Celebrating Preserving the Harvest

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant,and recommend you do the same.”

From:   Aesop’s Fables – The Ant and the Grasshopper [1]

This fable is in the public domain in the US, according to the Library of Congress

Painting by Milo Winter, 1919

From ancient times onward people all over the world had to figure out what they could safely eat during the winter when they could not produce or have access to fresh food from the garden or fields. Once a food is harvested, it begins to break down, lose some of its nutrients, and eventually spoil. It wasn’t until recent times when French chemist Louis Pasteur, discovered in the mid 1800’s the microorganisms that caused fermentation and disease which eventually led him to developing a technique on how to preserve food via pasteurization among many other scientific accomplishments.  Before Pasteur’s research, little was known about microbes that caused contamination in foods and how to prevent this from happening.

Our ancestors figured out ways to stay alive during the months when they were unable to produce food other than by hunting which was not always reliable. Salting was used on animal products such as meat and fish which would immediately start to decay if not heavily salted after the animal was killed. Not only did our ancestors need to have foresight about the weather, but they also had to figure out how to store foods safety without our modern conveniences that are dependent on electricity and transportation.

A big issue was protecting the food they preserved from the critters who were also hungry. Small mammals such as chipmunks, squirrels, moles, mice, shrews, and some birds such as woodpeckers are known as food hoarders. They obsessively collect their food for winter use and hide their stashes from competitors. My yard has been inundated with baby walnut trees planted by squirrels in seemingly random patterns, an annoyance because the walnut plants contain the toxin juglone that prevents me from planting tomatoes and many other foods that do not grow in the proximity of juglone. The animals that don’t migrate have devised often ingenious methods for getting through the winter with enough food to keep them alive until spring.

What did people eat prior to refrigeration and stoves? How did they survive the winter? There were several techniques that are still being done and we need to take a serious look at them as climate change is affecting the true costs of eating foods from around the world no matter what the season. David Pimentel, Ph.D., the late brilliant ecologist from Cornell, pioneered figuring out the true cost of food production by looking at the multitude of variables involved. He co-authored a paper with me and Dana Kindermann, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins at the time, “School Meals: A Nutritional and Environmental Perspective” in the Spring Issue, 2010, of the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. [2] In the article Pimentel presents an example in Baltimore City public schools that compares the total number of calories contained in individual foods served in the school meal program with the real costs involved in terms of calories of energy required to produce these foods which includes growing and transporting them. Not only are the plant-based items less expensive to produce, they also typically have more nutrients.

According to National Geographic, approximately half of the food grown in the world does not feed humans but instead is grown as animal feed and biofuels. [3]

Crops for human consumption in green vs crops grown for animal feed or biofuels in purple

Now that climate change is undeniably in full swing, we need to take a serious look at our food supply and where it is headed. We are having serious droughts, floods, and other weather events that impact our food supply. Furthermore, with unrenewable energy subject to political manipulation, we must implement as many measures as we can so our world populations will be able to feed and shelter themselves and each other in the future.

If we look at how people managed in the past, there are options for the average person to act while using methods that are not harmful to the planet or the life on it. For centuries people were able to dry, pickle, ferment, and store underground food harvested at its peak time. During the winter in cold climates ice was harvested and the ice box, precursor of the refrigerator, froze food for later use and/or kept it cool so it was safe to eat.

Drying Food

Drying was a common method of preserving foods if there was adequate air circulation and the food could be hung from rafters or a place where it was able to dry without getting wet and/or protected from freezing.

Apples drying on a dowel

Pickling Food

Pickled Jalapenos, Cucumbers, Red Onions, and Jalapenos

Pickling foods is a good option because the vinegar and salt preserve it and keep out harmful microorganisms. Above you will see some pickled items I made because they were abundant as I wrote this blog. Many other foods can be pickled and if you grow them yourself, during the long winter months they bring back memories of the process from planting seeds to filling the canning jar which can be quite satisfying. Pickling foods from the local farmstand makes it so you can acquire the foods fresh and take advantage of money saving quantities. The pickled foods pictured above were made by slicing jalapenos, cucumbers, and red onion and pouring a brine that has boiled about five minutes over them. The brine contains salt (about a Tablespoon, 1 cup cider vinegar, 1 cup white vinegar, 2 Tablespoons peppercorns, and 2 cloves smashed fresh garlic. Dill can be added as well as other spices or herbs according to your preference. If not completely submerged in liquid, add water to top of jar. Store in the refrigerator after allowing to cool completely.

Sliced cucumbers made with dill, garlic, onion, mustard seeds, hot pepper flakes, black peppercorns, cider vinegar, and salt brine.

Fermenting Food

Fermenting food is an ancient process that allows the natural good bacteria and microorganisms to flourish and create probiotics which are good for the gut. Fermented foods have been ubiquitous in Asian countries and have many health benefits. No special tools are usually necessary and some of the yeast starters that are used in breads have been in continuous use for hundreds of years.

Sauerkraut made in a crock from cabbage and salt after being sliced with old-fashioned wooden cabbage cutting tool specially designed for this task.


