An Abundance of Apples

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On the way to the new place last night Martin’s keen eye discerned a beaver by the side of the road and we went back for a closer look. He did not seem at all afraid of people as we were able to stand maybe 5 feet away while he grazed away on red clover. I had never been that close to one in the wild or had an opportunity to watch it eat, and it was quite pleasurable to see it reach for bunches of clover with its front paws, bite it off, and reach for another handful, all very raccoon-like. When he’d finished his dinner, he walked around and down an embankment to a little creek where he no doubt has a home. We wondered if recent heavy rain flushed him out of that home, but decided by the size of the patch of clover that had been bitten off he’d been coming there since before the creek flooded, or else he has loads of hungry friends. (I will post a photo later).

After 15 minutes of watching our new friend eat his dinner we drove on and after a moment I thought of my new fruit trees and how quickly the bunnies or deer could dispatch them. I think I will put better wire around them and discourage nibblers. I am looking forward to my first harvest, but in the meantime let’s take a look at how our grandmothers would have served those apples.

BAKED APPLES. Pare some large greening or pippin apples and remove the cores without breaking the fruit; set the apples in a shallow tin pan, fill them with sugar and pour a little water in bottom of pan; set them in a hot oven to bake till done; care should be taken not to have them broken; when done remove them from oven, pile up high in a glass dish and dust with fine sugar.

APPLE SAUCE. Pare, core and cut into small pieces 12 good sized tart apples, put them into a saucepan with ½ pint water [cider or juice is better] and cover and stew till tender; add 1 cup sugar, press it through a sieve or colander, pour into a glass dish and serve either warm or cold.

COMPOTE OF APPLES. Choose medium sized tart apples, pare and cut them into halves, take out the cores, round the edges and lay them in cold water with lemon juice; boil 1 pound sugar with 1 pint water and the rind and juice of 1 lemon in a wide, low saucepan; put in the apples and let them boil 3 minutes; then turn the apples around, cover the pan and set it on side of stove, where they will stop boiling; let them stand 10 minutes; then thrust a straw through them; if it goes through easily they are done; if not, boil them for a minute longer; remove them from fire and set aside; when cold take the apples out of the syrup and lay them on a sieve; boil the syrup down until it thickens; pile the apples up in a glass dish and pour the syrup over when cold.

APPLES WITH WHIPPED CREAM. [Prepare the apples as above, put a thin layer of currant jelly over them, and top that with whipped cream flavored with vanilla. I think there is room for experimentation with the flavor of jelly one uses.]

APPLE SOUFLE. Strain 1 quart apple sauce through a sieve, sweeten to taste and add the juice and grated rind of 1 lemon, the yolks of 5 eggs and lastly the whites of the eggs, beaten to a stiff froth; put this into a buttered pudding dish and bake till it cracks on top; sprinkle with sugar and serve without sauce.

PLAIN DUMPLINGS WITH STEWED APPLES. Pare, core, and cut into quarters 6 tart apples; boil 1 cup sugar with 2 cups water to a syrup, put in the apples and boil till tender, but do not allow them to break; when done take the apples out with a skimmer and lay them on a dish; mix 1 cup prepared flour with 1 egg, 1 teaspoonful butter and a little water into a thick batter, drop a small portion of the mixture with a teaspoon into the boiling apple syrup and boil 5 minutes; remove them, lay in a circle around the apples and pour the syrup over them. A few slices of lemon may be boiled with the syrup. This dish can also be made of pears, dried apples or apricots.

APPLE MERINGUE PIE. [I plan to make this one, and the one below, very soon. Martin loves pie and especially loves meringue pie. I think this one will fit in nicely with his childhood memories from Pennsylvania Dutch country.]
Press 1 pint stewed apples through a sieve, sweeten to taste and add the juice of ½ lemon, a little grated nutmeg and the yolks of 4 eggs; line a pie plate with crust, cover with buttered paper, fill the plate with dried peas and bake till crust is a light brown; remove paper and peas, fill in the mixture, return pie to oven and bake till done; in the meantime beat the 4 whites to a stiff froth and add 1 tablespoon powdered sugar and a little essence of lemon; when pie is done draw it to front of oven, spread over the meringue and let it remain for a few minutes longer in oven; then take it out and serve when cold.

