This time of year in the northern hemisphere, agricultural communities celebrate the last harvest of the growing season. A great deal of work goes into the raising of food for our tables. Before electric refrigerators and local grocery stores, people also needed to work throughout the growing season to preserve food. The completion of that work was a reason for celebrations, such as harvest dances and Thanksgiving. Some of us today still freeze, can, or dry food from our farms, gardens, or local farmer’s markets. These traditions persist not only for practical conservation of produce, but because pickles, jams, jellies, dried fruit, and preserved meats and fish continue to be part of our family heritage and cultural food traditions, called foodways. Like many urban-dwellers, I most often can special treats that can’t be had in grocery stores, like spiced jam, my grandmother’s recipe for watermelon pickle, and my own version of mango chutney.
Putting foods by begins in the spring, with the first foods and vegetables to become available, and continues through the growing season. Some preserved foods are so successful that they have versions in many cuisines across the world. Versions of pickled cabbage have come to the United States from Europe and Asia. German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi are the best known, but other versions exist, such as pickled red cabbage, a traditional Christmas food in Denmark and parts of the US.
The collections of the American Folklife Center include many recorded interviews about preserving food. AFC’s project studying the traditions of the Coal River Valley in West Virginia includes documentation of many of the foods of that region. In this interview, folklorist Mary Hufford talks with Sadie Miller of Naoma, West Virginia about the foods she cans and freezes. In the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection Lois Huffines interviews an unidentified Old Order Mennonite couple from rural Pennsylvania about freezing, canning, and drying food. While dried fruit and herbs are familiar to us today, drying whole string beans, mentioned in the recording, is less common, except in regions where they became a favorite winter food. In the Southeast these are often called “leather britches.”
Foods gathered from the wild were preserved as well. In West Virginia wild nuts are collected and canned dry, wild mushrooms are often dried for winter use, and a type of wild onions called “ramps” are canned or frozen.
Canning season may also coincide with other activities of the summer and fall agricultural cycle. In the presentation Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada 1945-1982, Martha Bruns Arriola discusses the challenge of canning during the most active part of the ranching season, when many ranch hands needed to be fed.
Various means of preserving meat and fish by drying, salting, pickling, or smoking are common among many ethnic groups. Smoking meat and fish gave rise to outbuildings designed to protect the food and contain the smoke. The Prints and Photographs presentation of the Historic American Buildings Survey has photographs and drawings of various types of smokehouses. For example, look at this rough log smokehouse in Kendell County, Texas. Today small smokers are designed for individual households using combinations of charcoal and woods favored for their particular flavors. Drying meat and fish was a principal way of preserving protein for American Indians and Native Alaskans. The style of dried meat called “jerky” in the United States is derived from a process used by South American Indians and brought north by the Spanish. In a discussion about recipes for venison in Tending the Commons, Dave Bailey explains how to make a modern version of venison jerky using a conventional oven.
Some foods keep fairly well in cool temperatures without much processing. My mother grew up on a homestead in northern Maine and remembered lined pits dug into the earth floor of her basement for potatoes, apples, cabbages, turnips, and carrots. There was one pit reserved for eggs, which was kept sealed from air by layers of a jelly-like substance called isinglass. Covered with boards, these simple root cellars provided food throughout the long northern winters. Root cellars not only kept produce cool, but also protected it from freezing. There are many types of “root cellars” and these may be above ground, underground, or partly underground, depending on the climate. In West Virginia a simple method for constructing a household cellar outdoors was to dig a hole in the ground as described in this interview by Mary Hufford with Shorty and Mae Bongalis. These pits could be placed underneath stacks of animal fodder (called “fodder shocks” in the interview) to protect the produce from freezing. The Historic American Buildings Survey includes photographs of many types of root cellars throughout the US. Select this link to view a photo of the interior of a large cellar in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Notice the hooks on the ceiling for hanging meat.
Holiday celebrations brought out some of the best preserved foods for dinners shared with guests. Jams, pickles, and smoked meats all have a place at the winter holiday table. Dried and candied fruit were staple ingredients for many winter desserts, and mincemeat for pies was prepared and canned well in advance of the winter holidays. Whole baked pies were put into “pie safes” kept in an unheated room in the house or on a porch to keep cool or freeze for winter use. Today this custom has been replaced by the freezer, and some people continue to freeze baked or unbaked pies in order to bring out a summer treat in the dark of winter. So this year, when pickled cabbage, preserved fish, or a mincemeat pie turns up for a holiday dinner, you will know that you are participating in some very old food traditions, even if those ingredients came from a modern grocery store.
Christensen, Danille, “Home Canning: Cultural Narratives, Technological Change, and the Status of Traditional Knowledge,” 2016 presentation at the Library of Congress (webcast).
Hall, Stephanie, “‘A Man Who Could Outrun the Shot’ and Other Hunting Stories,” Folklife Today, 2014.
Hall, Stephanie, “Food from the Forest: Some Native Fruit and Nut Trees,” Folklife Today, 2018.
Hall, Stephanie, “Food Traditions in American Folklife Center Collections,” Folklife Today, 2016.
Hall, Stephanie, “Spring Tonics,” Folklife Today, 2016.
(Resources updated 2019)