Root cellar revival: Chatham University wants people to dig this low-tech tradition

Tucked into an embankment and obscured by the mature maple and oak trees that tower above it, the root cellar at Chatham University's Eden Hall Campus blends into the landscape.

Until mid-July, the front door was shrouded by a 20-foot thicket of berry bushes, saplings and poison ivy -- all hacked away with handsaws, loppers and clippers by Chatham assistant professor Kathleen Sullivan.

Walking in feels a little like entering an Etruscan tomb, minus the wall art.

"It's got to be decades since anybody was in here," Ms. Sullivan said in the dark, concrete-block room illuminated, for now, only by the natural light coming through the open doorway.

When she first entered, she found only a large wooden storage bin, crock shards, apple crates, glass canning jars, the skull and bones of a groundhog "and lots of creepy, crawly things."

But soon the long-forgotten root cellar will be back in business, holding some of the bounty from the nearby apple orchard and garden where Chatham students are learning to grow organically.

"They did a terrific job," Ms. Sullivan said of the original long-ago builders. "They used steel beams [to support the roof]. We're looking at how to restore this properly. We're going to be as aesthetic and thoughtful as they were."

Earth-sheltered root cellars, used for thousands of years in Australia and elsewhere around the world, fell into disuse as electricity and refrigeration spread to rural areas. But root cellars -- or fruit cellars, as many call them -- were never just a country thing; some urban homes also had special basement rooms or cupboards for cold storage of root vegetables and fruit in the dark, usually in a high-humidity environment to keep the produce from drying and shriveling.

Along East Ohio Street on Pittsburgh's North Side, where the 19th-century houses in the former Croatian neighborhood of Mala Jaska are coming down for the widening of Route 28, cave-like cold-storage rooms and their arched openings have been exposed at the base of Troy Hill.

The caves penetrate the hillside for about 5 to 10 feet, said Robert Sladack of Reserve, who grew up in a more modern house in Mala Jaska that did not have a hillside cold room.

Today, in urban and rural areas alike, the root cellar is poised for a comeback. Located at the intersection of the local food and green design movements, the root cellar revival is supported by an enthusiastic press and cooks eager to take advantage of ways to extend the bounty of the local harvest, when produce is plentiful and cheap.

'It's worth it'

In Arthurdale, W.Va., Shelba Fullmer feeds her family year-round from her husband Daley's large vegetable garden, thanks to the root cellar that holds dozens of jars of beets, hot peppers, salsa, tomato sauce, pickles, beans, carrots and peaches that she put up.

Both Fullmers work outside the home; she's a school cook and he makes small machine parts used in coal mines.

"We're tired when we come home but it's worth it," Mrs. Fullmer said. "It's all good come winter time, let me tell you, girl. You know what you're eating. We rarely use pesticides."

Liquid Fence -- an all-natural, biodegradable and very stinky spray-on product -- keeps the deer out of the garden, and there are plenty of deer. The Fullmers have a little more than five acres of land in Arthurdale, the 1930s subsistence homestead community founded by Eleanor Roosevelt in rural Preston County, about 20 miles southeast of Morgantown. The majority of Arthurdale's 165 homesteads had a house, barn, hen and hog houses and a root cellar on one- to five-acre plots. The Fullmers' home had belonged to Daley's grandparents, who were among the original settlers.

The Fullmers' root cellar is earth-sheltered but above ground -- half of a large steel culvert pipe covered with earth shored up by a stone foundation. The soil that covers the pipe ranges from about 1 to 3 feet thick. The root cellar -- 9 feet long, 6 feet, 4 inches wide and 6 feet, 6 inches tall -- still has its original wood shelving.

The cellars were built with the goal of maintaining a constant 58 degrees, Mrs. Fullmer said. "The temperature stays above freezing in the winter and about 60 if it's kept shut in the summer."

The root cellar's proximity to the house, just steps from the back door, was appreciated when her husband had to shovel paths to it last winter through what became 4 feet of snow.

Making a comeback

Restoration of the Eden Hall root cellar, 12 feet wide and 18 feet long, is part of an ongoing research project into kitchen history for Ms. Sullivan and her Chatham colleague, architect Gregory Galford, who teach in the school's interior architecture department. As energy costs rise, they believe, root cellars should make a comeback as a low-cost way to over-winter produce. They plan to include the concept in a sustainable, affordable model kitchen design that will incorporate old and new technologies.

