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In our modern kitchens, we hardly feel the passing of the seasons. We have the luxury of New Zealand apples, Chilean grapes and Hawaiian pineapple, all cheap and plentiful even in January.
For our ancestors, winter meals were a very different thing. They were limited to whatever they could store, hunt or harvest. Those same food traditions survive in our modern cooking, in wintertime “comfort foods.” Foods heavy with flour, fat and salt.
Even with modern refrigeration, salt-preserved meats still make their way onto our modern tables. That’s because they’re more than just practical, they’re delicious.
Some people will tell you that all you need is salt to preserve a whole pig without refrigeration. While that is technically true, there’s an art to preserving it well. Each cut has its own flavors, brought out by time-honored preservation techniques.
The pioneers would have known how to make the best use of each and every part because it was knowledge passed down through every family.
Beyond charcuterie, there are plenty of other ways to preserve meat without refrigeration.
Grains & Dry Goods
If left whole and not ground, wheat berries will last for decades, and have the added bonus that they can either be planted in a pinch or ground into flour at home.
Other dry goods, like dried beans, oats and rice, are great staple winter foods used by the pioneers, as well. Though you might not be happy about it, you can survive the winter on beans and rice alone.
The pioneers would have had dried beans and grains on hand to get them through not only this winter, but possibly the next winter, too. Crop failures are not uncommon, and if next summer’s grain crop never comes in, keeping two years worth on hand may just save your life.
Root Cellar Fruit & Vegetables
Modern fruit and vegetable varieties are a bit different than their heirloom counterparts. The pioneers had specific storage varieties of just about every fruit and vegetable. True, some kept longer than others. The best storage grapes will keep about on month, while the very best storage apple variety, Newton Pippin, will keep for over a year.
Many other apple varieties will keep for five-plus months, more than enough to get you through the winter.
Now that people know about the benefits of probiotics in your diet, fermented foods are making a comeback. Historically, lacto-fermentation was a practical way of keeping vegetables fresh for six months or more. A crock of sauerkraut bubbling away in the basement or root cellar would have kept until springtime, adding much-needed nutrition and variety to heavy winter meals.
Just about any vegetable can be lacto-fermented at home with just a bit of salt and patience.
If left in their shells and kept in a cool, dry place, most nuts will keep through the winter and into the following spring. The pioneers didn’t just keep the nuts we know and love today.
The Little House on the Prairie books record that the pioneers foraged beechnuts in the fall in great number, and processed them using the same thresher that they used for oats, beans and grain. With three times the protein in acorns, and none of the tannin, beech nuts were a smart choice for winter meals.
Even today, most of the wild nut varieties foraged by our ancestors are still available and plentiful.
Hard Cheese & Eggs
While we think of cheese and eggs as highly perishable today, the pioneers managed to keep them for extended periods. Unwashed eggs keep at room temperature for weeks, and they’ll keep longer if waxed or stored in ashes.
Hard cheeses were once waxed to keep them shelf stable in a root cellar all winter long.
Cows don’t produce nearly as much cream in the winter. Hay isn’t as rich as summer forage, and the composition and flavor of the milk changes. True, you can still make some butter, but wintertime is by and large the time for making use of lard from fall processed pigs.
Properly rendered lard doesn’t taste like pork. It has a clean, neutral flavor and snow white color. It’s perfect for making pie crusts and biscuits, and for frying homemade doughnuts.
Even more importantly, it’s a source of much-needed calories and comfort. While lard may not be as appealing in July, it’s a welcome friend in January.
Like it or not, liquor is a practical way of preserving food and calories. Cider (fresh sweet cider) as we know it today was almost unheard of. In as little as 24 hours, sweet cider begins to ferment into hard cider. Once fully fermented, it’s only about half as strong as wine.
Beyond direct fermentation, settlers would make something known as “gentleman’s jam” in a crock in the root cellar. Layering in fruit, covering with sugar and then submerging in spirits, summer fruits were preserved all winter long.
A single large crock would begin with the early summer fruits like strawberries, and then layer in summer and fall fruits A few months to condition, and by midwinter the flavors had combined into a sweet, albeit highly alcoholic, treat.