INSIDE THE STEPHENSON HOUSE - February 16, 2007
Hi! Henry the Stephenson House mouse is back again and just like you, I am trying to stay warm. Brrrrrrrrrrr! I'm sure I don't have to tell you it's wintertime in Edwardsville!
Ol' Henry sure was glad to see you folks who braved the cold to enjoy the Valentine's Day Dinner at “my” house. Candlelight certainly casts a wonderful glow and great ambiance! And, everyone always looks so beautiful in candlelight! Thanks to RoxAnn, Meg E., Elizabeth, Lisa and many others for a lovely evening enjoyed by all.
The combination of bitter cold weather and the delicious food served at the Valentine's Dinner got Ol' Henry to thinking about food! How did frontier families raise enough vegetables to eat in the summer and store for their winter meals? Ol' Henry listened to folks talk and now knows more than before. But, ya' know, I still wonder how they were able to raise and store that much food! This old mouse knows all too well what a job it is to store seeds and other foods for winter meals and I am just one mouse, ya' know!
I heard Bob the gardener tell the school kids all about storing vegetables for winter meals. He said that green beans, onions, and slices of apples, squash and pumpkin were strung on sticks or string and hung to dry. When the slices were completely dry they were stored in clay earthenware probably made by a local potter. The farmer may have traded eggs for the pottery he needed! Whole apples were stored in the cool cellar. Herbs for seasoning and medicinal uses were gathered and hung to dry for use during the winter. Ol' Henry can only dream about the wonderful smell of the food and herbs as they dried!
It was Cousin Jake who told Henry about the pits where the frontier people stored root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, turnips, cabbage, parsnips and beets. Jake also mentioned that beets had medicinal uses. The farmer would dig a pit about 3 by 3 feet square and about 2 feet deep or maybe he would prepare a trough and place the vegetables in layers for a weeks supply. Each layer was covered with straw, branches and soil for insulation from the frost. These storage pits were often near fences or the well. Cousin Jake thought maybe these were places that were somewhat protected from hungry wild animals.
Ol' Henry also heard that you could tell if the garden belonged to a Yankee or a Southerner by the kind of vegetables grown. The Yankees liked boiled meat with potatoes, cabbage, turnips, beets and carrots. Sounds like good old-fashioned stew to Henry! They also liked crackers and dried codfish that were available at Prickett's store. A lot of the apples grown in our area were from seeds brought here by the Yankees. The Southerner's meals were somewhat different. They boiled their meat separately, making a gravy, and their choice of vegetables was sweet potatoes, turnips and peas. Cornmeal was a must for cornbread, grits and hoecakes for Southerners. These folks worked from dawn ‘till dark as they prepared the fields and harvested their crops.
The forests, prairies and waterways had many seasonal foods. Cousin Jakes tells that “bee trees” supplied honey that was food and also could be sold for cash. Honey, maple syrup and sugar could all be stored indefinitely and were a source of income when shipped to markets up the river. Sugar and maple syrup were used as preservatives for peaches, grapes and other fruits. Jake said that frontier folk liked coffee and tea but it was really expensive. They soon learned that bark from the sassafras tree was a great substitute! The land around Edwardsville grew wild grapes, wild plums, persimmons and mushrooms. There were also many kinds of nuts readily available in the woods. Many greens like dandelion leaves, pokeberry, wild onions and violets were there just for the picking and made for good eating!
In addition to the vegetables and nuts, there were also deer, fish, turkey and other fowl and animals to be hunted and trapped. This wildlife provided food and the hides were used for moccasins, boots, gloves, hats and blankets.
Ol' Henry told you before about Col. Ben's hogs. They ran loose in the thick timber areas, munching away on acorns and other foods in the timberland. They required little care and when butchered they provided food, bristles, bones, hides and fat for many household purposes. Col. Ben raised a lot of hogs because they were no doubt a good investment.
Butchering was a big job in the fall after several weeks of cold weather had set in. The neighbors gathered for a “hog kill” and were very busy with the many preparations. Finally the hams, shoulders, sides and other parts were cut for smoking. Other parts that were left were sliced up, fried, slathered down with lard and preserved in jars. This meat, “fried down meat” and smoked meat when correctly processed would last for months. Pork grease from the hogs was saved for cooking. Somehow, Ol' Henry has trouble envisioning Col. Ben participating in a “hog kill”!
Col. Ben also had some cattle. Cattle were difficult to raise because of the wolves, wildcats and other predators that roamed the night. Beef fat was tallow, called lard, and was used as shortening in piecrusts and bread. Tallow was also used in candle making.
Ol' Henry has researched, listened, and talked with Cousin Jake and his buddies. But ya' know it is still very difficult for me to imagine a vegetable garden large enough to produce all that food and the labor it took to store it.
Ol' Henry is trying to get a real feel for life in the early 1800's for all income and social groups in Edwardsville. However you look at it, life must have been full with hard work, especially for those with limited means. I guess I'll count my blessings, stay warm and eat my stored food!
See ya' later,