"The kitchen has become the most expensive room in the house," Mr. Galford said. "We want to bring some standards that are more modest in scale that people can incorporate wherever they want," such as an insulated root vegetable storage drawer that's vented to maintain the outside temperature.

New houses could be built with insulated cold rooms in basements, Ms. Sullivan added, that could hold everything an outside root cellar does.

Apples, potatoes, beets, celeriac, horseradish, Belgian endive, cabbage, carrots and winter squash all will keep for up to six months in a root cellar, and many other items can be stored for shorter periods, write Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie in "The Complete Root Cellar Book," published this year by Robert Rose ($24.95).

Two other new books -- Andrea Chesman's "Recipes from the Root Cellar: 250 Ways to Enjoy Winter Vegetables" (Storey, $18.95) and Jennifer Megyesi's "The Joy of Keeping a Root Cellar" (Skyhorse, $14.95) -- offer plenty of ideas for how to use them.

But stocking a root cellar or cold storage room is a bit more complicated than simply shoving in boxes of fruit and veggies.

"When you read about how to put vegetables next to each other, it's more difficult than planning guests at a wedding reception because of the off-gassing," Ms. Sullivan said. Apples and potatoes, for example, should be kept at least 6 feet apart; if they're not, ethylene gas released by the apples could cause the potatoes to sprout.

Some fruits and vegetables should hang, while others are better stored on shelves, in bins or in a metal trash can filled with sand.

"A sand can is a perfect way to create a high-humidity microclimate for beets, carrots, celery root, gingerroot, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas and turnips," the book advises. Layers of vegetables alternate with layers of damp sand. It's OK to mix different kinds of veggies; some publications recommend the individual vegetables touch only sand, not each other.

A tradition passed down

In the Fullmers' root cellar in early September, garlic, onions, parsley and oregano were hanging from hooks in the wood-sided, concrete-block front room. On the floor, bags of just-dug potatoes cooled under the wind of an electric fan.

"We grow close to 1,000 pounds of potatoes a year," Mrs. Fullmer said. After the potatoes cool, they're stored in netted bags on a shelf in the rear of the root cellar.

In the front, a big bag of cabbages sat on a shelf, next to two large crocks that soon would hold fermenting sauerkraut. After their kraut is cured, Mrs. Fullmer will process it in quart jars that will take their place on a root cellar shelf.

Although books generally advise against storing home-canned items in root cellars because their high humidity can rust the lids, Mrs. Fullmer said she usually doesn't have that problem because they almost always use everything they've canned within a year.

The Fullmers got their root-cellar know-how from their parents and grandparents.

"It was just passed down from generations," said Mrs. Fullmer, who grew up in nearby Kingwood, the youngest of 14 children.

"Daley's grandma was a German lady, and she always raised a big garden. She would even dig a hole and bury her apples and throw straw on it. And my parents had a cellar -- we called it the cave -- made of cinder blocks with a little building above it. Mum canned everything -- apples for pies, and blackberries that we picked in the woods. I remember going out in the winter time to get whatever she would send us out for."

Immigrants, especially from England where root cellars as we know them today were established in the 1600s, brought their knowledge and techniques and passed them to their descendants.

They "relied on their senses so much and so much of that has been lost," Ms. Sullivan said, as successive generations of Americans used their root cellars less and learned to rely on home refrigerators and freezers stocked by frequent trips to the supermarket.

She will work with students to document temperature and humidity levels at the Eden Hall Farm root cellar and feed them into a software program that will come up with an optimum environment.

Ms. Sullivan still must clean out the roof-top vent -- root cellars need air circulation to keep produce from spoiling -- and then she and Mr. Galford will stock the cellar with apples, winter squash, pumpkins, onions, garlic, potatoes and possibly cabbage from the Eden Hall Farm garden.

"If they don't grow it," she said, "we're going to buy it somewhere" to get their root-cellar science project off to a well-rounded start.

Patricia Lowry: or 412-263-1590. First Published September 23, 2010 4:00 AM


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