Cellars and Basements

Cellars and Basements

I am almost constantly asked the question, “So is all your product you cook local?” The polite answer is, “No. It’s as local as we can get given the time of year though.” The more curt answer that I mutter under my breath as I walk away is, “That’s not possible. It’s Montana, do you just want to eat squash and potatoes year round?”

During the summer months, nearly all my produce is local. My grower in Lockwood has enough to keep me fully supplied from mid-May to late September. The tomatoes peak and wane quickly. The green beans are gone in a snap (aren’t puns just awful). And the cucumbers start drying up about the last week in August. But as his garden comes on strong, my list of vegetables I can utilize gets bigger as the season goes.
As mentioned before though, we are in Montana, and our growing season is very short. So how do we extend using local product for more than just the three to four months that Mother Nature allows us? We retreat below stairs.

I was raised with a background in canning. We stewed tomatoes, we pickled beets and beans, we canned corn and preserved berries. The entire month of September my grandmother’s kitchen positively sweated down the kitchen walls with the steam of boiling Ball jars. This was because tomatoes were coming off the vine in droves but there was no way to keep them all. Leaving them on the vine gave you three days tops. The refrigerator extended their life by about a week. They simply don’t freeze well. So you’re only option was to process and can them.

My favorite days of the season were pickle days. Grammy used an obscene amount of vinegar with mustard seeds, dill that grew by the sidewalk, and heaping handfuls of sugar and salt. You could smell the processing liquid on the whole block and in the house itself you’d have to breathe through a dish towel so as not to choke; it was that strong.

Grammy also canned corn and our job as little kids was to pull all the silk from the cobs before we threw them into salt water. My aunt Agnes taught my sister and I to tie the silk strands into knots and not break it. She said it made your hands good for fine, delicate work. What it really did was keep us quiet and occupied for a fair amount of time so the grown-ups could speak without the constant questioning of children. It was also a horrible idea because we stopped pulling the silk off the cob in great heaping handfuls and instead went at it one at a time trying to get the longest strand we could so we could tie it into knots.

Once the canning process was done the kitchen counters would be completely covered in jars full of the most beautiful fruits and vegetables you could imagine. An entire garden, compressed and compacted, into an array of various sized jars, ready to go into the cold closet.

The cold closet was a room in the basement of my grandparents’ house. It was used for nothing other than vegetable storage and the retention of seeds. On one side Grammy would have bags of onion bulbs hanging and potatoes in crates with their ever growing eyes climbing between the cracks as well as little jars filled with the seeds of everything that had already given its all that year in the dirt.
On the other side were shelves upon shelves of the bounty that would sustain us through the cold months. It was also lousy with spiders and toys from a bygone era from generations of children who had outgrown them. I always used to think of the cold closet as a sad place, where time was forgotten. Not until I was older did I see the joy in the life that it held and retained and the lives it continued to sustain from its stocked larders.

To get into the cold closet you had to go into the basement, go to the very back room, roll the carpet up out of the way, jiggle the door handle to shake the hinges awake, pull the deadbolts from the top and bottom, and then yank the door open enough to get yourself wedged in it to be able to push it all the way open. You then stepped down two steps lower than the basement already was into a room that was always cold, even in the dead heat of August. It smelled of must and dirt and things that rarely saw daylight. When I was older, I loved this room. It was like a treasure trove.

I also vividly recall the cleaning season. This was when spring was in full bloom and the dirt for the garden was just being churned. Grammy would go into the basement and start to make room in the cold closet for what would inevitably be the new crop of jars. Anything that was older than four years we’d pull from the shelves. After it was all gathered we’d go out to the garden, unscrew the lids and pop the tops off, then dump the contents into ditches we’d dug in the garden. After all the jars were emptied we’d cover the ditches back up with dirt and Grandpa would come churn it all throughout with the rototiller before starting seed rows. It was the circle of life all done in a day.

Another of my grandmothers, who is actually a dear family friend and not blood related, had a real root cellar. It was a stack of stones built directly into the side of a hill. The roof was made from old railroad ties and the walls were bags of sand. The door was a foot thick and made from layers upon layers of wood with straw packed between. This room, too, smelled of must and decay but differently than the cold closet Grammy had. Grandma Sheri’s root cellar was like a story book gateway. It was dark and hidden but it lead to another place. It looked and smelled strangely to deter those who didn’t have the mettle to soldier through. But if you were brave enough to heave the door open, there was a whole new world you’d never expect to see.

The root cellar wasn’t lit, and so daylight was the only thing that allowed you to find what you were looking for. In this cellar the jars were on the right as well. But they were filled with more than just vegetables. Deer meat, pig knuckles, chicken’s feet. It looked like an alchemist’s workshop. On the right side were the sides of butchered pork, potted meats, and the utensils required in the work that produced the racks hanging from the overhead ties. It was also a scary place when you were young. To be asked to go get something from the root cellar was the worst punishment you could imagine. But as I grew older, again, I came to appreciate all it held. The shredded pork packed under a layer of fat that had wax melted over the top of it to keep it safe and “fresh”. The sides of meat, covered in mold, that required scraping before they could be used but oh, the flavor produced from something aged in such a way. It still makes my mouth water.

The root cellar also stored actual roots. Potatoes, carrots, turnips and beets. They all lay in burlap in corners and under shelves. In the frigid cold of winter they’d be a welcomed addition to the dinner table. They may have been wrinkled and dark when they were pulled from the bags but once they were boiled and the vinegar or salt was added they were just as good as the day you’d pulled them from the dirt.

Cellars and basements were the bastion of the good work that gardeners do. They were places where you had access to food all year round in all different forms. And no, it wasn’t the same as something picked fresh from the vine, but it was still good. And it made the meals that much more special and unique.

This is a different world now. Times change, the pace quickens, people just don’t have time for a lot of things like this anymore. It’s a bygone era that most people recall in memory. Grammy’s cold closet is empty now, and she’s been gone for almost twenty years. Grandma Sheri doesn’t live in Montana anymore, and the root cellar long ago collapsed and was plowed under to make way for new fields. But the idea of the magic that lies in cellars and basements, it’s so invigorating to me. I think most chefs can’t wait for summer to come on. They practically start salivating in late January planning dishes centered around fresh, ripe, garden tomatoes. The thought of shoots popping up out of the dirt practically makes them misty eyed. I’m on the other end of the spectrum though. I can’t wait for summer to give up and get out of the way. Let the leaves die, let the dirt get cold, let me go to my cellars and basements. That’s where you’ll see me at my happiest.