Sunday we received our first snow; large clumps of wet flakes fell from the leaden sky as I watched out the window. I felt like shutting the curtains so I would not have to look at it, yet my eyes were compelled to continue staring dismally at the lazily falling flakes. I know this snow will not stay; it is only the harbinger of much more to come in the winter ahead. It does remind me I should check our winter stores to be sure we are ready for the long cold months ahead.
I have been canning and hauling foodstuffs down to the root cellar for over two months, usually I have been in such a rush that the jars, buckets, baskets, and barrels have not been properly sorted and set about. This would be a good day to go down into the cellars and sort everything out. Arming myself with a cup of coffee, a notepad and pen, plus extra labels, I descend into the under regions of the house with my hands full. The first stop is the canning cupboard; it is about six feet wide and five feet tall with lots of deep shelves. I turn the wood latch to open the door on the left and swing it wide open. Row upon row of gleaming glass jars twinkle out of the darkness at me. I begin moving the jars into their proper places, counting and marking them down as I go. Sixty-six quart jars of dark orange carrots line up like soldiers in a row. Next are fifteen quarts of stewed turkey, chicken, venison and moose canned in broth, and then the jars of diced potatoes. All the fixings for good hardy stews set together. Bright yellow rings of summer squash sit next to deep maroon jars of Harvard beets. Corn, baby beets, green and yellow beans, and peas crowd each other for space. Bright red jars of stewed tomatoes wait their chance to turn into thick rich sauces and smother great plates of pasta. Carefully I list each jar on two sheets of paper, one for upstairs and the other hangs inside the cupboard door. This side is finished; now let us move over to the other side.
The right door creaks slightly as it opens. I must remember to put a drop of oil on it sometime. This is the cupboard of treats. On the top shelves sits the jams, jellies, and homemade maple syrup. Tucked off to one side is a small jar of maple sugar I give the grandchildren for a treat. The next shelf displays pints of spiced bananas, which is such a treat with ice cream. There are fruit chutneys to go with the meats, and venison mincemeat for those special pies. The next four shelves are loaded with jars containing pickles. The jars of oddities such as pickled turnip, crabapple pickles, and pickled baby vegetables claim nearly a whole shelf for themselves. Sweet pickles, sour pickles, slices and spears, big whole dill pickles, and little bitty gherkins all sit in their golden brine soaking up the flavors from the spices that swirl about when you pick up the jar. The paper with the list hangs on the door, which I close very gently. One cupboard done and before I lose my ambition I should go down to the root cellar.
I flick the light switch then open the red door and go down about a dozen dimly lit steps to the blue door. With only a narrow beam of light to break the darkness, I have to tread carefully on the narrow cement steps. I open the blue door, enter the cool dry room, and quickly shut the door again. The dim light casts strange looking shadows around the room. Huddled closely together in one end of the small room are four barrels of potatoes. I lift the piece of canvas covering the barrel and the many eyes of the potatoes peek back. Hanging from the ceiling are mesh bags of garlic and onions. I feel each bag to check for sprouts or a soft bulb. On the shelves in the middle of the room there sits gallon jars of ketchup, mustard, relish, mayonnaise, and chocolate syrup. Large tins sitting on the bottom shelf contain the staples, one hundred pounds of brown sugar, two hundred pounds each of flour and white sugar. Five gallon jugs of cooking oil, numerous cans of shortening, and smaller tins of other dry goods such as baking soda and cornstarch finish filling the shelves. The far end of the room seems cluttered with a barrel of apples, squash and pumpkins resting about, and neatly stacked cases of soda. Everything looks good, another quick glance around, and then out and up I go closing the door tightly behind me. I only have one last place to check to know if we are ready for the winter ahead.
In the darkest corner of the cellar, where the temperature and humidity remain constant, a small green cupboard hugs tightly against the wall. This little cupboard contains the dried herbs and spices that will help keep us well in the winter to come. Carefully labeled bottles filled with crumbled dried leaves and ground spices stand neatly aligned in alphabetical order on the shelves. From little hooks screwed into the bottom of the shelf above hang bunches of dried herbs for teas. Small, carefully tied bundles of catnip and peppermint wait to cure winter colds. Rose hips, bee balm, and chamomile blossoms sit in little dark brown bottles while the strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry leaves are neatly stacked in small tin boxes until needed to add vitamin C to a brew. The ample supply of Slippery Elm bark is dried and ready to be ground into powder. For coughs or sore throats, you brew a tea or you can add it to a poultice to “pull the poison from the wound”. Packed to the brim, every bottle is tightly corked and sealed. Everything is secure.
As cold weather approaches, I am like the squirrels. I bustle about in a frenzy putting the things we will need in storage. I double check, triple check and then decide we really should have more. I grew up doing this; I can remember being four or five years old and passing jars to my Great grandmother as she stood on her step stool to reach the highest shelves in her canning cupboard. Back then, the four generations would get together to can; the children would shell or snap five gallon buckets of vegetables under Great grandmother's watchful eye. The buckets would go inside where Mother and Grandmother would be standing in clouds of steam with sweat running off their bright red faces. Large pans of boiling water covered the stove. Some pots would be blanching the vegetables, and others held jars of vegetables to be sealed. This joint venture assured that everyone in the family had plenty for the winter. Although the others don't can like I do, and we don't get together to do the canning as a family anymore, everyone still cans just a little bit.
Now I feel secure. I know that we can be snowed in for months and we will not need for anything. Sitting in a house full of food with seven cord of wood in the back yard tells me that not only will I live comfortably in the winter to come, but I also have enough extra to help some of my neighbors if they are in need. I think it is time to thank the Lord for his bounty and rest.
Written by Debra Cone