A Statement of Purpose

Since 2012 I have been responsible for
the garden at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on Antietam National Battlefield. The Pry House garden began as a 19th century style medicinal and kitchen garden, including medicinal plants, herbs, and vegetables. As close as possible, these plants mirrored those available to the Pry Family in the 1860s, meaning heirloom varieties. Since then, the garden has transformed to focus exclusively on medicinal plants, becoming an exhibit of the flora that was employed by military and civilian caregivers in the Civil War Era.

I am strictly an amateur, with no real experience in growing a garden. The purpose of this blog is to document my experiences as I learn by doing. It is anything but authoritative and I welcome any comments and advice for a greenhorn. Please be kind!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fruits and Vegetables Year-Round

It's mid-January, but that's no reason why I can't eat all the fresh fruits and vegetables I want. Nothing is growing outside, but I need only drive to the supermarket to find an array of produce harvested from around the world and shipped right here. I can eat fresh strawberries, lettuce, and watermelon all year long, (even if they do taste better at the local farm stand).

In the 1860s, Americans didn't have that luxury which we take for granted on a daily basis. Diets were governed by changing seasons and the coming and going of different fruits and vegetables. Today many advocate for seasonal and local eating, but before rapid transportation and refrigeration people it was a necessity rather than a choice.

Eating seasonally and local is a picnic in July, but in winter it becomes much more difficult. At this time of year our ancestors did not go hungry; they turned to a preserved and stored food to keep a healthy, balanced, and tasty diet. A variety of food preservation practices were critical to virtually every American household until recent history. Through cellaring, salting, sugaring, and canning, Victorian Americans could enjoy the fruits of their farms and gardens during the whole year.

Pry House Root Cellar

The simplest method of keeping produce was usually cellaring. Visitors to the Pry House frequently ask about the stone structure partially embedded in the hillside. It was the Pry Family's root cellar, where hearty fruits and vegetables were stored to keep them dry and cool, but not frozen, until they were ready to be eaten. Root vegetables like turnips, carrots, and potatoes, were pulled and cleaned before being put into bins in the root cellar. Pumpkins and other winter squash kept all season in the root cellar if dry and cool. Apples, and even cabbages, will also keep there if properly stored. The climate of these underground cellars works very much like the crisper drawer of modern refrigerators.

Some produce was dried for keeping. Beans and peas were left to dry on the vine, then hulled and spread out to dry completely before being stored. Fleshy fruit was also often dried. Pieces of sliced fruit could be spread out in a warm oven to dry, sun-dried, or threaded and hung to dry.

Salting and sugaring were also common ways to save vegetables and fruits. Roots, string beans, and stocky, green vegetables could be kept in heavy brine solutions. A wide assortment of fruit can be cooked and stored in sugar. More commonly, fruit can be made into jellies and jams. Enough sugar or salt will keep virtually anything from spoiling. It will also change the food's flavor, but sometime's that's a good thing!

Pickling, a process of marinating and storing produce in a vinegar solution, was yet another popular means of preservation. Pickling was common not only for cucumbers and other vegetables, but many kinds of fruit too. While cucumbers are usually pickled with salt and spices, fruits like peaches and melons could also be pickled with sugar to make a sweet pickle. It was also common to make fruit vinegars, a kind of  drink concentrate, by steeping fruit in vinegar and adding sugar.

Bottled pickles found on the 1856 wreck of the Steamboat Arabia
(they are still edible)

Canning meat, fruit, and vegetables began in the first decade of the 19th century. It was initially a strictly industrial process for government use and commercial sale.  In the 1850s technology improved and "canning" in individual glass jars quickly became a staple of the domestic kitchen. In 1858 the iconic Mason jar was introduced, using a rubber gasket to seal. The disposable round metal lids used in canning to day were not introduced by Kerr until 1915. The great weakness of home canning is that it is not suited to non-acidic fruits and vegetables. Without the acid of foods like tomatoes, the hot water bath of the canning process is not sufficient to kill certain microorganisms which can cause botulism, an often lethal form of food-poisoning.

Originally Mason jars were aqua blue with gray, zinc lids

All of these processes for preserving food interest me because we now know that they work by excluding bacteria and microorganisms which can spoil food, but all of these methods were developed in times before people understood germ theory. People of the past simply understood that somehow the correct application of heat, salt, sugar, vinegar, etc. would keep food safe to eat for extending periods of time.

At the Pry House we don't actually go through the work of putting up the produce from the garden. The garden is small and only there as a teaching tool. Thinking about how the Pry family and their domestic help would have saved food from their gardens and orchards makes us appreciate how much work went into a routine diet in the 19th century.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I read this post and it seems me awesome.The information provided here is awesome and reminds of different easy and inexpensive ways to keep fruits and vegetables fresh.
    Thanks a lot.