Putting up the garden bounty at Polyface Farms is a family affair.
Joel and his family preserve and ferment foods to eat throughout the year.
I’ve amassed quite a few statistics about food trends in the United States over my years of reading. One that sticks out is that almost a fifth of all food consumption in the United States occurs in automobiles. Imagine how that percentage could increase in a future of self-driving cars, when you won’t have to hold your sandwich in one hand and turn the steering wheel with the other.
Another one: the average American spends about 37 minutes per day on meal preparation — or less than 15 minutes per meal. Even for those who have the time, today’s hottest food trend is convenience. Around our farm, we joke that everyone wants “Polyface Hot Pockets.”
And here’s another: At 4 p.m. each day, at least 70 percent of Americans have no idea what they’re going to eat for supper.
The cumulative import of these statistics speaks to a profound lack of culinary planning in modern-day America. On our farm and in our family, we’re certainly the exception to the norm. We spend a lot of time doing what old-timers called “laying by,” or spending the abundant season preparing for the scarce season. This was done in every household until extremely modern times.
Today, anyone who puts this much thought and effort into preserving homegrown produce for the offseason is in danger of being branded a “prepper.” In fact, doomsday sells: Just look at the number of suppliers who will send you food packages that will last a decade. It’s big business.
But here at Polyface Farms, we don’t buy next-decade food. We grow food or buy it locally and “lay it by.” We start with early fruit, such as strawberries, which we freeze by the quart — after eating ourselves silly. Then come mulberries and, near hay time, blackberries. By August, our early apples are ripe and we begin making homemade applesauce.
We first soften the apples with heat. Then, with a food mill or another squeezing device, we separate the apples’ pulp from the seeds and peels. This is often an all-hands-on-deck deal, with one person washing apples in the kitchen sink and running the stove while others take turns cranking the mill. That way, the canning moves along quickly, and at the end of the day we have 80 quarts of heavenly applesauce to show for our efforts.
By recording how much we preserve and how much we have left over, we develop a sense of what we need to get us through until the next harvest. If we eat 3 quarts of homemade applesauce per week (we work hard and eat heavy), that’s about 150 for the year. A bushel of apples yields about 15 quarts, so we need to put up 10 bushels of apples annually. Of course, we’ve also dried apples by thinly slicing them and putting them on screens or in a dehydrator.
As our garden comes into its full glory, preservation gets serious. Cabbage is one of the first vegetables that’s ready to be put up, and lugging our 10-gallon crocks down from the attic is a rite of passage for the season. Shredded and then tamped into crocks with weighted lids to keep the mash compressed, the cabbage becomes sauerkraut, which offers the nutritional benefits of fermentation.
After the homemade sauerkraut is complete, we clean out the crocks and fill them with cucumbers for my favorite: 14-day sweet pickles. My mom always made bread-and-butter pickles and often dill pickles. Not until I began selling at our local curb market (the Depression-era precursor to today’s farmers markets) did I encounter homemade sweet pickles.
One of the other vendors would usually make potato salad to sell, and I would get some for breakfast to complement my thermos of raw milk from our hand-milked Guernsey cows. And oh my, she put sweet pickles in that potato salad. I’d never had anything so divine.
A couple of years later, I met my wife, Teresa, in high school, and we began dating. After our relationship had progressed a bit, I was invited to her family’s Christmas gathering. And there, in a glass tray, I found those same sweet pickles. I determined right then and there that I wanted to be a member of that family. Making these sweet pickles is a long process, but Teresa has faithfully continued her family’s tradition.
One year, she found a recipe that purported to do the same thing in eight days. Without my knowledge, she used it, thinking she would fool me and save a lot of time and energy. As soon as I opened that first jar, I knew something was different and wondered aloud. She laughed, confessed, and has never repeated the shortcut. Some things just can’t be hurried.
Pickled beets are a favorite at our house, primarily to create the solution for pickled eggs. Few things make as quick and delicious a lunch as a couple of beautiful pickled eggs.
Green beans come next, requiring sitting time with newspaper across the lap to hold the beans and snap off their ends. Ideally, we do this while listening to a favorite radio program or recording. I suppose you could watch a movie, but you have to pay attention to what’s going on in your lap or you’ll leave funky pieces in your green beans. We sure don’t want that when the snow is blowing.
Fast on the heels of green beans comes corn, marvelous corn. That’s another all-hands-on-deck ritual because the corn has to be shucked, blanched, and then cut off the cob. Very early in the morning, we go through the corn patch plucking the perfect ears. I like to sit in the pasture and shuck the corn near the cows. The friendliest ones come right up and eat the shucks from between my legs, their warm breath and burps adding a theatrical dimension to the process.
We cover the table in newspapers to protect it from the wayward juice that inevitably squirts during cutting. Next, we bring the ears into the kitchen, blanch them, and cut them (while snacking on some of the succulent, hot kernels during the cutting process). After they’re cut, we spread the kernels on cookie sheets, not quite an inch thick, and lay the sheets in the freezer. By the next morning, they’re frozen solid, but the layers are thin enough to break up. Finally, we put the frozen kernels into big plastic bags, which we can dip into and reseal throughout winter.
Few vegetables are as versatile as squash. We shred zucchini and can it in pint jars, which make two loaves of zucchini bread each. We also dice and can summer crookneck squash. Summer produce and herbs allow us to make relish, which we also can in pint jars.
By this time in the season, tomatoes are in full production. The early ones have been consumed daily, but now the vines burst with ripe fruit. We pick them by the bucketful and begin canning. We make juice out of the blemished ones, using the same mill we use for applesauce. We cut the nicer ones into pieces and squish them into quart jars. Tomatoes are a mainstay during long winter months, bringing an explosion of taste onto our plates on the darkest and coldest days.
Using a steam juice extractor, we can elderberry juice and lots of grape juice. We cut it 50-50 with water, and it’s still plenty strong. At Christmas, our grape juice is the base for festive punch.
We process chickens almost weekly during the warm season, selling most and keeping the culls (usually blemished in some way). We cook as many as we can cram into an enormous roasting pan, pick off the meat, and then dice it up into quart-sized freezer containers for winter casseroles. Of course, we also cook the bony carcasses into broth.
We also can meat, from pork to beef to venison. The beauty of canned meat is that if the power goes out, it won’t perish with everything else in the freezer. It’s pre-cooked, which makes quick meals easier. The key to canning meat is to leave space in the jars. It’s tempting to fill jars as full as possible, but if any fat bubbles lodge around the lip of the jar, it won’t seal. Leave a good inch of headspace to ensure a good seal.
Of course, many late-summer and fall crops don’t require any more preservation than placement in a root cellar or cool basement. Late cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onions, pumpkins, and winter squash will keep until the following spring. A solarium on our house provides fresh lettuce and other greens throughout the winter.
While this is certainly not a comprehensive list, it’s a peek into the seasonal food cycle on our farm. Preserving homegrown produce is simply how our family does things; it’s not a sudden reaction to economic instability or political insecurity. It just flows and fills the larder with homemade goods. Surrounded by an abundant harvest that we can enjoy even offseason, we’re daily reminded of our dependence on and provision from the Earth. That’s a good way to live.
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