APPLE PUDDING (German art). Pare, core and cut into quarters 6 good sized tart apples, put them into a stewpan with a little water and boil till half done; then carefully remove the apples to a pudding dish, pour 3 tablespoonfuls raspberry syrup or jelly over them and set aside to cool; place a saucepan over the fire with 1 pint milk and ½ tablespoonful butter; as soon as it boils put in 1 cup sifted flour and stir until the mixture forms into a smooth paste and loosens itself from the bottom of saucepan; transfer it to a dish; stir 1 tablespoonful butter to a cream and add alternately the yolks of 5 eggs, 5 tablespoonfuls sugar and the paste, a spoonful at a time; when this is well blended together add the grated rind of 1 lemon, ½ cup finely chopped almonds and lastly the beaten whites of 5 eggs; pour this mixture over the apples and bake in a medium hot oven for ¾ hour; it may be served with wine, fruit or hard sauce or may be dusted with sugar and served without a sauce. NOTE. When peaches, cherries, plums or berries are used they need not be cooked before baking.

Source: Lemcke. 1918.

Moving On Up

It is not uncommon for someone to say they purchased a home because they loved the site though the house needed updating, and Martin and I have joined that elite club. We purchased a small farmstead in a picturesque and peaceful farming community, far from the hustle and bustle, and are tweaking a few things so that it better suits our eclectic style (think “Antiques Road Show” meets “Obscura”)*.

The home is structurally sound, but we are updating counter tops, floors, and bringing some color into an otherwise all-white interior. I have spackled all the tiny holes where pictures were hung and now we are starting to replace the counter tops and backsplash which are actually in great condition but not a color we would have chosen.

Next, we will transform a white master bedroom by painting it a sunny light yellow/gold and dressing it with gold and burgundy toile curtains and a paisley quilt and shams in the same colors. The dining room will be given a coat of sage green with curtains of rust with gold and green embroidery. The kitchen is vintage pine which we love and which will remain. One set of lower cabinets is going to move forward into the kitchen by three feet becoming an island with butcher block top while those top cabinets and two matching base cabinets from the dining room will be moved to the laundry room. The kitchen, dining room, and hallway will soon be clothed in porcelain tile replacing the white floors. (I did say it was all white).

There is a huge bonus room on the back, overlooking the pasture, which eventually is going to morph into a typical mid-18th century room complete with a Rumford fireplace for cooking. There is a fireplace in the home now, but apparently poorly designed. The first owner could not get it to draw correctly, so he enclosed it by adding a large pantry built around it. Poor Martin was so disappointed to see that! We considered removing the cabinetry and trying to tweak it, but in the end decided to leave the pantry and put an awesome Rumford fireplace in the bonus room.

It is not a large remodel if you happen to be a contractor, but for us, it is taking a lot of patience figuring out our options and deciding the best way to implement them because we are anxious to get moved and sit on the porch and enjoy the beautiful sunsets and search the stars for constellations. Anxious or not, though, we are firm in our resolve to finish the changes before moving in rather than move in and have to work around everything.

We are cutting saplings, bushes, and trees we don’t want and adding more flowering plants such as azalea, camellia, and gardenia. The view out the front is as tranquil as overlooking the pasture in back so while we aren’t parting with fruit trees or any of the existing ornamentals, we are thinning out the less desirables which have come up from the roots of a nearby tree or from seeds buried by the squirrels.

The project won’t be finished until we’ve hung a swing from one of the giant oak limbs for the grandkids and provided homes for chickens, ducks, geese, and other barnyard critters for them to visit. I’m currently trying to decide between sheep or goats and the sheep are probably going to be the clear winner. I’m also anxious to have larger vegetable and herb gardens, but first things first.

We are thankful to have a place we are so enthusiastic about – we’re full of ideas, but have to remember we have both budget and time constraints to work within and commit projects to paper by order of importance. That’s OK though. We are deliriously happy, enjoying working together while seeing the house and grounds take shape and begin to reflect our unique personalities. Who would have thought two people could have so much fun planting trees? Blissful Meals yall.

• “Obscura Antiques and Oddities” is a shop in NYC that carries a rather bizarre line of merchandise.

Wardian Cases

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Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, 1866

Readers may not know what a Wardian case is, but if I asked what a terrarium is everyone would know that it is a glass case into which are placed a bit of soil, a few adornments and plants, and sealed airtight to mimic the condensation and rain found in nature, making the case self-sufficient. The name refers to the creator, Mr. Nathan B. Ward, (1791-1868), who experimented with growing plants in such an environment beginning in 1829 in Wellclose Square London.

