By Rick Palsgrove
In 1880s Ohio, people did not just make a quick run to the grocery store or pop open a refrigerator for food.
Instead, our ancestors reached into their store room for a jar of home canned fruits or vegetables or into the smokehouse for ham or bacon.
At an event called, “Smoked, Salted, Pickled and Preserved” on Dec. 27, workers at Metro Parks Slate Run Living Historical Farm demonstrated how food was preserved on a farm in the late 19th century in the days before refrigerators were common in households.
“When the various fruits and vegetables were ready to be picked in season, (an 1880s) farm family would can, pickle, or dry the food to preserve it for later use,” said Natelle Ball, a Slate Run farm worker. “That means they would do the preservation work when beans were ready in the summer and then also for other produce when it was harvested in the fall and early winter.”
Ball said canning sealed the food air tight for later use while pickling – which used vinegar as the base for the pickling solution – sealed and preserved the food for a longer period.
“Pickling some items, like sauerkraut or beets, enhances the flavor,” said Slate Run Farm worker Donna Abel.
“But other foods you don’t want to pickle, like apple sauce,” added Ball.
Ball said some foods, like beans, lend themselves to being preserved by being dried. Foods that were dried included okra, eggplant, cayenne peppers, carrots, potatoes, beets, pumpkin, and apples. String beans that were dried before being stored in jars were called “leather britches” because of their appearance while hanging on a line to dry.
Salt was also used to help preserve everything from meat to cabbage to cucumbers to green beans to green corn.
Ball said each food item took a different amount of time to prepare during the days-long canning process. It could take 35 minutes to get a jar of pickles ready and 25 minutes for apples.
“Each has its own unique preparation time,” said Ball.
Ball said there was a communal and familial aspect to the canning process.
“The kids would help with the picking and cleaning of the produce and the adults would do the work that involved handling the boiling water,” said Ball.
Ball said meat was not canned on the farm in the 1880s.
“They didn’t have pressure cookers yet,” said Ball.
Instead meat was butchered in late fall and early winter, salted, and then placed in the farm’s smokehouse.
Curing, which is the time it takes salt to penetrate the meat, could range from three weeks for bacon to three months for a ham.
Slate Run Farm worker Dave Trotter said 1880s farmers primarily placed ham and bacon in the farm’s smokehouse for their own use while taking their beef to market to sell.
He said a smoldering fire produced the smoke that helped flavor the previously salted ham and bacon hanging in the smokehouse.
“It has to be a smoldering fire, you don’t want the meat to cook in the smokehouse,” said Trotter.
He said the minimum smoking time was 72 hours.
“After the ham and bacon were salted and smoked the meat could keep for a long time,” said Trotter.
Before the meat was cooked for eating, the salt was removed by soaking the meat in fresh water for one to five days.
The canned and/or pickled fruits and vegetables, as well as the salted meat, could feed a farm family until the next harvest.
“It was good food that got them through the cold months,” said Ball.