. Cider, meat, vegetables, fruit, pickles and cheeses were kept in this cool dungeon of a room.

Here in New England, these root cellars were more often(at least in the countryside) merely a cellar underneath your home that was lined with large rocks and boulders that were removed from the original plowing of the fields. When homesteading, the flat rocks were used for rock walls, to show as boundary lines for your property. The small and medium sized rocks were used to line your water well.

My son clearing debris from a rock lined water well, dating from 1838

Once you hand dug the cellar hole according to the size of your home, you would line it with large boulders so that it would be strong enough to hold the house up without shifting or sinking. Once the floor was layed, with a trapdoor leading down into the earthy dungeon, then the rest of the home was built.

My son standing inside our Bailey family root cellar in Maine, constructed ca. 1786
During the fall season, all sorts of things were put into the cellar hole, as mentioned, because the temperature remained constant throughout most of the year. Here are some articles and references regarding cellar holes of old.

In the May 30, 1715 Boston News-Letter, a certain man was ready to sell his "fine, bottl'd Sydar from his Sydar Cellar" for 3d per quart.

On April 6, 1784, the New Brunswick, New Jersey Political Intelligencer offered a farm for sale that contained "a very excellent garden, well paled in, with a root cellar at the bottom."

Ben Franklin wrote in Poor Richard's Almanac during the mid-18th century about using cellars to store wine:

"Begin to gather Grapes from the 10th of September(the ripest first) to the last of October, and having clear'd them of Spider webs, and dead Leaves, put them in a large Molasses-or Rum-Hogshead; after having washed it well, and knock'd one Head out, fix it upon the other Blocks, on a Stand or in the Cellar."

A method of perserving "winter apples" was offered by Samuel Dean in the 1790s as:

" I gather them about noon, on the day of the full of the moon which happens in the latter part of September, or beginning of October. Then spread them in a chamber or a garret, where they lie till about the last of November. then, at a time, when the weather is dry, remove them into casks, or boxes, to the cellar, out of the way of the frosts; but I prefer a cool part of the cellar. With this management, I find I can keep them to the last of May, so well that not one in fifty will rot...In the Autumn of 1793, I packed apples in the shaving of pine, so that they scaresely touched on another. They kept well till some time in May following; though they were a sort which are mellow for eating in December. Dry sawdust might perhaps answer the end as well. Some barrel them up, and keep them through the winter in upper rooms, covering them with blankets or mats, to pervent freezing. Dry places are best for them."

As mentioned, meat of all types was stored in barrels and placed in root cellars. Found in the New System of American Cookery Found Upon The Principles of Economy, 1807-By A Lady:

"Chop fat and lean pork and season it with sage, black pepper and salt, you may add two or three pimentos. Half fill hogs guts that have been soaking and made extremely clean; or the meat may be kept in a very small closely covered pan, and so rolled and dusted with a very little flour before they are fried. Fowls, including pigeons, are trussed, plucked, gutted and either roasted or boiled. It was then cooled and put into a barrel, covered with melted fat and a lid in the root cellar. "

Here is an old recipe for pickling cucumbers.

"Use small cucumbers and place in a pan with salt and water, strong enough to bear an egg. Pickle them for a day, drain and place back into a pot with vinegar, mace, cloves, nutmeg, peppercorns, races of ginger and long peppers. Simmer, without boiling, until green all the way through. Cool and tightly cover, storing in the root cellar.

To Collar beef. Soak beef in ham brine for a couple days then dry it. Roll it into a hard collar with salt and ppepper, tie it tightly and soak in fat or wine before handing it down into the cellar."

My, how times have changed! My children now would never eat the way our forefathers did. Their favorite item on the fast food restaurants menu? The pickles! I can't even buy store bought pickles anymore because they love these sour circles.


Thin Sour Dill Pickle Slices

1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar or white vinegar
2 tablespoons pickling salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 pounds pickling cukes *
2 teaspoons dill seed
1 tablespoon peppercorns

In a saucepan, add water, vinegar, salt, sugar and garlic powder. Bring to scalding, whisking well. over medium heat. When spices have dissolved, remove from heat to cool to room temperature.

Slice the cucumbers as thinly as possible, I used a mandolin to mimic the fast food pickles, only because that is what my children wanted.

Place the dill seeds and peppercorns in a large bowl, followed by the sliced cucumbers. Pour the pickling juice over the top. Make sure you have enough to cover. Grab a couple heavy, large plates that is able to fit inside the bowl yet cover as much of the pickles as possible. This will keep the pickles submerged. Place a kitchen towel over the bowl, making sure it doesn't touch the liquid, and set aside. Let cucumbers sit in the brine for 8-9 days, tasting after 7 to halt the brining process at your preferred taste level.

Skim any foam that may rise on a daily basis. The liquid will become cloudy, but that is what you want. When ready, transfer pickles to jars with lids and there you have it.

* Or the same weight in a long, thin English cucumber.

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