What does your food supply mean for winter?
Likely not much.
You won’t see any fresh produce supplied locally, but modern global supply networks can cope with that. If it is too cold to grow local fruits and vegetables they can simply be imported from warmer climates – that’s why you can buy oranges throughout the year.
Things were very different for the pioneers, facing harsh winters on American Western frontiers. Primitive transport systems built on horse-drawn wagons restricted food movement – even when the railways came along, there were still serious limits to what could be transported without refrigeration.
Town stores sold a few staples, such as flour, salt, sugar and rice, but people mostly lived on what they themselves and their neighbors produced. In winter, the options closed down, as nothing could be developed for months. The colonists had to spend most of the summer and fall building food stores for the coming cold months to survive before they could start planting again in the spring.
Most food will not retain for months without somehow being preserved. There are exceptions – the dry goods will last a long time if you keep them protected from humidity and vermin. However, almost anything else needed preservation. The pioneers used various methods for this, and for long periods they were able to store quite a wide range of foods.
The bulk of a food stockpile in winter was generally carbohydrates, particularly flour. Very much of it was also vegetables and fruit. Meat generally had a lower priority, since game could still be hunted in winter, but should still be protected as much as possible; hunting is not always effective, and can be dangerous in severe weather conditions. Let’s look at just what the pioneers held, and how they did it, in more detail.
Flour was typically purchased or bartered from the nearest trading post and stored in large amounts – families would plan to go into the winter with at least 100 pounds of flour per adult, and an equal reduction for each boy. Flour was usually delivered in sacks so it had to be protected against humidity and pests. Sacks would be placed on a low platform elevated off the floor; the storeroom would be periodically inspected for mouse holes or signs of any infestation and typically sprayed generously with traps. Flour will also be held in bottles. These were also stored off the floor, but protected much better against vermin than a sack.
A further staple was the dried beans. They’re a good source of protein, if properly stored, last for years and are very resistant to pests. Some pounds of beans were a common part of winter stockpiles per person. They were usually held in sackcloths like flour, and raised off the floor. The same applies to rice; it was not as common as beans, but many settlers would add a few sacks to their store of dry goods.
A small sack of salt was essential. As well as being the basic seasoning it’s also useful for preserving more perishable foods. Finally, sugar. In the 19th century this came as a solid sugar loaf, usually shaped like a cone with a rounded end. Sugar nips, pincers with heavy sharp blades, were used to cut off pieces as needed. Sugar was an expensive luxury, and used sparingly.
If kept cool, potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips and the majority of other root vegetables will last a long time. The most common way of storing them in the household was through a root cellar. These could be completely underground, underneath the house or dug into a nearby hillside. Alternatively they may be partly underground and covered by a thick layer of earth with the roof and walls. Some were even fully above ground, usually where the ground was too rocky or wet to dig easily.
A dense earth insulation holds a root cellar at a cool temperature which is relatively constant. It protects food from both winter freezing, and summer heat. Root vegetable crops would be stored in boxes or barrels of wood, and would last months. Shelves in the cellar could also be used to store canned goods and other products in a cool, dark location that did best.
Stack the roots on the straw, forming them into a narrow pile up to about six feet high.
Open one end of the clamp to remove vegetables and take out sufficient to replenish your root cellar, then reseal with straw and earth.
Clamps operate best when the temperature remains below zero for long periods, in very cold weather. It’s best to skip the initial trench in wet winter conditions, and build the clamp directly on the ground.
Fruit and Vegetables
Some vegetables and fruits would get air-dried by thinly slicing them, putting them on a rack and then leaving them to dry for several days. Racks would be covered with cheesecloth to keep bugs and birds away from their contents, and sometimes the slices would be rotated to make sure they dried evenly. When nearly all of the moisture had evaporated, the slices would be packed in bottles and placed in the root cellar or pantry.
Canning was a major activity every fall. Pioneer kitchens filled with jars and steam were harvested as fruit, corn and green vegetables were harvested. There were no canners, but pots would heat up in a big pot on the stove or fireplace. Once winter came pantries would produce thousands of frozen food, maybe hundreds of jars of preserved foods.
Whenever possible in the winter pioneers would hunt or fish, but sometimes they returned empty-handed. When they were blowing a blizzard they should not go out at all. As much as possible would be preserved to ensure they always had meat at their disposal.
Throughout the fall, they will kill surplus livestock. Older poultry, the bulk of pigs, surplus bulls – something worth the fodder and the commitment to keep it alive through winter. Offal, which is difficult to preserve, would be eaten at once, most of the meat was processed and added to the winter stores.
Thin-sliced beef should be air-dried and made into jerky, which could be eaten or soaked as a tough, compact trail food for cooking. Could also be salted beef and pork. The best way to do this was to rub the meat with warm salt and then pack it in barrels, adding more salt as meat layers were added to fill the gaps. Additionally, meat may be packed in the containers, and then lined with salted brine. Properly salted meat would last for months but it had to be soaked to wash away excess salt before cooking.
Smoking had been a common remedy for pork. Not everyone had a smokehouse, so they would take their pork to someone who did, trading a portion of the meat for the facility to be used. Nearly every family slaughtered at least one pig in the fall, so the carefully smoked hams and bacon in frontier pantries were a common sight. Also, if the environment impeded hunting, meat would be available to add flavor and protein to the menu.
Dairy goods are highly perishable and hard to store without cooling, but the pioneers managed to store some. Butter may be canned but cheese is the easiest to store. The paraffin wax can preserve almost every type of hard cheese. The most popular method of melting the wax was then rubbing the cheese with it. There were two coats added to make sure that there were no openings in which air could get in. When wrapped in wax, the cheese can be kept in a cool position for long periods. Not only was it preserved but its flavor would mature and strengthen.
Hens lay more as they get more sunshine, so there were few and far between eggs in winter. Paraffin wax has come in handy here, too. Surplus late summer and fall eggs could be brushed or coated with molten wax, gathered as soon as they were laid; like butter, they acquired two coats. That gave them an airtight seal preventing bacteria from growing inside and spoiling them. A waxed egg will last six months, or maybe even longer in a cool place. The pioneers would strip the wax from the egg before using it, and put it in a bowl of cold water. It was only fine if it sunk to the bottom; if it had floated it would have spoiled. The more time it takes between laying and waxing, the more likely it is that the egg spoils.
Related: How to Make Powdered Eggs at Home
The pioneers have not benefited from modern supermarkets but they have been specialists in maintaining a large range of foods. During the beginning of winter, a family on the border would have hundreds of pounds of food in store, and they used it wisely-waste was a serious matter. Nature took enough of a toll; plus pests or spoilage could lose 10% or more.
Households would save and store as much as they needed for the winter – then carry on smoking and salting canning, packing away what they could. Any surplus was a precaution against unforeseen losses-animals breaking into a clamp or a serious infestation of the root cellar with pests. Families would also contribute the surplus to neighbors who had lost their savings – after all, they could be the ones who needed the support next season.
We’re blessed by refrigeration and modern shopping, but if the SHTF all that will be gone in days. By that point, those who can fall back on the skills of our pioneer ancestors will be the ones who will be able to see the first fall of snow and look forward to spring. And if you don’t know how to put up a few hundred pounds of canned food this will be a long, difficult winter.