Long-stored food, part two

The end of the 2007 season

Yesterday, I cleaned out the root cellar. Doesn’t that sound so very…retro? “Excuse me, but I need to step down to the root cellar.” To even HAVE a root cellar sounds so…foreign. But really. ANY unheated space can be a root cellar, and it needn’t be a cellar, and you needn’t even store any roots! There is one and only one concept you need to understand about a successfully stored root-cellared item. This is the concept of transpiration. All plants transpire: they exhaust their liquids. (Ever wonder why they put that nasty wax on cucumbers, apples and peppers? To keep them from losing moisture.) A root cellar tries to prevent transpiration by being cool enough, moist enough, and well-ventilated enough to keep something from rotting or drying out.

Many things have a leg up on being potential root-cellared items. Apples, pears and quinces have a thick skin, and many heirloom varieties of the same actually improve with storage by becoming sweeter or softer with time. Potatoes, usually white ones, are also thick-skinned things that simply require a dark, not-dry but not-wet, unfreezing place to be stored. Beets and carrots and celeriac likewise can be grown to be stored. Onions, cabbage and winter squash are other candidates. Other veggies and fruits just need other methods of storage, like drying, freezing or canning.

What drives me absolutely crazy is we have lost, through our own disinterest, both the knowledge of root cellaring and many of the long-stored cultivars of vegetables and fruit best grown to be stored. Why this happened is the fodder for books and in-your-face documentaries, and not my focus today. Let’s just say my theory is we were hoodwinked into a “lifestyle” of “convenience.” Well, excuse me if I strongly disagree that, by putting bushels of apples and roots and cabbage on the back steps of my basement, this is not convenient? This is less convenient than me driving back and forth to the grocery store 15 miles away once a week for a whole winter, THAT is a “lifestyle” of “convenience”?

Another indication of our loss is that the cultivars listed in my holy book of root cellaring (named, univentively, Root Cellaring, by Mike and Nancy Bubel) as great storage types are not exactly easy to find. One must then rely on the literature of seed catalogs which were written, of course, to sell seeds. Again, this makes me crazy. My other holy book of vegetables is one that is the 123-year-old English edition of Vilmorin-Andrieux’s The Vegetable Garden: it lists, for example, eleven closely-spaced pages of cabbages: about 100 varieties total. The average seed catalog lists 9, mostly concentrating on today’s “convienience/lifestyle” market of “mini-cabbages.”

Anyway. The picture above is the last of the goodies from the root cellar. The spooky sprouted potatoes got their own corner of a garden bed yesterday. The collection of apples is a motley one, mainly Northern Spys and Baldwins. And yes, I had one more cabbage: this is a Winningstadt.

The other thing to note about growing things for storage I kind of alluded to in the treatise I made about onions: it’s a many-pronged approach. Mostly, I put seeds in the ground for the storage items later in the season. Excepting the leeks, which take forever to grow, I won’t plant the cabbages, carrots, beets and celeriac for storage until the end of June. Any little cabbage babies in the ground today are for summer consumption and sauerkraut and kimchi and the like. Things will get harvested and stored successionally, as they become ready and/or when it starts getting cold. I suppose this sounds like a lot of work. It’s not, really.

And again, I suppose someone could likewise say to me that they prefer NOT to eat a seven-month-old cabbage, a six-month-old apple. Well, in general, neither would I, but just look at that cabbage!

*Note to those interested in the storage varieties I use: I’ve got a running list, including sources, that I plan to upload to the Seeds/Trees tab above. I think with any long-stored item, the “long” in the idea is relative. Some of my long-stored carrots, or beets, I never expect to see in April! December, maybe. So it’s another thing to consider: storage does not mean “forever.”

15 responses to “Long-stored food, part two

  1. Some may say “that they prefer NOT to eat a seven-month-old cabbage, a six-month-old apple,” but I suspect that the apples, cabbages, carrots, and other long store fruits and veggies are not exactly making it from the field to your local grocer in a timely manner. Just looking at some of the potatoes I have brought home from the store and I figure they have to be six months old already. Such a huge difference from what I buy from our local farmers during harvest time. And we are still hoping to get our own growing this year or next. Buying our food from the grocery store allows us to make all kinds of false assumptions about where the food comes from and I assume that is what their marketing departments are counting on.

  2. This is a great post! This is not what I’m thinking of in the spring but I’m not terribly experience in these skills so I needed to hear it. In the past I’ve had a summer gardens but my goal this year is to grow enough to store as well.

    I was thinking the same thing as Bethany, that those fruits and vegies in the grocery have been stored – as you say waxed.

    I’m going to look around and see if I can borrow that book locally. I have a crawl space – I wonder how that would work?

  3. Oh, I love that book Root Cellaring too. I had and read and reread it before I even had a garden!! 🙂

  4. Thank you for such an education. I’m ashamed to admit that I have had a tremendous root cellar for thirty years, and have never used it for food. …. holiday decorations, children’s treasures, other things that should have been moved on it was even an art room for a few years, but I never used it for its intended purpose. Ah, the shame.
    Have you ever had a problem with mice getting into your stored produce?

  5. Growing and storing food is not what i would consider “convienent”, but neither is getting ready for work, hairstyle and makeup, buying all the clothes needed, dropping kids at daycare, commuting, putting up with bosses, traffic, less time for “home”. All so you can spend your hard earned dollars for “conviences”.
    I like the growing and saving better. Please keep sharing your knowledge.