Legend has it that Dr. Ward, a physician and amateur botanist, noted seeds had sprouted inside a closed container in which he kept caterpillars. He left them undisturbed and noticed that the plants did quite well in their artificial environment.

During the age of discovery when plants were being collected and transported from one part of the world to another for scientific study, Mr. Ward’s case was said to keep the plants alive and viable during transport, thus before they adorned Victorian parlors, they served a much more practical purpose. Seedlings and plants which often died before reaching European botanists stood a much better chance of arriving healthy and viable in the cases.

Upon successfully transporting Australian ferns back to London, Dr. Ward published his findings in a pamphlet entitled, “The Growth of Plants Without Open Exposure to the Air” (1835). In 1842, he published “On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases”. His cases were so well received in English homes, that in 1854 he addressed the Royal Society at the Chelses Physic Garden, and was acknowledged for having improved commerce world-wide.

Plant explorer, Joseph Hooker, was among the first to use Ward’s cases returning with species collected during a four year voyage (1839 to 1843) with Capt. James Clark Ross.

Robert Fortune transported 20,000 tea plants from Shanghai to India where much of the world’s tea is still produced.

In poorly insulated and heated homes of the past two centuries, the cases graced homes with the beauty of live plants when a potted plant in a window sill would be killed by cold air coming in around the window. Children could learn how plants grew while parents could appreciate the variety in color and texture of a collection of ferns and mosses. Growing orchids in such a case fueled the Victorian fervor of growing the beautiful flowers.

The aviaries and conservatories of the 19th century may be viewed as Wardian cases on a colossal scale in that the glass allowed sunlight to reach the plants while limiting the drying effects of wind and the detrimental effects of salt spray or putrid air such as made it difficult for Dr. Ward to grow ferns during London’s industrial age.

A Cloth Before

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David Allan Highlannd Dance 1780

Readers will recall a previous post on aprons, but today we will focus on brief descriptions and the apron’s use in carrying various items. Gathering these references reminded me of my youth when aprons were commonly worn whether fancy for show or utilitarian for gathering eggs, holding clothes-pins, picking vegetables, etc. The references are presented as they were found pre-1790 with no additional rhetoric on my part.

Thomas Sheridan defined an apron as, “A cloth hung before to keep the other dress clean, or for ornament”. (1790)

A novel described a utilitarian apron in 1797 as: “her old checked apron, which was very clean, and had been patched and darned from one end to the other…”. – The Universalist’s Miscellany.

Let’s look at the description of a fine apron. “…having an apron on, that was embroidered with silk of different colours…”. – Annual Register. Vol. I. (1758).

While being queried for a possible service position, it was written that the lady had not only observed the girl’s appearance, but had felt her garments as well. “…every article of which she not only examined with her eyes, but her fingers, feeling the stuff of my gown, and holding my apron between her and the light, to observe the quality of the gauze and the texture of the lace.”

The woman then questioned the girl as to whether it was her own or a borrowed garment, “why this is a lace at twelve shillings the yard, was there ever such extravagance! But perhaps you had it cheap at an old-cloaths shop…In fact she had guessed the real history of the apron, which I had bought that morning in my way to her Ladyship’s house; and I owned it was so, and that I had it at a third of the value”. The lady appreciated her thriftiness at having secured such a bargain. Upon entering service, the girl received a blue flannel apron and stomacher from her Ladyship. – Mackenzie, Henry. The Lounger. 1788. Edinburgh.

Jonathan Swift wrote: “I found out your letter about directions for the apron; and have ordered to be bought, a cheap green silk work apron.” Works of Jonathan Swift. 1784.

A 1780 account noted a butcher’s apron was white and ironically so was an executioner’s. 1780, The Antiquarian Repertory.

In 1770, John Gay, documented a white apron worn by his maid. – The Works of Mr. John Gay.

“She then removed her checked apron, and mewed [sic] a white muslin one, embroidered and flounced”. The woman revealed to her companion that she was not in service, but instead a gentlewoman and dressed down in order to go unrecognized. “I keep a large bonnet, and cloak, and a checked apron, and a pair of clogs, or pattens, always at this friend’s; and then when I have put them on, people take me for a mere common person and I walk on”. – Burney, Fanny. Camilla. 1796.

Henry Fielding penned the phrase, “a short flowered apron”, in 1741.

