Readers go back down into the root cellar
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By any name, root cellars and fruit cellars loom large in the memories of those who grew up with them. When we asked readers for root cellar practices and recollections, here's what poured out.
I grew up in Peters (when it was all farms, not big houses), and I do not recall any time out there that we as children were not sent down to the cellar to get some type of food that was put up. We had a door at the bottom of the stairs, and when you opened it up the smell of damp dirt hit you. Along the one wall were three shelves that carried everything that could be "canned" on it. All organized and all dated. We had whole tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, tomato juice, spicy tomato juice. Also hot peppers, sweet peppers; then came the green beans, wax beans, beets, etc. We also had fruit jarred: pears, peaches, plums.
At the end of the shelves would be all the equipment to put them up. Soon my father built a shelf along the other wall, and on that he would throw all the potatoes that he grew so that we had potatoes all year. Now my mother would go down to the cellar, and when the shelves started to look empty, you could see in her face the agony of what was coming. Another harvest time and work for her. Every year she told "Mike" to stop making the garden bigger, and he somehow did not hear her.
We had to sell the house a few years ago. Dad was going into the Alzheimer's world, and when we had to empty the root cellar, the memories came back. I am sure the cellar is still there but do not know if it is used for the same purpose. It is a memory of what can be done with the "local" food growing and what we all remember: There was always something behind that door that you could eat.
MARILYN HICKS: Dormont
We had a root cellar when I was growing up in the small town of Trafford. I was one of 11 children, and the house was small. The root cellar was at the bottom of the steps that led into the cellar; it was a small room underneath the porch in the front of the house. The room had a light to the left with just a bulb and a chain pull to turn it on.
We kept bushels of apples and potatoes and peaches; two shelves kept some canned goods; the room also had many cobwebs. We kept pop and onions and a bottle of wine -- a gallon of Christian Brothers -- that we had on special occasions. When my Mom made pigs feet at Easter, the bowls would line the floor until they were ready to eat.
My brothers were good for shoving us girls into the cellar and holding the door shut so that we would be in the dark with the spiders; you were afraid to find the light because you were sure to touch a web.
When the fruit wasn't in season the room became a great spot for us to hide. The boys would take over the room and make it a boys club, and girls weren't permitted. We had such a great time in that extra room of the house; it was so cool to go to in the heat of the summer. We didn't even mind fruit flies flying around. Sometimes we would paint the room and clean it up, and that would be the girls' time to have it.
The root cellar always had food in it, and as we grew older and left the house, my dad would still buy bushels of apples and fruit as if we still all lived there. Our children have also gone to the fruit cellar, as we called it, to get Pap-Pap some apples.
Both parents have passed and the house sold, but when we all get together the root cellar always comes up in conversation and makes us laugh at the fun we had in that room.
JUANITA PALCHAK KRATOCHVIL: Zelienople
I have bittersweet memories of the root cellars in my childhood home in Munhall. We had two, actually. My mom called them fruit cellars, but I suspect it is the same as root cellars.
When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I snooped myself right out of the wonderful, endearing belief in Santa Claus. Every fall my brothers and sisters and I were told to stay out of the fruit cellars. My mom always had some silly story for us about why we could not go in there in the fall (animals came in from the cold, special apples were growing in there, etc.).
Well, I had had enough of not knowing what was going on in there and chose to sneak in one afternoon all by myself. The first one had nothing spectacular going on and did indeed smell like special apples or something were growing in there.
The second one, however, had the mother-load. There were boxes of toys and five brand-new bicycles sitting right there for all the world to see (if you snuck into places you weren't supposed to be). I stood there in awe for what felt like an hour but was more like 30 seconds. I ran out, closed the door tightly and ran to find my mother. She, of course, told me that they were hiding Christmas toys for the neighbors, but I was too wise for my own good and knew that wasn't the case.
She told me NOT to tell my siblings, and as far as I can remember I didn't. I spent the rest of the day, and the next few days, fighting with the reality that I knew those gifts were not for the neighbors and that my parents most likely were Santa Claus. I wanted to believe in Santa again. I was so mad at myself for snooping. I told my brothers and sisters that I heard scary noises coming from behind those dark and eerie doors so that they would not snoop themselves out of such a cherished, childhood fantasy.
BARBARA SCANLON KEENE: Moon
My father designed this house in 1955; under the entryway and guest coat closet he included an unheated "fruit cellar," a space that is dry, dark, cool but never frozen. It was used to store the jars containing the produce my parents canned, as well as seemingly permanent bushels of apples, etc.
