Preserving, Pickling & Other Challenges

Ok, I have to admit it! I have been admiring the jars of jellies, tomato sauces, relishes coming from those kitchens down-east in my home state of Maine. Now, most of my acquaintances here in upstate NY have no idea that for eighteen years I was what I like to think( a legend in my own mind) a farmer’s wife, who not only threw bags of grain around like a frisbee and helped hay in the middle of July. Yes, it is true. I have had two lives…

Now, let’s be truthful. I moved on to that farm knowing how to boil water and perhaps throw a meal on the table. There were 13 rooms in that farm and well over a hundred acres of land ..and the land one could see from any window were fields with rocks and , in my young eyes, a lot of dust.

But I digress. As the years went by, and four little ones arrived in four years, I grew up very rapidly. I thought I had everything under control. Each year we had a garden…well, let’s put it like this. We planted a garden and then spent most of the summer in damage control from wild animals as well as domestic bovine.  Our biggest crops were tomatoes, peas, potatoes, lettuce ( all nature’s best eats) and if I remember correctly, a few carrots . There is nothing like little new potatoes and fresh peas cooked and doctored up with milk, butter, salt and pepper. ( Thank you, my first mother-in-law, Gram Dunham). The potatoes were hilled and there was nothing I enjoyed more than digging and letting them dry in the sun. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

There is always a downside to almost everything I’ve done in life. My kids were all in school and I love a challenge. Those two things, at my young age, were a lethal combination. I loved to read and again, those pictures of preserves were getting to me.  My first try was choke cherry jam ( or was it jelly?) I’m not sure. I do remember six little jars and a thin coat of wax on top sitting there to greet my kids and that was whooped up within a week or two. Success! Spurring me on to greater heights! I found elderberry bushes. ( Yes, someone had to tell me what they were)…and another bunch of jelly greeted the four when they arrived home from school.

Next on the food chain I saw apples. I found an innocent friend who just happened to own an apple peeler. I had never seen one before and haven’t since. We sat up shop in the “pantry” and attached it to a cupboard counter. I only remember that there was a half bushel ( more like a ton before we got through) of apples. It cored and peeled the apple. She turned the crank and I loaded the apples and then cut them up. I know that it takes a lot of apples to make sauce of any amount but I had enough to feed the entire community and when all was said and done, my friend put her peeler in her vehicle and announced she never liked apple sauce.  BUT I discovered how many meals can be accompanied by a little apple sauce and make it look like a banquet.

Now you’re thinking that I was just dabbling around because I was bored, right? Nothing of the sort. Fall sneaked in on us and I realized that the garden was full of green tomatoes. Could I let those go to waste? I dug into my old cookbook and voila! Green tomato pickles. I found a huge pot..I have no clue what one calls those pots but it was huge , blue speckled affair. I packed tomatoes, and all the ingredients and let it set overnight. The next day, kids in school, I followed instructions to the letter( I am no times) and on the stove the whole concoction went to cook. Now  you’re asking ” why not a pressure cooker?” Well back in the sixties, there were horror stories of pressure cookers exploding and the last thing I wanted to do was dig out a eight foot ladder and wipe down a ceiling in the midst of this latest experiment. All day, the pot simmered and the smell was one that should have been bottled and sold. I ladled the finished product out into my jars and let me tell you, I ate those with bread and butter like a meal. To this day, I can remember the smell  and wish I had a dish of them in front of me…and I also remember the thrill of the victory over this challenge.

If I am going to brag about  my success…I may as well tell  you this little tale. My Dad and I, to the chagrin of my brothers and mother, loved pickled pigs feet. We’d get a jar, open, eat, hum with satisfaction while others turned their backs on us. SO somewhere, sometime I happened upon a pickled egg. I admit I was into pickling back then, having eaten raw tripe during my second pregnancy, almost causing my husband to crash land every time he noticed. Well, now what farm does not usually have a few extra eggs on hand? Out came a gallon jug, the recipe book , kids off to school..and the challenge began. At the end of the day, upon their arrival from the school bus , sat the gallon jug with two dozen eggs just bouncing in the liquid waiting for consumption.

I have no idea why none of the four even wanted to touch them. They ate the jams, jellies and apple sauce. The husband took a look, snorted and turned his back. I was left alone with two dozen pickled eggs to consume. I couldn’t do it all by myself.  The pig finished them up with his slop.

Butchering Time! That was always a week-end to anticipate. Some look forward to festivals and concerts; we planned for butchering weekend. Since the kids were farm kids, they knew what to expect, but I shielded them from the initial misery.  The pig was slaughtered and bacon sent to West Paris to be smoked over hickory smoke…oh that was so delicious. A bunch of my husband’s friends stopped in the evenings while I slapped the bacon on the griddle in the middle of my new Sears electric stove and we sat, talked and munched. We bought a meat grinding machine from Willie Hathaway, who was upgrading, and I ran beef through so made our hamburg meat and hey! gasp! even made sausage. ( I still have the recipe). The beef was cut and sent home. Many a night I sat after the four were tucked away, wrapping x amount of steaks on the kitchen table. I was surrounded by freezer paper, masking tape and a black marker. The freezer looked really good piled to the top.

Preserving, pickling, butchering ..all that..from the first seed in the garden to the harvest is back breaking work, but oh so satisfying in the snows of winter. God bless all you hard working people who do this every  year.  Do I miss it? Yes, in a way as those were good, but hard times, but such a feeling of accomplishment.

And to my NY acquaintances, betcha nevah knew when you saw me in that white coat behind the desk, that I did all this, didja…and tread hay, watered cows , chased cows, swore at cows ..etc etc….

Now my daughter lives on the farm and is holding down the fort. I am glad it is occupied again. ( And oh, the picture of me is when I was young enough to try all the pickling and preserving…and the other is the driveway to the farm. Peaceful , eh?