I found references prior to 1790 to: a greasy apron; a leather apron; a clean apron; a gentleman’s linen apron; a gold apron struck with green; muslin apron; an executioner wearing a linen apron; “her apron green serge, striped longitudinally with scarlet ferreting and bound with the same”; a Holland apron (1728); white apron trimmed in pink; a cobbler’s apron; “her apron tucked up”; “the lady’s laced apron”; a coarse apron; a waiter in a blue apron; “fate must hang on apron strings”; and “tied to her apron strings”.

Aprons were a universal means of carrying various items as is evidenced by the close-up of a painting of Rubens’ (1750 or 60’s) in which the child has an apron full of grain and several pre-1790 written references to “an apron full” to include: an apron full of shells; an apron full of papers; an apron full of letters; apron full of wit and novelty; apron full of biscuit; apron full of tools; apron full of stones; apron full of playthings; her apron full of grain and millet seed; apron full of sheaves; apron full of onions; apron full of peas; and an apron full of reasons; apron full of cloths.

Chicken Corn Soup with Pennsylvania Dutch Saffron

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The photos below were taken at Ft Toulouse, Wetumpka, AL on 3-15-14 as TheHistoricFoodie prepared a classic Pennsylvania Dutch soup with saffron grown and harvested in Lancaster County, PA, home of Martin’s ancestors who left Alsace, Upper Rhineland, and the Palatinate and settled there prior to 1730. The reader will notice the difference in color between the two photos of the soup – before and after the saffron was added. There are photos of the saffron threads and of the saffron steeping prior to putting it in the soup. Thank you for visiting and sharing in our adventures.

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A Historic Foodie Designs a Modern Kitchen

Spoiler Alert: This post will be a departure from adventures in historic foods. We plan to move soon, and want to update the kitchen prior to moving into the new place. I’m reading reviews, evaluating them, researching products, and deciphering for myself what will best work for us to include flooring, counter top, back splash, and a new range.

As I describe the sales people who have waited on us this week, I think a pattern will emerge.

Lowe’s: We had a courteous, knowledgeable, and genuinely helpful middle aged lady who confirmed what I’d come to believe from my research. She answered all my questions, and offered additional information that cemented my choices in counter top. I was so impressed with her that I intend to have her, and only her, work up the order for my new counter top and while I’m at it, order the material for the back splash, tile and grout for the floor, and lighting.

Home Depot: Being the obsessive compulsive person I am, I went to Home Depot to compare products and prices and had a “20-something” sales girl busy texting her friends and who made no effort to hide her annoyance with me when I asked a question. She was clueless about any of the products, never gave any more than an off-hand, “I don’t know”, while still holding her phone which maintained a steady stream of incoming text messages. She could not even tell me how long the sale would last.

Sears: We went in specifically to find out if there is any real difference in operating a gas stove on propane since natural gas is not available out in the boondocks where we’ll be living. We got another barely “20-something” who knew absolutely nothing about any of the appliances. He could not answer any questions, no matter how simple and again, could not tell us how long the ones we liked would be available at the sale price. My impatience was complicated by the fact that he needed to blow his nose in the worst kind of way and instead just kept constantly sniffing, driving me nuts. I wanted to hold a Kleenex to his nose and tell him to blow as I did my children when they were toddlers. Strike # two for the young folks.

Best Buy: We had a third 20-something wait on us, again clueless, but to his credit he did at least try to pull up the ranges on the Best Buy website for me. His efforts did nothing for me, however, because I’d already spent so many hours online reading reviews and features on stoves they offer that I knew more about the products than he did. At least I know the difference between a gas stove and an electric one which the young gentleman did not. When I found myself explaining the basics to him, I realized it was time to exit the building.

Best Buy Round Two: As we were leaving, young clerk long gone, his manager, a middle aged gentleman retired from the Air Force, asked us if the fellow had answered all our questions. I told him that he’d tried, but no. He then took us back to the department and spent time with us, answering my questions, helped find a range that meets my expectations, even pulling up the reviews on it online and helping scan through them and evaluate the pros and cons. You can just about bet the farm I will have him order that range for me – a nice duel fuel model with double ovens, the largest being convection, and with nice large burners on top. Reviews were 4.9 out of 5 positive, pretty darn good.

Local Merchant: FYI – A local company claims to meet or beat prices at the Big Box Stores, but when I compiled a list of ranges I wanted to choose from based on performance and reviews, every one of them was between $80. and $100. more expensive than at the other sources listed in this piece.

