Historically Speaking: Preparing for winter
Harvest time began after Labor Day as school resumed, but that didn’t mean we kids didn’t have to help with the fall work. Our weekends in the fall were extra busy days as we always had a large garden. A lot of canning was done each fall to be certain we had plenty of food for the long winter months.
Cucumbers were plentiful, and many pint and quart jars of dill, bread and butter and chunk pickles were put up. The aroma of vinegar, spices and dill lingered in the kitchen for several days as we harvested and canned the proper-sized cucumbers for dills, the larger ones for bread and butter slices and the almost overripe ones for chunk pickles. Our mother had a special Danish recipe for chunk pickles (somewhat like today’s spears) in which she used very large cukes. She peeled them, scooped out the seeds, cut them into long spears or sometimes into chunks, and then added a bay leaf, whole cloves, sugar and vinegar. They were especially good!
Then came time for making the big barrel of sauerkraut. We had a cutter board for shredding the cabbage heads, but it was still a big job. A large barrel was kept in the kitchen which was filled with the shredded cabbage. It had been pounded down and was actually being cured in its own juice. As it cured, we’d sample some for a dinner of sauerkraut and pork hocks. If it was cured to perfection (my dad was the official taster), it was then canned into large two-quart jars and lined up on shelves in the root cellar. While it was in the barrel in the kitchen, it smelled so good. We all missed that tangy aroma when it was finally canned and out of sight.
Mother had a large canning kettle with a rack that held about eight quarts at a time. She would can tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots, corn and beets. Beets were a favorite of my mother’s, and her pickled beets were wonderful! These were usually put up in pint jars. In early years she used Mason jars with the glass lids and rubber rings, but later used the metal lids and rings (we would listen for the “ping” as they sealed after the canning process). If they sealed properly it was OK, but if a jar didn’t seal, it would be considered unsafe and would be discarded.
Parsnips, beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, potatoes, squash, pumpkin and several dozen heads of cabbage (roots intact) were kept in the root cellar. There was a special bin for potatoes, and toward spring the smell of a few rotten potatoes was expected. Vegetables kept quite well in the root cellar. Ours was dome-shaped with a couple of steps going down into the storage area. Grass grew on the top and it looked like a little round hill. Shelves lined the walls from ceiling to floor and jars of canned food filled the shelves. It was a colorful picture. You can be sure that during the winter the path to the root cellar was always kept cleared so we could bring our food supplies into the house.
My folks grew kale and from this my mother made a kale soup by grinding the leaves of kale in the food chopper. It was a green soup, and I just couldn’t eat it. They enjoyed it, as it was something they had grown and eaten in Denmark.
Sweet corn was used a lot during the summer and fall as soon as it was ripe for eating. Corn was canned, or the ears were dried and the kernels rubbed off and ground into meal by our large hand grinder. We also bought whole wheat kernels at the Northern Hay & Grain Company. This was also ground and cooked for breakfast cereal, as was the corn. These breakfast meals were kept in close-fitting containers. We ground all our dried corn kernels at one time, but purchased the wheat as needed.
Berries-blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, pin cherries, June berries, choke cherries (we made and bottled juice from these that we used on our pancakes), cranberries, currants and gooseberries were picked and canned for winter use. Cranberries were not always canned as they would keep well into the winter months. We had rhubarb, and Mother made many pies during the summer. For the winter she made a delicious marmalade using rhubarb, raisins and oranges. Rhubarb sauce was canned, to be used for shortcake later.
It was a good feeling to look around the root cellar and see all the canned vegetables, berries, pickles and the full bins of potatoes, carrots and rutabagas. Onions were hung in open-string bags from the rafters. They also kept well until almost spring. Our mother was a great cook and used a lot of onions.
Hazelnuts of several varieties were gathered in the fall. They were hulled and kept in clean gunny sacks, and shelled as needed for baking.
Besides harvesting the garden and wild crops, an inventory was made of the bedding. Quilts were mended and aired, and all our winter clothes were checked over. Mother would spend many hours at her sewing machine in the fall days after canning was over.
A good supply from the grocery store of flour, shortening, syrup, peanut butter, coffee, baking soda and baking powder, cocoa and spices was purchased in case we were snowed in for a great length of time. We had fresh milk each day, summer and winter. Eggs were also plentiful.
School supplies were bought in the fall, enough to last all year: crayons, tablets, fountain pens and a pencil box with a good supply of the old brown pencils.
Winter was a special time for rural folks, and getting ready for the forthcoming cold weather gave us a good feeling of security as a family. We would enjoy the brisk, cold air and most of all, the extra time we would have as a family on those long, cold days to spend time reading, playing games, doing crafts and story-telling.
I believe that my security as a needed member of my family, especially as we worked together, gave me a great gift in later life when I had a family of my own. Never once did I doubt that I was loved and needed.