One of my favorite childhood memories was harvest time at my grandmother’s house. After the crops were picked, Mom, my sister Rose and I would rise early, knowing we had a long day ahead of us. But whether it was shelling peas, snapping green beans or peeling apples, we had a good time just sitting and talking while we worked. It’s a good memory and one I relive every year when I’m canning various vegetables and fruits out of my garden.
It also got me wondering—how did people back in the 1800s preserve food before canning and refrigeration were widespread?
The type of food helps determine the best way to preserve it. Take corn. It could be shelled, ground into cornmeal, or left on the cob and stored in a corn crib. But what about other vegetables like green beans, cabbage or potatoes? One way of preserving fruits and vegetables in the early 1800s was to run a heavy thread through them and hang them by the fireplace or in a warm, dry room. This helps remove the moisture from them and keeps them from rotting. In order to cook them, you’d treat them the same way we do dry beans today. You’d put them in water overnight to rehydrate, then cook the following day.
Another way to preserve food was by using a root cellar. If you’ve never been in one, it’s basically a small room, very dark and much cooler than the temperature outside. The walls have roots growing out of them and there’s a strong scent of dirt, fresh vegetation, and kerosene from the lantern used to light the room. Barrels filled with sawdust line the walls and inside them are various fruits and vegetables. Green beans and peas are strung from one side to the other. Root cellars were used up until the mid-1900s when home refrigeration become popular.
We can thank Napoleon for home canning. In 1795, the French emperor offered a reward for anyone who could come up with a way to preserve food for his army. It was fifteen long years before Nicholas Appert unveiled his method of heat processing food in glass jars. Over the course of the next century, improvements to the equipment were made. John Mason introduced a glass jar with a screw-top lid and rubber seal. William Charles Ball and his brothers got into the home canning business and marketed their canning jars across the country, making it easier for families to preserve their own food. And Alexander Kerr developed the wide-mouth jar (praise the Lord!) and the metal ring with a lid that sealed the preserved jar.
Funny story—I went to high school at a former Agricultural and Engineering College built during the 1890s. While I was there, one of the original buildings was torn down. The workers found the A&E school’s root cellar with canned beans, pickles, and squash dating back to 1913. And they still looked as fresh as the day they were picked!
Do you can or freeze food for your family?
Let’s Chat! I’ll give away two print copies of THE HEART OF THE MIDWIFE
The Heart of the Midwife
If Not For Grace by Patty Smith Hall
New York City, 1889
After her friend’s death in childbirth, Grace Sullivan converts her family home into a haven for immigrant families preparing for the birth of a child. But when the city threatens to close her down, her only hope is to ask for help from an unlikely source—her former fiancé, Patrick O’Leary.
Bio: Multi-published author Patty Smith Hall lives near the North Georgia Mountains with her husband, Danny, her two daughters, her son-in-law, and her grandboy. When she’s not writing on her back porch, she’s spending time with her family or working in her garden.