They still exist, summer rooms, in cellar, basement, pantry or simply a designated cupboard. They are the rooms where shelves hold rows of canning jars filled with the fruits of the summer garden. My summer room dwindled with each move. Now dependent on shared excess of friends’ gardens it has become packets of vegetables in the freezer. How well I remember being a part of preserving my mother’s summer room. Carrots, tomatoes, applesauce and beans…beans…beans…picking…snipping…cutting…boiling (yes, beans are boiled before being ladled into jars)… Summer freedom was restored when bean season was finished. But I was always eager to help myself to eating any of the summer work placed on the winter table.
The pressure cooker pictured is a relic from the past. As I have no summer room pictures, I invite you to send me one of yours. Share your pictures, share your memories, I know they are out there. I’ll post in rotation as many as I receive.
Of course what farm girl in early 1900 didn’t have a room filled with preserved summer! Below is an edited section about Nan’s.
Trude and Sue looked at Nan in bewilderment. “Summer room? What is he talking about?”
Vati chuckled. “Go and see for yourself. It’s what we started calling the cellar years ago.”
“The cellar?” Sue asked. “Why?”
“Nan started it. Her mother asked her to fetch something from the cellar and Nan stood thinking, her eyes big and serious and said ‘Oh you mean where we keep summer.’ So we’ve called it the summer room ever since. Go see for yourself,” he invited.
Sue and Trude, with Will close behind, followed Rob through the pantry. The damp earthiness of the cellar greeted them as they descended the steep stairs. Rob’s lantern bobbed up and down while he poked around the shelves. Trude and Sue looked in amazement. At one end wooden bins sat in two neat rows. One row on the floor, the other on a shelf chest high. These were filled with sawdust and peeking out were potatoes, carrots, squash, and pumpkins. Two barrels of apples stood nearby. They turned and saw the other three walls completely covered with shelving and crowded with rows of canned vegetables and fruits. The lantern in Rob’s hand played up and down the rows of glass jars. Trude understood at once the meaning of the summer room. Everywhere she looked, the evidence of summer was apparent. Beans, green and yellow, were crammed together. Tomatoes still vine-red filled another shelf. Rows of corn, golden as the sunshine under which it was raised, sat below the tomatoes. Pickles marched smartly along in another section. Trude began to count the different varieties of pickles that waited to be chosen for the table. There were the deep purple beets nearly bursting with all the sweet sugar and dotted with the cloves that flavored them; dill pickles, wedged against the jars with long stems of dill tucked beneath them; bread and butter pickles sliced and interspersed with peppers and onions; last of all the jars of chopped relishes, cucumber, corn, and pepper.
Almost reverently, Sue touched the fruit jars. Peaches, pears, and cherries were squashed, preserved with their plumb summer ripeness. Sliced apples suspended in sugar syrup were ready for the pie or kuchen pan, pale pink applesauce resided next to them. On the shelf just below, the jams and jellies clustered in a space of their own. Here the hues were the reds and purples of the wild black-caps, grapes, and plums, while the tamer fruits from the garden, rhubarb and strawberry, sported a prim and proper color of ruby red.
Now, before anyone accuses me of trying to kill the entire family with botulism from canning corn, let me explain. Corn is unsafe to preserve via the canning process. Even using a home pressure cooker is dangerous. The 1920 edition of The Settlement Cookbook contained the answer. It included directions for a corn relish using vinegar, a recipe that mixed the corn with quantities of sugar and salt and also a drying process.
While the cookbook had a solution for safely preserving corn, it did not contain suggestions for overcoming the discord between a slightly bossy sister and a slightly resentful brother.
Perched on the porch with cobs of corn mounded to one side and the large dishpan on the other, Seth watched Rob and Vati leave for the afternoon work in the fields. Anything, he thought, would be better than this. Already Nan had bossed and warned him not to let Bode make a mess of the discarded shucks. The afternoon passed slowly. One pale, yellow-golden ear after the other fell from his hands as he peeled the green husks away. The knowledge that they would certainly have their fill for supper cheered him a little. Nan poked her head out the door. “Seth, you’re leaving too much silk on some of these. And please don’t throw them, it breaks the kernels.” The door shut and she was gone. He squirmed and rubbed his face. The corn silk either drifted everywhere or stuck stubbornly to his fingers and made his nose itch.
