November 1989

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Preparing for Winter

on the Bluff


Shirley McNulty

There followed a pleasant interlude after the grapes were picked as we said "Good-Bye" to summer and prepared for the long, arduous winter ahead. There was much work to be done but it lacked the frantic rush of grape time. Unused boxes were collected from the vineyards and piled in high tiers ready for another harvest. Settlement with the grape buyer was made and school and property taxes paid. Corn and oats were taken to the mill to be ground for both animal and human needs.

A barrel of flour and one of sugar were cached on the sun porch. The slaughtering of neighborhood pigs along with our own brought an interchange of liver and other tidbits. Huge crocks were filled with water and enough salt dissolved in it to float eggs. Hams, shoulders and bacons were stored sunk in the brine. Before cooking the meat stored in salt water it was necessary to soak any portion for three days and change the water several times to remove enough salt to make the meat palatable. Some of our neighbors saved eggs in a similar brine, but Mother scorned this economy.

Trimmings were taken to the meat market to be ground and seasoned for sausage. The sausages were packed into crocks that held five pounds of meat, and then covered with an inch of melted lard, made from the pig fat. The tiny brown portions left from frying down the fat into lard were crispy. We called them "cracklings" and with a light coating of salt they were delicious and the only snack food we knew.

Granddad carefully saved the hides from animals he butchered and he collected animals in the neighborhood that had died and skinned them carefully. The hides he sold to a tannery in Rochester for needed cash. He didn't waste the carcasses either but used them as he had learned from his father to make a stew to feed the pigs he kept. This was a winter time practice when the weather was cool enough to keep the carcasses from spoiling where they hung in a shed.

He used a large copper kettle that was about three feet across and nearly three feet deep. The kettle was placed on a base of brick and stone so that a log fire could be built underneath it. Water from the barnyard well was poured into the kettle and after the fire was lighted pieces of the meat from the animals he had skinned were put into the kettle along with so many pailfuls of corn that had collected at the bottom of the corncrib, and so many pailfuls of cull beans that weren't fit for Mother's baked beans, and more pailfuls of wheat from the chicken feed box. Over the top of the kettle was placed a heavy iron cover.

The fire was kept burning steadily night and day for two or three days. My brothers had never heard of the Vestal Virgins but they complained bitterly of the added midnight chore of replenishing the fire. In time the barnyard smelled like a giant ox roast and when the cover was lifted off the kettle the aroma started the pigs squealing in anticipation. At first, the stew was so hot that half a pailful must be cooled with another half pail of water, but in a few days it had cooled enough to be served directly from the kettle to the pigs' trough. When the kettle was empty the whole process was repeated. The pigs continued to eat and grow bigger and fatter. The whole procedure raised a question we couldn't answer: Who gained the most pleasure, the pigs who ate Granddad's stew or ourselves who ate the pigs?

It also raised another problem which I did answer defiantly. Knowing that everyone in the neighborhood knew how Granddad fed his pigs I would never, never, never allow Mother to pack a meat sandwich in my tin bucket. All too well I knew the taunts I would have to face if I brought forth a meat sandwich for my lunch.

After butchering came the chopping, hauling and sawing of the winter's supply of firewood. A few families burned coal. Women became experts at knowing just how to stoke a fire to have hot ashes in the morning. We did burn coal in the kitchen stove, and Mother would allow no one to touch it, priding herself that the fire she started in November never went out till she shook out the last ashes in April.

Needless to say, the woods were being fast depleted of the most desirable firewood. The story went around of the slick woodsman who was accosted by an irate housewife. "You cheated me! I paid you for KNOT hickory because I wanted the best, and it was only elm."

"No ma'am, I couldn't even spell that word. I told you it was NOT hickory and it wasn't."

1989, Shirley McNulty
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