Letter Re: Storage Without a Basement

I’m writing in response to the discussion about how to keep food in the Southeastern United States in the heat of the summer. My mother-in-law is in her 80s. I asked her how her parents and grandparents kept their food. For things like apples, potatoes, tomatoes, they would just store it above ground, sometimes packed in sawdust, usually in open air. For canned food, her mother had a little room off the house with shelves in it. It didn’t have a window, but it also got just as hot as the house. They would keep the canned food in jars for maybe three years. It would have kept longer, but that’s about the most that they ever got stocked up. Since it was an agriculturally based society then, they were constantly producing more food, so it was never necessary to keep more than two years’ worth of food. It would get so hot in the summertime that the morning milk would sour by the end of the day, if they didn’t keep it in the spring. So, they put it in a half gallon jar with a rope around it, and set it down in the spring to keep cool. She said that they never even had electricity until after she was in college, so they certainly never had A/C to keep the canned goods cool. In her later years, her mother got a pressure canner, and started pressure canning things like green beans and meat. However, before that, they would pack the meat down in salt in a barrel. They had been doing that for generations. One day, her mom ran in and said, “Our meat has bugs in it!!” The next batch got bugs in it, too, so they stopped packing it in salt. We still don’t know why it changed, because they knew how to pack it properly, because they had been doing it since time began. I don’t know if the salt changed or the wood, or maybe the bugs mutated, or what, but it isn’t practical to pack meat in salt anymore. My mother-in-law grew up in this area, as did her dad, her grandpa, and her great-grandpa. She lived right next to her grandparents, who lived in the house that was her great-grandpa’s. She very well knows the ways of doing things back 200 years ago. When I asked her if the canned jars had to be kept cold, she gave me the oddest look and said, “No, what do you think they did back before there was air conditioning? We didn’t have a way to keep them cold. They just stayed warm.”

My own pantry is a separate building, just out of necessity. It is much larger than a garden shed. The windows stay open in the summertime to allow air circulation, and I keep a fan going, though that would go away in the absence of electricity. In the wintertime, I keep a heater going. The shelves have sheet curtains over them to keep the light away from the food. That is exactly what the old timers did. Our experience is real life experience, not from a book. We store all kinds of canned food in the building at room temperature, from dry sealed cereal to pressure canned meat and beans. It keeps for many, many years. My husband’s former wife canned up some turkey she bought on sale one year after Christmas. I married my husband about 10 years later, and we opened the jars she’d canned, and they were still good after being stored in a dark room without any special treatment of temperature. None of the walls in our house or the pantry building are insulated. We are on an old homestead, built before anyone thought of insulating anything. Our house stays hot, minus the few rooms that have window A/C units. It’s just how life is. Our potatoes that we buy at the store are best kept in the kitchen where we keep an air conditioner going. They don’t do well in the hot storage. I would love to have a root cellar, but as was mentioned, the water table is way too high to make it happen. Even though the heat is a force to be dealt with, we actually prefer this climate because it tends to get more rain, which makes it much easier to grow everything necessary for living. Also, the growing season is longer than up north and the cold season is shorter. We happen to be right on the edge of the growing zones, where we can grow both the colder season crops like apples, peaches, and pears, but also can dabble in the tropical plants such as bananas and cannas. We are able to grow cold weather grasses in the wintertime for our cows to graze. We can also grow cold climate crops in the wintertime, such as collards, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and turnips. We don’t have to build huge barns for our animals to live in over the winter. We don’t even have barns for our animals to go into. Our only barns are for hay and equipment storage. My mother-in-law’s grandparents on the other side moved from Illinois to Mississippi after fighting for the Union Army in Mississippi. He came down here in the wintertime and saw the cows out in the field eating grass and realized how silly it was that his cows at home were shut up in the barn and he was having to feed them every bite they ate. So he sold out and moved to Mississippi because he could survive easier. – M.M.