I leave you to form your own opinions whether dodging ”20-somethings” that have jobs selling products about which they have absolutely no clue is acceptable for you. I’ll be the one looking for the more stable older employee.

Say No To GMO’s

I wonder how many Americans actually know the dangers of growing and consuming genetically modified (GM) foods and how many continue to have blind trust regarding the quality of food found in American markets. GM corn has been altered to make it herbicide resistant (Roundup Ready) and to produce its own insecticide (Bt Toxin). In short, GM corn can kill insects that try to eat it, and it can kill weeds that grow around it.

I am no geneticist or botanist, and do not presume to advise, but I am intelligent enough to do the research and form my own opinion regarding the safe consumption of such corn, which coincidentally agrees with that of the Institute for Responsible Technology. “’Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food’, including accelerated aging, faulty Insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) asked physicians to advise their patients to avoid GM foods.”

Scientists with the FDA (Food and Drug Admin.) repeatedly warned that GM foods can create side effects including accelerated allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems which would be extremely hard to detect in patients exhibiting varied symptoms. They recommended long-term safety studies but unlike other parts of the world where intellect prevailed, America chose to ignore the warnings. Even China has refused shipments of corn from America because they fear the effects of GM corn.

Let’s look at some of the specific issues addressed by the IRT.
* Thousands of sheep, buffalo, and goats in India died after grazing on Bt cotton plants.
* Mice eating GM corn for the long term had fewer, and smaller babies.
*More than half the babies of mother rats fed GM soy died within three weeks and were smaller.
* Testicle cells of mice and rats on GM soy changed significantly.
* By the third generation, most GM soy-fed hamsters lost the ability to have babies.
* Rodents fed GM corn and soy showed immune system responses and signs of toxicity.
* Cooked GM soy contains as much as 7-times the amount of a known soy allergen.
* Soy allergies skyrocketed by 50% in the UK, soon after GM soy was introduced.
* The stomach lining of rats fed GM potatoes showed excessive cell growth, a condition that may lead to cancer.
* Studies showed organ lesions, altered liver and pancreas cells, changed enzyme levels, etc.

“The only published human feeding experiment revealed that the genetic material inserted into GM soy transfers into bacteria living inside our intestines and continues to function”, so that long after we stop eating it the proteins may remain inside us. Sound harmless? The study showed that if an antibiotic gene inserted into most GM crops transfers, it could create super diseases resistant to known antibiotics. If that isn’t enough, think about this: “if the gene that creates Bt toxin in GM corn were to transfer, it might turn our intestinal bacteria into living pesticide factories.”

Do the “benefits” of GM corn outweigh the incredible risks? Apparently not. A 2012 nutritional analysis found, “GM corn lacking in vitamins and nutrients when compared to non-GM corn….Non-GMO corn is 20 times richer in nutrition, energy and protein”, than GMO corn.”

Let’s break this down – we’ve removed a significant part of the nutritional value from the corn, drastically increased its potential for human allergies to corn and soy, and we’ve left ourselves exposed to potentially catastrophic health risks. How can there be any remotely significant reason for allowing these products in American food other than to pad the purses of CEO’s from companies that lobbied against labeling of products that contain GM corn?

The list of companies who want to keep us in the dark about these dangers and who contributed an exorbitant amount of money to fight being required to list their presence on food labels in America include Heinz, Kellogg’s, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Smuckers, Pepsico, ConAgra, Kraft, McCormack, DuPont, Del Monte, Hormel, Sara Lee, Campbell’s, Dole, Bumble Bee, Morton salt, Smithfield, Idahoan, Land of Lakes, Rich’s, Godiva, General Mills, Bayer, etc. [The list is found elsewhere on this blog].

How many of Kellogg’s or General Mills’ cereals contain corn? How many products which may appear corn-free and safe enough, such as Ocean Spray, Nestle Quick, or soft drinks, contain corn sweetener which may also come from GM corn without any warning on the label? There’s a reason these companies didn’t want us to know GM corn is in their products.

How can we avoid the GM dangers? As one of my best buds pointed out this morning, we can grow our own corn. Growing heirloom corn would help to reduce the amount of GM corn we consume, but how difficult is it to keep our home-grown corn safe from the airborne pollen drift and cross-pollination with potentially GM corn grown by our neighbor? You won’t like the answer although there are reports that downplay the dangers.

The Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California published results which state, “Under field conditions, 97% or more of the kernels produced by each plant are pollinated by other plants…Pollen is light and can be carried considerable distances by the wind”. They went on to say there are limits as to how long pollen can stay viable, and a belief that the bulk of the pollen settles to the ground within 50 feet of the donor plant, but they also said, “Once released from the tassels into the air, pollen grains can travel as far as ½ mile in 2 minutes in a wind of 15 miles per hour”.

Do we trust that if we save seed from our pure heirloom corn to plant next year, that a half mile away someone hasn’t planted GM corn which may cross-pollinate with some of it? Time will tell. In the meantime we can search for non-GMO labels – while it is not a requirement to list the presence of GM foods on labels, some companies want consumers to know their products are GMO free, we can grow our own, we can buy certified organic, and lastly, we can follow the Non-GMO Project studies and lists of safe foods. See their website for further information.

POTATOES: A Crop Anyone Can Grow

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Even couch potatoes can grow a bumper crop of real potatoes following one of the simple methods below. Make the venture especially interesting by growing different colors and shapes like blue potatoes or fingerlings. Enjoy century old advice from an Illinois farmer and then get serious in choosing a method and location. Spring is on its way. If there is not sufficient rain, water the potatoes regularly whatever method you choose and use dirt or mulch to shield the potatoes from the sun.

“About the first week in February I cut potatoes as for planting, and lay them in a warm place a few days until the cut side is somewhat dried. Then I take a box and put in a layer of dirt one inch deep, a layer of potatoes with the cut side down, then another layer of dirt one inch deep and continue until I have three or four layers of potatoes, keeping them well moistened and in a warm place until planting time, when they will have good sprouts and roots. If there is any danger of frost after they are up, I hoe dirt over them. I tend them well and have potatoes three or four weeks sooner than when I cut them at planting time.” [from an Illinois farmer about 1910]

Purchase seed potatoes instead of using old grocery-store potatoes which were probably treated to prevent them from sprouting easily. Even if they have sprouts, they won’t produce well. In hot climates, choose potatoes with an early or mid-season maturing date and shoot for planting them as soon as possible after the last expected frost date.

When cutting them into pieces, leave at least two eyes (baby sprouts) on each piece and get them ready 1-2 days ahead of your planned planting date so the cut surface dries before planting.

Mix rotted manure or organic compost in the bottom of each trench before putting in the potatoes. Space them about a foot apart and 2 to 4 inches deep. Place them with the eye up.

Before the potato plants start blooming and when about 6 inches tall, hoe loose dirt around them covering the stems of the potato plants. Hilling them, as this procedure is called, helps maintain moisture, supports the plants, and keeps the sun from turning the potatoes green. It may be necessary to pull more dirt onto the potatoes a few times as they grow.

New, or baby, potatoes can be “grappled” [Southern word] in about 10 weeks, and when the plants die back all the potatoes should be harvested. Choose a dry day and take care not to cut or puncture the potatoes while digging them out of the ground. Although we did when I was a child, it is not recommended that the potatoes be washed prior to storing them. Brush off the dirt and put them away.

Method #2. IF your soil is loose and rich, or if you take the time to turn in compost to enrich it, the seed potatoes can be placed on top of the soil and leaf or pine straw mulch heaped on top of them instead of trenching and hilling them. Results will probably be disappointing if the soil underneath the seed potatoes is nutritionally poor. Straw or hay can be used for the mulch but may introduce weeds into the potato bed.

Method #3. Prepare seed potatoes as for the previous methods. Dig a shallow trench (3 to 4 inches), press the prepared seed potatoes into the loose soil a half inch deep. Instead of filling in the trench with garden soil, cover it with straw. As the plants start to grow add additional hay or other mulch. The benefit of methods 2 and 3 is that the new potatoes will form in the mulch and require little effort in harvesting.

If these methods seem like more work than you care to put into growing spuds, try one of these methods:

Place large bags of potting soil flat on the ground, puncture the bag a couple of times on the bottom for drainage, and cut holes in top of the bag, and press the prepared seed potatoes into the loose soil with the eye up so the plant will grow out through the holes. When ready to harvest, simply cut the bag open and shake out the contents, potatoes and all. After you do this a couple of years then try method #3 placing the seed potatoes on top of the emptied soil.

