I knocked on the neighbor's door and held up a sprig of something I'd just cut from a bush growing wild along our country road. When the elderly farm woman (who would become a dear friend) came to the door I asked, "If I make jelly from this, will I poison my family?"
She chuckled. "Well, honey ... what do you think that is?"
I looked at the smooth-skinned red fruit. "I think it's chokecherries, but I'm not sure. We picked gooseberries and blackberries on my Grandpa's farm in Illinois ... but I don't remember chokecherries."
My friend nodded. "Yes, that's chokecherries. But they aren't ripe." In July, my family drove the country roads near our acreage, the children and I hopping out the side door of the mini-van when Dad came to a stop, filling buckets with ripe chokecherries. We were following in the steps of thousands of pioneer women who not only planted vast gardens but also spent hours harvesting and preserving wild fruits and berries, roots and plants.
|Mattie Oblinger's letters|
are a treasure to researchers
longing to know about the
everyday life of a pioneer woman.
|A pioneer family shows off their garden bounty.|
Nebraska State Historical Society nbhips 10957
Prior to the invention of the canning jar, food was dried to preserve it. ("You slice the pumpkin around in circles, take the seeds out, peel it, and hang it on a stock crosswise of the joists of the house. Let it hang there until it dries. Then store it in sacks. You have to cook it several hours, and season it with hog meat and grease"). Leather Breeches Beans were created by stringing beans with a needle and strong thread and hanging up in the warm air until dry. "Store in a bag until ready to use." "I never canned carrots; we could keep them down in our basement. Put them down there, put sand over them and they kept real well. And rutabagas, lovely potatoes and onions, and oh, so many string beans."
Cabbages and potatoes might also be buried in a dirt trench and then covered with straw and dirt. Cabbage might also be layered in a crock, alternating chopped cabbage with salt. "When the jar is filled, cover the cabbage with a clean white cloth or a saucer. Then place a flat flint rock or other weight on top to hold the cabbage under the brine that will naturally form." Once canning was possible, the next step would have been to portion out the sauerkraut and can it, but "old timers used to leave the cabbage" in the crocks.
In 1873, Mattie Oblinger wrote, "I have 8 dozen cucumbers up." I don't know what kind of pickles she made, but I can imagine stoneware crocks lined up in her kitchen and the aromas of vinegar and onions in the air. I've made my share of watermelon pickles, dill pickles, zucchini pickles, cinnamon cucumbers, and relish. But in all my years of pickling, I doubt I've gone through the number of cucumbers Mattie's garden yielded in one growing season.
I remember my mother topping dozens of jars of jelly with a layer of melted paraffin (wax).
My mother's Bread & Butter Pickle recipe is relatively easy and definitely time tested, although it assumes basic "pickle & canning knowledge." Born in 1913, my mother knew life without electricity and indoor plumbing and remembered old fashioned "ice boxes" and storing canned food and potatoes in the root cellar beneath the farm house.
Nora's Bread & Butter Pickles
1 quart sliced cucumbers
slices of onion
1 cup vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon turmericPut all ingredients, except cucumbers, in enameled pan and let come to light boil. Add cucumbers, let come to boil. Boil 1 minute. Pack in sterilized jars. Seal while hot. Process 10 minutes at simmering temperature.
Do you preserve summer's bounty? What's your favorite home-canned food? Jelly or jam?
In my novel Sixteen Brides (Bethany House Publishers) band together on a Nebraska homestead. Learning about early gardening enabled me to write the passage below. While I love writing about pioneer women, I'm very grateful I don't have to adopt their workload.
"They planted pumpkins, squash and melons, all of it without plowing. Ella slit the soil, and Caroline walked behind her, a bag of seed at her waist as she bent and tucked seeds into the slots. The planted corn that way, too. Five acres to start with, although Ella had plans for at least twenty ... By the end of that first week they'd set out over a hundred cabbages.They planted onions and carrots, parsnips, beets, and peas. Nancy Darby brought them tomato seedlings, and they planted those close to the house inside wire cages lest a jackrabbit nibble the tender plants off. They planted lettuce and radishes, turnips and cucumbers ..."
To celebrate their first growing season on their homestead, my ladies host a harvest celebration on their place. Read more here: http://stephaniewhitson.com/books/sixteen-brides/