Husking corn was another dull and boring job that fell to him because he was the youngest. Girl’s work. A boy should not have to peel potatoes or gather eggs. Last week Nan had him kneeling all afternoon over the two big wash tubs of cucumbers. Scrubbing every speck of sand from the little ones scrubbed his hands as much as the cucumbers. Besides that, Nan kept the water so cold it nearly froze his fingers. He had muttered his way indignantly through that chore, but he had been careful. When Vati knew he had given Nan a difficult time, it usually meant an unpleasant ten minutes alone with him. This afternoon with Vati and Rob were safely out of hearing, Seth was free to mumble over his work.
When the wash tub was full of the husked corn, he hauled it inside, piled it on the table, and returned to fill it again. Seth resettled himself, rubbed his neck and absently scratched his legs against the porch. He wondered idly how the silk got under his pants because his legs began to itch also. He shrugged his shoulders and kept working. He could hear the kettles clang and the squeak of Nan’s sharp knife cutting the par-boiled kernels off the cobs. Then she began to interrupt his husking. She called him to come and haul the empty cobs from the kitchen or had him pump more cold water from the well. Occasionally she would point to a particularly plump ear of corn, steaming on the sideboard for him to eat.
Finally the porch was empty, the last washtub waited to be carried inside. He might be done with the husking, but he knew Nan was not done with him. She would make him clean up the husks, sweep off the porch and probably have more for him to do inside. He had just jumped off the porch when he heard her call through the window. “Don’t be going anywhere. You need to clean up and sweep the porch and then I need you in here.”
“Don’t I know that already?” Seth hollered back.” What does it look like I was doing?” Seth pulled at his collar, scratched absently and glared toward the kitchen window. Hurrying would only earn more jobs and dealing with the shucks would bring him more itching from the silk. He wet his handkerchief at the pump and wiped his neck. Again he soaked the kerchief and wound it around his neck before he lugged the last tub inside and began to clean the porch.
Nan knew what it looked like he was doing. She said nothing and went back to watching her pots between cutting. Difficult as Seth found tolerating kitchen work, unless they all quit eating or resorted to the tinned food of the stores, his help was required. The corn, though, was the last of the preserving for which she would need him. After they had enough put by for themselves for the winter, Rob would haul the rest to sell in town. The tomatoes could be preserved in smaller quantities as they ripened; the potatoes, beets, and carrots would simply be dug and stored down in the cellar; the cabbages made into sauerkraut. Rob and Vati, with Seth’s willing aid, would shred and pound the cabbage, layered with salt into big crocks. Left to pickle in its own brine, the kraut could be used straight from the crocks all winter. The pumpkin and squash they would simply harvest and keep in the cellar until well past Christmas.
Apples. Nan paused in her work. Picking apples had always been a family venture. They picked all day and picnicked in the orchard. The windfalls were gathered into piles and at a later date they picnicked once more while the apples were pressed into sweet cider. Besides the barrels of apples stored with the root crops in the cellar, Nan would put up applesauce and butter. Jars of apples sliced and ready for pies and kuchen would also be added to the cellar shelves. The kitchen would smell for weeks of the cinnamon and sugared apples. Without Muti would the frolic of apple picking and preserving simply be a somber, hurried chore? Nan put the thought away and turned her attention to Seth clomping unhappily back into the kitchen. “Why is your face all red?” she asked, leaning forward to inspect him more closely.
Seth rubbed it and grunted. “Because I’ve been itching with corn silk for the last three hours. That’s why.” He looked around the kitchen and asked grumpily, “What else do you need me for?”
Nan set him to filling the empty jars with the kettle of relish. The strong scent of vinegar and spices filled his head and stung his throat and lungs; the rising steam irritated his itching face. They worked without speaking. Nan flew from cutting to the ears boiling on the stove, then to the washtub filled with cooked ears cooling and waiting to be drained and cut. The kitchen floor grew sticky with the sugary starch that flew in spits from the kernels. Seth emptied the last of the relish from the kettle and looked around hopefully. With hardly a pause in her own work, Nan brought a second steaming kettle to the table and took the empty one away.
When all the relish was ladled into jars, Nan showed him how to cut the strips of golden and white kernels from the cobs. She watched over his shoulder, chiding him when he cut too deeply into the cob and scolding when he left half the kernels behind. Finally satisfied that he had the knack of it, Nan turned her attention to the stove. Seth worked quickly, trying to catch up with Nan, but she had too much of a head start on him. When his pan was empty another mound of cooked and cooled cobs filled the space on the table. Seth glowered when she measured the cut corn, added the salt and sugar, and placed it on the stove. He sighed and kept cutting, knowing that as soon as the mixtures had boiled sufficiently it would require another round of filling jars.
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