Clearing out our family’s early 19th century farmhouse for a renovation into a shared family gathering place was daunting work – my family had occupied this house for five generations, then the house had sat unoccupied for about thirty years. The first major hurdle was the cellar, accessed outside by a set of steep, uneven steps and inside by a very undependable wooden staircase which our unfortunate son somewhat painfully discovered was lacking a bottom step.
I knew what lurked in the dark, below-grade basement. Big stone crocks that once held sauerkraut and pickles lurked in corners, bins that had once held apples and potatoes over the winter lined the walls and on shelves built around the warm chimney were rows and rows of canning jars, filled with preserved food; more than three hundred jars to be carried outside, emptied, washed, and packed away. Some of the jars were old enough to have been put up by my great-grandmother in the 1920s. Judging from the newspapers used as shelf paper, most were from the 1940s through the 1960 and then trickled to a stop, as my aged grandmother finally stopped putting up food in the 1970s.
The task of emptying all of those jars was daunting to say the least. I imagined every food borne disease known to man bursting from the jars as I opened them and prepared myself with a dust mask that offered absolutely no protection and plastic food gloves that might have helped a bit if they stayed on my hands. My husband prepared a special compost pile to receive the contents of the jars so we started what seemed like an endless task.
Over the next few weeks, as a friend and I opened jar after jar, this potentially dirty, drudgy job morphed into a fascinating exploration of the kinds of foods that grew on the farm from the 1940s through the 1970s.
One important piece of luck was that the cellar, entirely underground, was a cave that perfectly preserved the contents of the jars of fruit and vegetables, though we quickly learned to not open the mincemeat. The jugs of apple cider had turned into very strong vinegar, but the tightly sealed jars of fruits and vegetables stored in the cave-like temperatures of the below-grade basement were amazingly unspoiled and retained their original color and shape. The list of preserved fruits included applesauce, blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches, and plums; vegetables included carrots, corn, string beans, navy beans, tomatoes, and beets.
I felt my grandmother shudder at the waste of it all as we emptied the contents of each jar into a compost bed and that she would find a great deal of irony in the fact that once emptied, washed, dried, and sorted, the canning jars were packed in boxes and stacked on pallets in the basement, waiting for the next generation to deal with them. Grandmother might well have suggested that a great deal of energy had been wasted in accomplishing very little and she was very likely correct. Those jars might well have lasted another 50 or 100 years in the cave-like atmosphere of the farmhouse basement.
Still, I learned so much about her, and the farm during its most active and productive phase from the 1920s through the 1960s. All of those jars contained food that had been was raised on the farm, picked by hand, and carried to the house to be washed, cut up, and stuffed into jars that were sterilized in boiling water on the back of the combination wood and LP gas stove in the old kitchen before being processed in a hot water bath or pressure cooker. The time and effort it took to raise this food was monumental and each filled glass jar with its rubber sealing ring, glass lid, cramped together with a tight wire bale was a testament to hard work and perseverance. The food in these jars was the connection between the crumpled seed catalogs, the recipes cut out from newspapers and ladies magazines and pasted in old books. It was the explanation for the presence of the many different kinds of kitchen gadgets and food preparation tools whose use was often a puzzle to me. It’s also the reason why I am, albeit reluctantly, compelled to garden, because the end result of the planting, weeding, watering, and gathering is the pleasure of reaching onto my pantry shelf for a jar of fresh peaches while the snow piles up outside.
Why do you garden? Email me at ElizabethShipmeadow@gmail.com and we’ll compile a list of the top ten reasons why we garden!
Old jars of produce lined basement shelves of one family’s early 19th century farmhouse. Photo by Elizabeth Janoski