Fill a container half full of straw, place the potatoes on it, eye side up, and finish filling with straw. Make sure the container has a hole for drainage. Containers can be just about anything – cloth shopping/tote bags, laundry baskets, flower pots, trash bags with drainage holes, burlap bags, old tires, old barrels with holes cut in them for the plants to grow through (make sure they have not held toxic contents), old baskets, trash cans, 5-gallon buckets, cardboard boxes, raised beds, wire cages, etc. Even paper bags (doubled for durability) can hold potato plants if you place several bags together, side to side, inside a wooden or wire frame so that the plants don’t collapse when the bags give way.

Place rolls or bales of hay in a sunny location, cut out small openings, and insert a prepared seed potato in each hole. Place the seed potatoes so that the eyes are pointed toward the opening. Fill the hole with soil or more hay. When the plants die back, tear open the hay and remove the potatoes.

Cover an area of sunny ground with cardboard, sheet plastic, or layers of newspaper (no colored ink) for a weed barrier. Spread hay over it and place the seed potatoes on top of the hay. Cover them with a generous layer of hay.

Dig a wide shallow pit in the ground. Place hay in the pit and place the seed potatoes on top of it. Cover with more hay adding more as the plants grow.

Whatever method you choose, Mother Nature is going to do the bulk of the work and still reward you with the best tasting potatoes you’ve ever had. Blissful meals, yall.

Times Past: A Rather Nostalgic Look

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At what point did Americans come to depend on pre-chopped, pre-cooked, fat-laden processed food and lose the basic skills our forebears instinctively knew? Other nations aren’t squeamish about butchering poultry or farm animals and consider doing so a part of everyday fare, while the fair American will shudder at the notion of plucking and dressing a chicken while gobbling down processed chicken “nuggets”.

My grandparents planted vegetables, raised chickens for eggs and meat, fattened pigs for butchering, and were adept at making something out of nothing. My grandfather devoutly believed in planting by the signs and witching for water. Call that hogwash if you please, but during the Depression he fed a family of six on what he made from digging wells by hand and never was cursed with a dry hole.
That piney rock-laden ground sustained and nurtured us and kept us firmly rooted in reality, the same as it had for generations before us.

Muscadines grew wild just begging to be made into jelly to slather onto a hot buttered biscuit. Knotty apples were dried for fried pies, more wormhole and core than real apple, but treasured just the same because come winter those delicately browned pies fit perfectly into our child-sized hands. Christmas trees were cut from the back lot and the only question in choosing one was, “pine or cedar?”. Bushels of peas were shelled by hand and put away to be seasoned with a generous portion of fat back and eaten with hot cornbread and fried potatoes. A watermelon, warm from the garden, was a treat to be savored while expertly spitting the seeds just a tad farther into the yard than the cousins. We neither expected nor received hand-outs and prided ourselves on making do with what God gave us.

I am the last generation of our family to have hoed and picked cotton by hand. I know what it is to drag a ticking bag along and pick into it, feeling it get heavier and heavier across my shoulder as the end of the row slowly drew nearer. I know how sharp the burs are as one quickly plucks the snowy cotton from them. I know what blisters on my hands felt like from hoeing weeds out of that cotton all day. In short, I know the value of a real day’s work and the satisfaction of providing for myself and my family. My grandfather saw to that.

I remember the sheer joy of sitting on the front porch after a day’s work in the cotton field with my cousins, eating fried chicken and cornbread while my grandfather played hymns on his harmonica, fireflies fluttering about in the darkness. If we were lucky, there was peach or blackberry cobbler before spreading Grandmother’s hand-stitched quilts on the porch in the cool night air. Air conditioning wasn’t a luxury we possessed yet and sitting in the cool night air was much preferable to the oppressive heat inside.

I treasure those memories as my grandparents and some of the aunts and uncles have gone to their reward, never again to share in our joys or our sorrows while on this Earth. Even some of the cousins have passed on and as I recall their smiling faces from my youth I’m saddened to think of the glory days we missed together as we grew into adulthood and each got caught up in the business of living, of raising families of our own.

The old home place is long gone, no longer a tangible reminder of those long ago evenings when crickets chirped in unison along with the plaintive melodies floating through the night air from a harmonica lovingly cradled in the hands of my grandfather. The ones of us remaining are scattered across several states, and rarely see each other, but I bet if you asked, we all have the same memories of that old cotton patch, the rocky ground from which our grandfather took peas, corn, okra, and tomatoes, pallets on the front porch, and watermelon juice dripping off our elbows as we giggled away the afternoon.

As we part, gentle reader, let’s look at a brief turn-of-the-century account found in the “Farm Journal” [Jan. 1915] which may give an idea of when and how the self-sufficient lifestyle of my youth began to disappear.