Up until a couple of years ago I canned and canned. I pickled everything that existed. Made all sorts of jams, condiments, tomato products and sauces. I was putting up 300 to 400 jars a year. My production increased so much during the last couple of years because I thought to use my electric roaster to cook down sauces. You don't have to constantly stir!
While I hope to put up a few jars of herbal vinegars this year (they are currently soaking in the fruit cellar), now I use a lot of the space to store all those baking pans we need but rarely use.
SUSAN BRUMBAUGH: Springdale
Our house outside of Buffalo, N.Y., had what we called a fruit cellar. My mom stored all her canning there, in addition to the occasional six-pack and something called Cherry Bounce. The fruit cellar frightened me like nothing else. It was small and dark and was home to lots of spiders and who knows what other type of critter. I prayed that anytime my mom needed something from there, I would not be picked to go down.
Even as an adult I still hate it, but I have gotten really good at being able to grab what I need from the cellar and get back upstairs fairly quickly.
LYNN ROSEN: Wilkins
I was one of six growing up -- four brothers and a sister. My mother used our root cellar for many things.
The end of summer for me was spending a week in the basement helping my mother can peaches, tomatoes and ketchup and tomato sauces for the coming winter months. The memory that I loved the most was making homemade root beer for special treats during the winter. We would have root beer floats with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream swimming in a tall glass of homemade root beer.
All these goodies were stored neatly in the root cellar, each having its own shelf. Along with the preserves, mom would make homemade sauerkraut that lasted the entire winter months. My job was to check the kraut jug every so often to test for sourness. I would sit in the root cellar and test the cabbage. I learned to love raw sauerkraut to this very day.
Mom baked a lot during my growing-up days to stretch the food budget. She would store a bushel of tart apples in the root cellar for making pies and other goodies all winter. We always could expect an apple in our lunch at school. I think my mother invented that saying, An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
I don't remember ever buying a potato at the store. We always had a bushel of potatoes in the root cellar.
My father also stored our homemade wine in the root cellar. I will never forget the time my brothers decided to taste the wine. They were all in their teens and snuck into the root cellar and began drinking the wine. Needless to say, they started to get silly and noisy, and my father was not a happy camper when he found them a little tipsy. He poured out all the remaining wine, and that was the end of our wine cellar.
My mother also stored our live Christmas wreaths, which hung in our front windows for years. They always looked as good as the day she bought them.
CLARE LARKIN: Baldwin
I miss my root cellar since I moved to Pittsburgh. When I got married, we lived next to my in-laws. The thing that I thought was really great was the root cellar. You could keep the potatoes fresh and even replant the sprouted ones again the next year.
The potatoes were put in a wooden hog scalding box about the size of a bathtub. We never washed the potatoes. We would plow them up, let them dry and put them in the root cellar. They kept better if they were not washed.
A friend asked why we grew potatoes. He felt that they were inexpensive. I felt that he must have never tasted a homegrown potato.
Later we'd buy 100 pounds of potatoes from Ohio Amish country. We would tell them not to wash them.
There was a resident snake in the root cellar. I never saw it but saw some snake skins.
One year we made root beer and put it in the root cellar. The thing about making root beer was that we would start drinking it before it was ready. It was hard to look at it and not try it.
The root cellar was also a great place to keep apples and fruit. I imagine that they kept other things in it years ago. Four generations used that root cellar.
My husband also grew 1,000 garlic cloves. His dad used to grow garlic, and he kept up the tradition. Many people were waiting for the garlic crop every year, as many steelworkers and friends liked garlic.
BEVERLY VOPICKA: Penn Hills
My husband and I bought our house in Valencia, Butler County, in 1989. When we met our new neighbors, the most common question was, "You live in the house with the bomb shelter, don't you?" We would reply, "Yes, that's our house." We're sure that when the house was bought by its first owners in 1959 (or was it 1960?), they thought that they were building a room that would help them to survive if there was ever a nuclear attack.
Under the front porch they dug out a small room that opened off of the back of the garage. This room was next to the well, which could have been tapped into if needed. Today this small room is little more than a passageway between the garage and the laundry room. We jokingly call it the "wine cellar" because a small rack to store our few bottles of wine shares the space with the spiders. I have also considered using this space for my own personal storm cellar. On days when thunderstorms and tornadoes threaten, I keep one eye on the TV news and weather reports, ready to dash downstairs if the wind picks up or the sky turns green and black.
I have not tried to can or preserve any vegetables that we have grown or foods that I have bought at local farmers markets, although once or twice I have skinned (peeled?) an abundant crop of tomatoes and froze them in my chest freezer.
I wonder how many others in our area have their own personal bomb shelter?
WENDY SPINK: Valencia
First Published September 23, 2010 12:00 am