Down-Home Country Lore: Sweet Potatoes, Lard, Mousetraps and More

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Useful tips from MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers.

If every one of today’s homesteading families has learned as much from their ruralneighbors as we have from ours … then there must be-buried just beneath the surfaceof MOTHER-landa whole mine of country lore thatshould be shared.

You know the kind of information I mean: those little, practical down-home, time-tested solutions for minor problems. Solutions that somehow never get included in textbooks or written up into articles … yet which you and I use every day simply because they work.

You’ll notice that the larger percentage of the following tips and hints can be implemented with nothing more exotic than common, everyday farm findings … such as baskets, feed bags, or vinegar. Soif you’d rather fix or improvise what you need, rather than order a for cash” replacement or make a trip to the storecheck in with us here at the Country Lore Column from time to time. You’re our kind of people!

Plucking Feathers: One of my favorite country consultants tells me that geese are easier to pluck if each fresh-killed bird is dipped in boiling water and then wrapped in a thick layer of hot, wet wool (old sweaters or shirts soaked in boiling water). Let the moist heat penetrate the down for 20–30 minutes before you start to remove the feathers.

Then, just before you begin to pluck one or two of the geese, snap off the end joints of their wings. The long, stiff, naturally joined feathers make a perfect whisk broom, according to James McPhea of Seaforth, Ontario, Canada.

Make Bread with Leftovers: When you raise your own food, it hurts to see even a dab of those goodies that you’ve known from the beginning become wasted leftovers at the end. (Do your dibs and dabs get lost at the back of the refrigerator the way mine do?) True, the pigs are ready and waiting. But before you fall back to that last resort, try Carol Glass’s (of Troupsburg, New York) Everything Bread.

Simply purée your leftovers with a blender, ricer, or food mill … and add the resulting Real Food supplement to the warm liquid ingredients of your next batch of bread. You can use potato salad, soup, breakfast cereal, jelly, fruits, vegetables, scrambled eggs, grated cheese, or what have you this way. The resulting loaves are sometimes a bit heavier than usual (depending on what and how much you’ve added to them), but they’re moist and the bread keeps well.

Protect Padlocks: Do you keep tools and hard-to-replace farm implements locked in a shed? Mick Musser of Nunda, New York protects the padlocks on his outbuildings from rust and winter’s ice and snow by tacking flaps of rubber (cut from old inner tubes) over them.

Preserve Horseradish: Even if you dig up most of your horseradish this fall, you can preserve the patch–and even enlarge it–if you follow this advice from Esther Wenger of Tunas, Missouri: As you prepare the pungent condiment for table use, leave an inch or two of root attached to each plant’s leafy crown … and then reset the nubbin back in the soil. You’ll never miss that extra inch of horseradish this year . . . especially when you find that it’s grown back into a whole root again next fall.

A Better Mousetrap: As the days cool, mice begin to seek warm shelter (which frequently turns out to be your kitchen and pantry). And the little rascals have a positive genius for stealing bait right off a mousetrap without triggering their own demise. Karl Youtsey–of Pueblo, Colorado–has an answer for that one, though: Set a cheese-baited trap in a warm oven long enough to melt the bait down into a gob that’s really attached to the trap’s trigger. Any mouse then attracted to the cheese will have to work so hard to steal it that he’s almost sure to be caught.

Storing Paint: Storing odd lots of paint or varnish in screw-top jars or cans? Smear a little hand soap on the caps’ inner threads before you screw them on, says Grundy Center, Iowa’s Mike Castings. The coating will both help exclude air that might dry the containers’ contents … and make it easier for you to open the cans or jars when you want to use the paint or varnish inside.

Lard Department: Our country cousins who’ve done it know a lot about making lard. In answer to my question, “How do you know when the lard’s done?”, LeRoy and Sharron Bennett of West Monroe, New York say that the cracklings being rendered will turn brown and float to the surface when a batch of lard is almost finished. Then, as the pork trimmings lose the last of their fat and moisture, they’ll sink back to the bottom of the pot. (if you use a thermometer and maintain a temperature of 255° Fahrenheit under your container of cracklings for 30 to 45 minutes, you’ll probably wind up with about the same results.)

“The first clue that your lard is almost done,” according to Ross C. Jones of Atmore, Alabama, “comes when blisters–about three to six bumps per square inch–appear on the rind you’re rendering.” (it should be noted, though, that blisters and scorching CAN occur in local hot spots before a whole batch is finished if you haven’t thoroughly stirred and scraped the sides and bottom of the kettle of melting lard as the fat liquefies.)

Mrs. Dan Oldmixon–of Poplarville, Mississippi–adds: “Lard that retains moisture won’t keep well. So you want to keep your renderings over the fire until all the water is cooked out of them. I sometimes get double duty out of the process by deep-fat frying finely sliced potatoes in the last of my lard during the final few minutes that it’s on the stove.”

Loretta Whitbeck of Franklin, New York has another variation on that last idea: “You can add flavor and aroma to your lard,” she says, “if you slice some apples or onions into it during the rendering process.”

Sweet Potato Annex:  Answers to “How do you store sweet potatoes so they’ll keep?” came mainly from gardeners in relatively mild climates. Mrs. Paul Reilly of Hondo, Texas–for instance–leaves her yams in the shade for several days, then wraps each one in two sheets of newspaper. The wrapped sweet potatoes are then stored in open-topped cardboard boxes that are spread out around an unheated room. Mrs. Reilly also separates the imperfect sweets from the rest as she stores them and uses the culls first.

Easley, South Carolina’s Dennis Childs has a different method. He lays one and a half inches of wood shavings or sawdust in a box and then puts a layer of his sweet potatoes (spaced about one inch apart) down on the soft bed. Another two inches of shavings are next spread over the potatoes, a second layer of yams are added, and so on until the whole boxful of the vegetables is topped with a final six-inch-thick covering of the shavings or sawdust. Make sure that a generous margin of shavings surrounds the outside of each layer of potatoes and that the shavings are dry, or the sweets will mold.

Garland Elkins of Wilmore, Kentucky uses the same idea that Dennis recommends … except that he substitutes sand for the wood shavings or sawdust.

(Although our own sweet potatoes still didn’t keep all winter last year, they did last longer than usual. Probably because I “cured” them before storage by spreading the sweets behind our warm Franklin stove until they’d been given a reasonable approximation of the 10-day, 85-degree treatment recommended in most food storage manuals.–Nancy.)