Food Storage as Grandma Knew It
By MICHAEL TORTORELLO
Published: November 5, 2008
IN a strictly technical sense, Cynthia Worley is not transforming her basement into a time machine. Yet what’s going on this harvest season beneath her Harlem brownstone on 122nd Street, at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, is surely something out of the past — or perhaps the future.
The space itself is nothing special: Whitewashed granite walls run the width and depth of the room, 16 feet by 60 feet. A forgotten owner tried to put in a cement floor, but the dirt, which takes a long-term view of things, is stubbornly coming back. “It’s basically a sod floor,” Ms. Worley said.
What’s important is that the shelves are sturdy, because Ms. Worley and her husband, Haja Worley, will soon load them with 20 pounds of potatoes, 20 pounds of onions, 30 pounds of butternut and acorn squash, 10 heads of cabbage, 60-odd pints of home-canned tomatoes and preserves, 9 gallons of berry and fruit wines, and another gallon or two of mulberry vinegar.
The goodies in the pint jars and the carboys come from the Joseph Daniel Wilson Memorial Garden, which the Worleys founded across the street. The fresh produce is a huge final delivery from a Community Supported Agriculture farm in Orange County, which they used all summer. Packed in sand and stored at 55 degrees, the potatoes should keep at least until the New Year. The squash could still be palatable on Groundhog Day, and the onions should survive till spring. Ms. Worley, who counsels and teaches adults for the New York City Department of Education, and Mr. Worley, a neighborhood organizer and radio engineer, will let their basement-deprived friends store vegetables, too.
The Worleys, like a number of other Americans, have made the seemingly anachronistic choice to turn their basement into a root cellar. While Ms. Worley’s brownstone basement stash won’t feed the couple through the winter, she said, “I think it’s a healthy way to go and an economical way.”
According to a September survey on consumer anxieties over higher fuel and food prices from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, 34 percent of respondents said that they were likely to raise more of their own vegetables. Another 37 percent said they were likely to can or freeze more of their food. The cousin to canning and freezing is the root cellar.
“I’ve been doing local food work for a long time,” said Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center, who conducted the study. “And I’m seeing an increase in articles in various sustainable ag newsletters about root cellaring.”
According to Bruce Butterfield, the research director for the National Gardening Association, a trade group, home food preservation typically increases in a rotten economy. In 2002, the close of the last mild recession, 29 million households bought supplies for freezing, drying, processing and canning. Last year that number stood at only 22 million — a figure Mr. Butterfield said he expects to rise rapidly.
Root cellars have long been the province of Midwestern grandmothers, back-to-the-landers and committed survivalists. But given the nation’s budding romance with locally produced food, they also appeal to the backyard gardener, who may have a fruit tree that drops a bigger bounty every year while the refrigerator remains the same size.
While horticulture may be a science, home food storage definitely can carry the stench of an imperfect art. According to the essential 1979 book, “Root Cellaring,” by Mike and Nancy Bubel, some items like cabbage and pears do best in a moist environment below 40 degrees (though above freezing). To achieve this, a cellar probably needs to be vented, or have windows that open. Winter squash and sweet potatoes should be kept dry and closer to 50 degrees — perhaps closer to the furnace.
Other rules of root cellaring sound more like molecular gastronomy. For example, the ethylene gas that apples give off will make carrots bitter. As a general principle, keeping produce in a cool chamber that is beneath the frost line — the depth, roughly four feet down, below which the soil doesn’t freeze — can slow both the normal process of ripening and the creeping spread of bacterial and fungal rot. These are the forces that will turn a lost tomato in the back of the cupboard into a little lagoon of noxious goo.
But if you leave that green tomato on a vine and drape it upside down, it will gradually turn red in three or four weeks. “I’ve had fresh tomatoes for Thanksgiving,” said Jito Coleman, an environmental engineer who practices the inverted tomato — which should be a yoga pose — in a root cellar he built in the house he designed in Warren, Vt.
People who squirrel away vegetables tend to be resourceful, and they do not limit themselves to the subterranean. Anna Barnes, who runs a small media company and coordinates the Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture in Champaign, Ill., says squash hung in a pair of knotted pantyhose stay unspoiled longer than others.
Here, the cold is optional, too. It’s the bruising that comes from a squash sitting on a hard countertop, she said, that speeds senescence. (“You wouldn’t want to do it in the guest closet,” Ms. Barnes said. Or, presumably, wear the pantyhose again.)
Taken to a do-it-yourself extreme, lots of places can become stockrooms. Margaret Christie has surrendered countless nooks in her 1845 Federal-style home in tiny downtown Whately, Mass., to laying away the crops she grows in the family’s half-acre vegetable plot. Ms. Christie, 44, a projects director for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, a nonprofit that supports community farming in western Massachusetts, also feeds her husband and three children from their milk goats, laying hens, pigpens and lamb pastures.
This year, she swapped a lamb for 40 pounds of sweet potatoes, 40 pounds of onions and 40 pounds of carrots from a neighbor’s farm. This cornucopia has colonized the basement, along with the family’s own potatoes. “They’re sitting next to the Ping-Pong table,” she said, in “five-gallon buckets with window screens for the lids.”
Onions, garlic and pumpkins dwell in an uninsulated attic — except in midwinter, when that space drops below freezing. Then the vegetables move into the guest bedroom. If that space has already been claimed, they occasionally hide out under the bed of her 11-year-old son. Their homegrown popcorn kernels have a way of turning up everywhere, courtesy of the neighborhood mice, who have developed their own taste for locally grown year-round produce.
The contemporary American, for whom a pizza delivery is seldom more than a phone call away, is an oddity in the annals of eating. Elizabeth Cromley, a professor of architectural history at Northeastern University, said that at one time, “just about every house had special facilities for preserving food.”
Professor Cromley has finished a book called “The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses,” which is to be published by the University of Virginia Press in 2010. She said that understanding food preservation is not a frivolous pursuit. More than 400 books instructed 19th-century Americans on how to plan a functional house, with a practical larder, basement and outbuildings, she said. “You’re not going to die if you don’t get a new dress,” she said, “but if you don’t know this, it will kill you.”
Harriet Fasenfest, 55, who lives in Portland, Ore., has been playing with her food for a long time. A semiretired restaurateur, she started “hacking up” her small city lot in the Alberta Art District to grow food. (Her husband asked, “Where will we play Frisbee?” and Ms. Fasenfest replied, “The park.”) She also teaches classes on canning and created the Web site portlandpreserve.com.
There is no digging a dry refuge from the seep and suck of a Portland winter. So in lieu of a traditional cellar, she applies the scientific method. “Last year I tried an experiment with four different varieties of apples,” she said, “to see how long it took them to rot. So I put them in a box in my shed and then they rotted. It worked!”
When she’s not filling her 10-foot-by-10-foot shed, she experiments in the cubbyholes that sit alongside the outdoor cellar stairs. Copra onions, Ms. Fasenfest has found, store better than Walla Wallas. An indoor heating vent can cure butternut squash so effectively that it can probably last in cold storage until the economy turns around (whenever that is).
Nevertheless, even those who rhapsodize about the pleasures of eating locally grown food year-round have to admit that the effort doesn’t always seem worthwhile. Ms. Fasenfest has been forced to conclude that the labor that went into growing and storing the 30 pounds of russet potatoes now beneath the stairwell was not really adequate to the reward. “If we had to survive off of those,” she said, “we’d be dead.”
dimanche, novembre 09, 2008
Very cool. Too bad our California garage is too warm to cellar produce.