Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

If You Can't Eat It, Can It

by Norris Chambers

   In the old days the primary concern of most families was something to eat and a place to live. The eating didn't have to be fancy and the living accommodations didn't need to be elaborate. If these two things existed, then the family usually took care of entertainment and socialization in an effective and inexpensive manner.

  Most families, outside of a town, either owned the small farm or rented it on the shares from a landlord. In the latter arrangement the family worked the farm and gave a portion of the proceeds to the landlord for rent.

  We raised a large portion of what we ate and, without any type of refrigeration, saved it from one season to the next. There were two ways of doing this, canning or drying. The type of preservation depended on the product. Peaches, plums and other fruits could be either canned or dried. Corn, beans and meat were canned. Some types of meat could be cured or dried.

  Canning was in either tin cans or jars. If you had a sealer and a pressure cooker, you used cans. If not, you used jars. Jars could be cleaned and reused indefinitely by using new lids or rubber gaskets. Cans could be used three or four times.

  The can sealer had an opener and a flanger. You could open a can, or cut off one that had been opened with a can opener, and turn a new flange on it. A tin lid with a gasket was placed over the flange when it was sealed and the edges were rolled over the flange. This process could be continued until the can became so short it would not fit in the sealer.

  The sealer was cranked by hand. It could be used to cut off cans, make a new flange on a can and seal a seal it. These new cans came from the hardware store in big boxes of 100 cans with lids, but lids could be bought separately. You could get them in either pint or quart sizes. Large families used quarts and smaller families used pints.

  If you were canning corn, the corn was sliced off the cob into a large pan. This was after it had been gathered from the field and the shucks and silks removed. From here it was placed in the tin cans along with a little salt. The cans were then put in an oven and heated. While they were still hot they were held with a cloth and the lid sealed on them. The preheating was to drive out air and to kill any bacteria that might have got into it. They were then stacked in the pressure cooker, which was on the stove, and put under a few pounds of pressure for several minutes. This thoroughly cooked the corn at high temperature. There were several sizes of cookers available. A large cooker held many cans. Beans and peas were shelled and snapped and placed in cans, after having boiling water poured over them. They were also preheated, sealed and pressured in the same manner. Fruits and berries could be canned in a similar way, but required a can with a different interior coating.

  Most meat that was preserved was pork. After the hog was slaughtered and cleaned, the bacon and hams were taken for further curing and the rest of the hog was ground in a hand operated grinder. The ground meat was put in the can with a little salt and was preheated in the same manner as the other food items. It was sealed and cooked in the pressure cooker and was ready to carry to the cellar for storage. Meat canned in this manner would last indefinitely, and was very good when served.

  It was not necessary to can chickens since they could be raised constantly in all seasons. Fried chicken was always available when desired. It was only necessary to catch the size you wanted and prepare it. This operation was performed in the following manner: the chicken to be eaten had its head removed humanely, either by twisting it off or chopping it off with an ax or hatchet. The body was then dunked a few times in very hot water. This was to loosen the feathers. The feathers were pulled out and placed in the "feather sack" for future use in pillows or a mattress. After all feathers were removed, the carcass was held over an open flame to burn off the "pin feathers" that were left after the regular feathers were removed. This was called "singeing". The intestines were then removed and the legs, breast, pulley bone, gizzard and liver, wings and back separated. These were the pieces that were fried, stewed or roasted.

  Just about every house had a cellar. This subterranean room served two purposes - it was a good place to store canned items and other edible fruits and vegetables and it was considered a necessary place to take refuge in case of a tornado. The cellar was usually dug about eight by ten feet in diameter and six feet deep. A large log was placed across each end and a longer one placed in the middle, forming the ridge of a log roof. Heavy logs were then placed from the ridge to the edge for the full length doorway was dug into one end and walled with rock or timber so a door could be placed horizontally over it. The whole structure was then covered with the same dirt that came out of the hole. This made a nice hill three or four feet high with a door that opened upward to allow admittance. Shelves were placed on each side for storage of cans and jars. Many old farmers buried what little money they had somewhere in the cellar. After the big collapse of banks in the early thirties, many people would not trust them with their money.

  Most families that lived on farms had plenty of food. They canned all sorts of vegetables when they were plentiful in the Spring and Fall. The canned meat lasted year round. There was always chicken. Many families ate rabbits, squirrels, some birds and even 'possums. Money was a little harder to find, but there was always a market for eggs and cream. Most grocery stores in small towns would buy these products. Animal hides could be dried and sold during fur season. Surplus hogs could be sold. Most farmers had calves to sell every year.

  Drying fruit was a simple process. Most dried fruits were peach, apricot and apple. These were cut into convenient sizes and placed on a sheet out in the hot sun. A netting sheet was sometimes placed over them to keep flies and bugs off. After a few days in the sun the pieces were thoroughly dried and would keep for months. When you were ready to eat them, it was only necessary to boil them with water. The resulting fruit was delicious and could be used for making fried pies and layer cakes, or could be eaten with butter and bread.

  Plums, berries and other fruits were made into jam or jelly and stored in glasses or small jars. A thin coat of melted paraffin was poured over the newly stored jellies, and they kept for months. Jam and jelly was available in the cellar the year round.

  Hogs had to be slaughtered in cold weather so the meat would not spoil before it was canned or preserved. One method of keeping bacon was to use a large wooden box or barrel and place a layer of bacon and a layer of salt until the container was full. It as then closed and stored. The bacon kept for several months, but was so salty it had to be soaked in water overnight before frying. It had a very good flavor.

  Hams were thoroughly massaged with a mixture of salt, sugar and salt peter, wrapped in paper, them sewn in cloth. They were hung from the rafters in the smoke house. Sometimes bacon or ham was smoked in that building. A smoking fire was maintained for many hours while the open, treated meat absorbed the smoke. This type of curing produced very tasty meat, but was usually not done for long time storage.

  While much of the population was hungry and without adequate housing during the big depression, the small farmer ate well, had enough to wear and lived in a comfortable house. His family was sometimes crowded - as many as 12 or 13 children and the parents in a three or four room house. (Sometimes a smaller house). But they were happy, and most of them didn't realize that they were poor.

  If a family ran out of food during the year, another family was glad to help them out. People helped each other when they need help.

  You not only knew who your closest neighbors were, but you knew every house for twenty miles in all directions.

  Were these the good old days? Frankly, I wouldn't trade our way of life now for what we had then. But we did have fun.....and we still do!


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