  6. This is an excellent post. I feel much sorrow at the lost art of not only root cellaring, but canning and the like. People don’t even freeze fruit and that’s a relatively new concept.

    My grandfather has a root cellar. I remember being sent down to find potatoes in the bin. They were mixed with the onions. Shelves sat across with jars of tomatoes and peaches.

    Growing up, my mother had a pantry-like space in the basement. It was cool enough to keep potatoes, but we bought them at the store. She froze fresh fruit we picked ourselves, though. Made her own applesauce. Canned jelly from the berries in the backyard.

    The fact my fiance knows how to and enjoys canning is part of the reason we are together. It is unfortunate we do not have a good space for a root cellar right now. That will change someday. Right now, I can but watch and dream.

  7. Love this post. What many folks don’t understand is the flavor treasures that they are missing. So many nuances, so many different flavors that we lose by forgetting that everything has varieties.

    Last year I learned about a tomato that can be pulled at the end of the season and left, tomatoes still attached, to ripen in an unheated garage. They say you can *harvest* tomatoes as late as December this way. Don’t know about the flavor, but there is Zero flavor in the store bought ones anyway. Can’t remember the variety name, but have been trying to track it down again.

  8. Bethany: exactly! Even if my produce is old, I at least know its provenance! I hope you are able to grow a bit of your own over the coming years. You certainly don’t have to go as nutso as I have gone, but even a few little homegrown things are just great. Like, potatoes grown in a stack of tires, or in a lawn-and-leaf bag filled with compost. Ugly, but yum!

    Verde, the Root Cellaring book is pretty old stuff (it was revised in ’91 but it’s originally from the early 80s I think) and most libraries probably would carry it. It helps me remember the hows and whys every year though because frankly when harvest time rolls around I can be a real flake and forget correct methods, so this is one book I like to actually own. But it is a bit of a mind shift to move from plant-in-spring/harvest-in-summer of “normal” gardening. Fall gardening is just great! And so is winter gardening!

    Angie, yep, it’s a great book. Don’t even get me started about the Foxfire series though. Makes me want to split wood and weave baskets right NOW.

    Pamela, don’t be ashamed. It’s just an easy way to store some stuff when the getting is good and cheap at harvest time, when you can get bushels of goodies for nearly nothing. Good question about the mice, though. So far, no problems. And we do get mice on occasion…which is why we have a cat. So the only critters in the root cellar are some spooky spiders, frankly.

    Michelle (makeup? Really?) Yep. Crazy world we’ve kind of gotten ourselves into, don’t you think? But I adore growing my own, and eating it too! Sure, I suppose some folks might consider it “inconvenient” to actually, I don’t know, have to wash my lettuce. They just don’t know how good the fresh stuff is.

    Matthew: Your mom sounds like my mom. She’s still a crazy jam-maker to this day. Yes, I suppose this kind of thing is a lost art. My mom just figured she could make her food dollar go a lot further if she enslaved her children to pick fruit and veggies at the U-Pick farms and orchards near our house. So I would say you picked a great fiance!

    Hayden: I think that a lot of things have gotten dropped by the roadside in our bust-ass hurry to live our Modern Lifestyle, and flavor of any and all food is one of the biggest losses. You know, you can do that with many types of tomatoes, provided the plants haven’t been in the ground all season long. This is why I “allow” some tomato seedlings that always appear in the gardens in July to go ahead and grow: the week before we expect frost, I haul them up and out and hang them upside down from the floor joists. This does work best, though, with smaller-sized round-ish tomatoes, which is probably what your variety was; I have done it pretty successfully with plum and large-ish cherry tomatoes.

  9. I so want to figure out a way to make this happen this year. I do can and I freeze but the idea of a root cellar intrigues and attracts me no end. My problem here in Mississippi living near a river is that we don’t have to dig down far to hit nothin’ but mud and basements or cellars are non existent.

    I’ve been eyeing a spare bedroom thinking super insulating and covering windows and yes, I have already planted the potatoes so I better come up with some sort of solution pretty quick. I think I need to get the root cellaring book you mentioned as the carrots are going to be planted on my next day off from my paying job and I’m figuring on planting enough to eat and to keep.

    You also keep inspiring me about getting closer to a year round gardening. Nothing beats home grown. I shared some of my lettuces with a 78 year old lady and her son today. They were absolutely blown away by the taste and flavor. 78 years old and she had never tasted anything but iceberg. Fun to see their eyes lighting up at the taste.

    Thanks for the inspiration El. It’s not the first time you’ve done that for me but I don’t know that I ever thanked you for the time and effort you put into sharing.

  10. Aww Kellie! I am really just glad to share the information. Information is power, or at least it’s a way to start looking differently at things. That book has a whole mess of contraptions that you can build or can refurbish/repurpose to keep your harvest. You might be a bit miffed that it is slanted toward the northern gardener, but I would think you have a lot of wiggle room in your growing season that simply is not found up here. Like sweet potatoes, I would bet you have no problem growing them at all! And you probably can push your seasons too, by planting the potatoes a lot later and still getting a big harvest. Anyway, the book will get you thinking you should bury an unused refrigerator in your back yard. I wouldn’t go there but you might consider putting styrofoam coolers in your crawlspace. The book will give you a lot of ideas about how you can redo that bedroom. Plus, you probably can use your attic to dry things. Up here it’s not hot enough and far too moist to do much drying. Anyway, good luck and keep growing!

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