Root Cellars and Cold Underground Storage

Root cellars have been around for a long time in cold climates. They offer a below ground option for storing root veggies, winter squashes, and some fruits. It is important to store the foods correctly and check on them to ensure mold has not developed. Your State Cooperative Extension agent can guide you on what works best for your climate. A summary of some of the foods that can be stored in a root cellar or basement in a northern climate follows.

Foods that like it cold – 33 – 35 degrees with 90 – 95 % humidity

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Cabbage
  • Potatoes

Note: apples and pears contain ethylene gas that can cause other foods to ripen prematurely

Each of the foods above should be wrapped in paper prior to storing

Foods that like 33 – 40-degree storage and 80 – 90% humidity

  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Rutabagas
  • Turnips
  • Celeriac

Note: Pack in sand, sawdust, paper, or leaves

Foods that like it Cool and Dry – 33 – 50 degrees

  • Garlic
  • Onions

Foods that also like it Cool & Dry but a bit warmer – 50 – 60 degrees

  • Pumpkins
  • Winter squash


Canning Food

Canning food is one of the newest forms of food preservation and was invented in France by Nicholas Appert (1749 – 1841), who became known as the “father of canning” and the “father of food science.”  The French government was concerned that soldiers did not have access to safe food to eat and sponsored a contest to come up with solutions. It took Appert 14 years, but he won the contest by inventing the canning technique which made it possible to safely eat canned foods. The foods are picked, washed, and placed in sterilized jars and heated to a high temperature in a water bath that kills microorganisms. The jar is sealed with a vacuum seal so no air can get in. These are the key concepts developed by Appert – heat and no air – that keeps acidic food safe to store and eat later.

Hot water bath canner to preserve tomatoes

Organic tomatoes purchased from Amish farmers canned in hot water bath – 63 quarts in 2022!

A word of caution: do not can foods in a water bath that are low in acid such as green beans, asparagus, corn, carrots, and cauliflower. Instead, use a pressure canner and make sure you are using the appropriate device prior to canning. The risk of not using the proper tool is botulism so make sure you research the safest method prior to processing.

Freeze Drying Food

Eight centuries ago, the Incas perfected a method of freeze-drying potatoes. Potatoes are indigenous to Peru and there are more than 4,000 varieties. They grow throughout the Andes and have become the world’s most favorite tuber. The Andes are mountainous, windy, and cold at night. The Incas would harvest special varieties of potatoes, put them on a blanket on the rooftop or some other elevated location and let them freeze overnight. The next day the potatoes were uncovered and subjected to the sun and as night came, another blanket would be placed on top of the frozen potatoes. Families would stomp on the frozen potatoes to get the moisture out. These are known as chuño and are freeze dried potatoes that were light in weight because the moisture was removed so could be easily transported. This process lasted until the potatoes were successfully freeze dried (about 5 days) and the chuño could be stored for over 10 years and rehydrated before eating.

Freezing Food

Prior to the time the modern electric refrigerator was invented by American Fred Wolf in 1913, the ice box was used to keep foods cool. The ice box was made from wood and was heavily insulated. A large ice block, often delivered by the “ice man”, was placed in the ice box to keep food cool. The ice had to be replenished on a regular basis and as it melted water was collected in a tray underneath.  The electric freezer took longer to develop than the refrigerator and was in use by 1940. When one considers how relatively recent these inventions were there is renewed respect for our ancestors and the amount of time they had to spend to keep themselves and their families fed.

Jellies & Jams, Preserving with Sweeteners

Jellies, jams, and preserves are typically made from ripe fruits, including berries, stone fruits, citrus fruits, tropical fruits, and fruits we usually think of as vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes. Sweeteners such as honey, sugar, or maple syrup are added to the washed and sliced ingredient and boiled until the jelling stage is reached. Fruits with a high content of pectin such as apples and crabapples do not require added pectin to jell but other foods may. The jelling process happens suddenly so it is important to keep stirring the pot. A word of caution – be careful to not let the jelly or jam splatter because any resulting burn is painful. Keep young children away from the pot. Once jelled, pour into canning jars, turn upside down for a second and then place on a counter until it seals, and you hear the pop.

Crabapple jelly and almond apple tart with the apples brushed with the jelly

Dehydrating Food

If one lives in a reliably sunny location, the sun is an ideal way to dehydrate food. Unfortunately, many people do not live in climates where there is ample sunlight for much of the year so a dehydrator can take the moisture out of just about any fresh whole food which then can be stored for later use. Notice the shrinkage in size of the zucchini and tomatoes below once they have been dehydrated. These foods can be stored in an airtight container and added to soups or other recipes during the winter as they will rehydrate.

Storing Food without Plastics

How did we store food prior to the omnipresent onslaught of plastic? We used paper, ceramics, and wove items from nature such as pine needles to make baskets. We also used bark and wood.

Iroquois food storage containers made from birch bark and pine needles. Salt container made from woven corn husk with corn cob stopper.