Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Parsnips in the snow

That’s the title of a University of Iowa Press (Burr Oak) book about Midwest gardening and gardeners by Mary Swander and Jane Anne Staw. It’s here somewhere, but where?

I do have at hand the parsnips (photo above) and the ground outside is covered with snow again this morning, so the combination is appropriate. Turned on the porch light to take a look. Not much. Just enough to remind us that it’s still March and we’re still in Iowa.

These parsnips came from the grocery store, coated in wax to keep them from drying out. But I cooked them the same way my mother did --- peeled, cut into halves or quarters depending upon size, parboiled, drained and then fried lightly in butter. The sweet taste is incomparable.

My mother’s parsnips for many years would have come from a trench in the garden. Because frost and cold enhance the flavor of parsnips, they were generally dug late in the fall but before the ground froze, placed in a trench, then covered with gunnysacks, a layer of hay or straw and loose dirt --- then retrieved and brought in as needed during the winter.

As a rule this worked, although I do recall that one winter --- a snowy one --- Mother lost track of the location of her parsnip trench --- until spring plowing, which was too late.


I sometimes wonder if I could feed myself if necessary --- especially when considering the troubled times and the escalating cost of everything down at HyVee. Perhaps, although the investment in time and canning supplies would be substantial.

In all likelihood, I’d have to become a vegetarian. The bloody array in the meat case seems relatively benign; we’ve just forgotten about the grim processes required to get it there.

I like chickens, so probably could manage egg production. But turning a live chicken into dead meat is not something I’d enjoy. My mother thought nothing of it --- first the capture, then pull off the heads with a strategically placed stick held in place by both feet and mighty jerk, watch the critters flop for a while spewing blood, then scald the carcass with boilng water, pluck it, gut it, cut it into the pieces we all recognize in the freezer case. That’s a little too up close and personal for my 21st century taste.

The processes required to produce cuts of beef and pork were (and still are in places we don’t visit) equally grim --- on the farm at least involving rifles or sledgehammers, cut throats, scalding water (for hogs), sharp knives, etc. I only remember this process vaguely. For the most part, we loaded the doomed critters up and delivered them to Steinbachs. They handled the slaughter and the processing, then quick-froze neatly packaged cuts and placed them in locker drawers to be retrieved as needed during trips to town.

It’s gotten entirely too easy to be carnivorous, but I’m glad it has. If I weren’t so darned lazy, however, I'd think seriously about becoming a vegetarian.


Vegetables are something that I probably could manage although my current efforts involve only a couple of tomato plants, some peppers and a few herbs. The back 40 here is as big as the gentle slope south of the old farm house my mother cultivated as upper garden and lower garden. So space is not the issue.

Time is an issue, however, and we’ve gotten awfully lazy by now or preoccupied with other things. My mother worked constantly at this, from spring to fall --- planting, cultivating, harvesting, processing and canning (later freezing) or storing in some other manner.

We used a root cellar, or cave, for storage --- an underground brick vault where the temperature year-around was cool and stable located a few steps north of the kitchen door. Shelves along both long walls were lined with canned green beans, peas, beets, carrots, apples, peaches, pears, strawberries, gooseberries, jellies, preserves, pickles and the like, all glowing in the light of a single bulb. Onions dried in bunches hanging from the garden shed walls were brought there when it got cold. There were boxes of potatoes, fresh carrots buried in layers in sand in stoneware jars, cases of eggs waiting to go off to town, separated cream waiting to be picked up for delivery to the creamery in Chariton to be processed and turned into Pound o’ Gold butter.


I’m not necessarily advocating a return to the good old days, but some aspects of the newer and odder days are interesting. We were talking after church Sunday about some of the difficulties encountered at the Interchurch Council food pantry.

One is the fact the many of the younger people who come in for assistance have very little idea of what to do with unprocessed or lightly processed foodstuffs --- dried beans, for example; or flour and cornmeal. One strategy for dealing with that is to provide written instructions.

It’s easy to blame the gone-to-hell younger generation for this, but the older gone-to-hell generation taught (or didn’t teach) it all it knows. Remember that and the potential for judgment limits itself.


I do think we spend too little time cultivating our own gardens these days, however, and too much time tromping around in the gardens of others. That may be a partial explanation for the fix we’ve gotten ourselves into lately.


Charles M. Wright said...

I love parsnips. I worry someday we'll not find them in our market's produce departments, The young folks have never eaten them and don't know what to do with them. The last time I bought parsnips at the market, the young lady at the register asked "What are these -- some kind of carrots?" They're among the vegetables I add when I make vegetable soup. Dad and I liked them glazed in butter with a little brown sugar served with roast pork loin.

Anonymous said...

Our family never did parsnips, so it sounds like I've missed out on something worthwhile.

I did plant edible pod peas today. Two days of pleasant weather in Cedar Rapids; the ground was just right for spading yesterday and planting today. I will get some tomato seeds on the windowsill yet today. Just a little late for them, but not terribly so.

The 100 sq foot garden is just tinkering. That's 1/435 acre, and I think it takes the bigger part of an acre intensely cultivated to feed an average family.

If something wiped out all processing and transportation of food, this country would be worse off than the dark ages. Perhaps a few percent of the population knows as much about raising gardens as I do, and I don't know a fraction of what I could have learned from Mom if I'd paid attention to what she was doing instead of complaining about the work.

Bill H.