“Betty was neat, trim and comely withal. She was one of the best dairy maids in the whole country round about, and her butter and cheese always found the readiest market. She never wanted a little more sleep and a little more slumber in the morning; but no sooner did the lark and robin begin their caroling, than bounce came Betty out of bed! The cows were milked, the pigs were fed, and breakfast a-doing all before sunrise, and it was said on all hands that Betty would make a noble wife for a farmer; but she turned off each rustic clown and bumpkin that approached her, with the song, ‘O prithee, no more come to woo.’ Betty had laid up a little money, and thought best to go to Boston and spend it; and so she did; but when she returned, alack, it was all over with poor Betty! Her head was brimful of Boston notions. She dared not milk, because she was afraid of a cow. As to hogs, they were odious creatures! And as to getting up early, it was dreadful vulgar. Market Street and Leghorn flats were all her theme—Alas! Poor Betty was ruined!”

Water Conveyance in the 19th Century

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I was recently asked by a reader what type water access her ancestors might have had in 19th century London, and I thought the question was something we might explore further as a supply to water is essential in running a home.

The earliest pipes that conveyed water included stone blocks with cylindrical holes cut through and earthen pipes, often encased in masonry. The Romans used lead pipes for distributing water and later during the Middle Ages logs with holes drilled through them and connected end to end and later lead pipes came into use again.

By the early 20th century, water pipes were made of steel, cast iron, wrought iron, lead, wood, vitrified clay (think terra cotta), or even cement or concrete. We recently saw a section of wooden water pipe in an antique store and were thrilled to have discovered it. Wooden pipes were made from spruce, yellow pine, oak, etc., and were usually about 12 feet long. The bark was usually removed but not always. The earliest models were bored by hand, but machinery was soon invented that was more efficient at hollowing the logs.

Edward Wegmann wrote that in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Detroit pipes were dug up that were perfectly sound having been laid a hundred years before. When buried in the ground and kept from atmospheric changes they lasted a very long time without rotting. The Journal of New England Water Works Assoc., 1916, XXX, p. 318, claimed that such log pipes had been discovered in Boston and Portsmouth, N.H. that were sound and over two hundred years old.

Wegmann dated the earliest log pipes in America to 1652 located in Boston. About 1796 they were replaced with new log pipes where many were used until 1848 when the city replaced all pipes with those made of cast-iron. He dated those first used in New York and Philadelphia to 1774 and 1799. Interestingly enough, London seems to have regressed in its use of piping materials, as he states the lead pipes which melted in the great fire of 1807, were replaced with log pipes. He stated further that there were over 400 miles of wooden log pipes in London during subsequent years.

In 1855, A. Wyckoff, of Elmira, NY, received a patent for an improved water pipe which was spirally bound by a band of iron, steel, or bronze and the whole then coated with an asphalt coating. In Bay City, Mich., the Michigan Pipe Co. acquired the rights to manufacture the Wyckoff pipes in 1880. Companies in Williamsport, PA, Seattle Wash., San Francisco, Tacoma, Wash., Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, BC were also engaged in making the Wyckoff pipes during the first decade of the 20th century.

Cast-iron pipes are thought to date to the 1660’s when Louis XIV of France ordered their use, and possibly earlier. Chelsea Water Co. of London laid a 12 inch cast iron pipe in 1746 which was re-laid in 1791 because the joints were faulty. The engineer, Thomas Simpson, designed the first bell-and-spigot pipe with lead joints about 1785, and the system was soon adopted throughout London.

Cast-iron pipes were imported from England about 1817 and used in Philadelphia where they remained in use a century later. – Wegmann, Edward. Conveyance and Distribution of Water for Water Supply. 1918. NY.

Pumps have been used since 200 BC, with regular boosts in technology. I once lived where water came from a natural spring and was fed into the house by gravity flow (requiring no pump) but had the house been uphill from the spring we would have required a pump of some sort to get the water from the collection tank to a higher level .

Time doesn’t allow for researching early pumps at present, but they have operated off steam power, wind power, turbine power, etc. and for those who want a back-up system for power outages, options still include wind power, hand pumps, ram pumps, and buckets, including those for drilled wells operated by a windlass (a rope and crank which can lower and raise a long narrow vessel designed to fit into the piping for drilled wells).
Lehmans pump Photo: From Lehman’s Hardware catalog.

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