Friday, September 15, 2006

Cold Storage Cave As I alluded to earlier, we used a cave that had been "enhanced" by opening it up some, while letting it remain basically a cave, to store some foods. Although the cellar, as we called it, stayed about 28F-32F (-2C-0C) year around, it wasn't actually cold enough overall to freeze food effectively. The main reason was that there were many drafts and more than a few "warm spots" which we had to avoid. Every winter, after the farm pond had sufficiently thick ice, we would spend one or more long weekends "harvesting" ice for the cave. This was done in part by use of the ice cutting and handling tools pictured above. The other photos show a remarkably similar heavy object/stump pulling hoist rig such as the one we had, and a wood stove similar to the two in the kitchen and one in the pantry, although the pantry stove was much wider with more oven and surface space. The rig was used to lift heavy stones from fields onto and off of the farm wagon, pulling stumps, and lifting ice blocks from the pond. This was accomplished by positioning the hoist over the object to be moved and utilizing heavy ropes and block and tackle assemblies. Although crude, these rigs allowed the slightest of men or boys to lift extremely heavy objects with ease, using the principles of mechanical advantage. Prior to "re-icing" the cellar, everything in it was removed and the place thoroughly cleaned. Then the floor panels, which were set on 4X4 beams to allow drainage, were reinstalled. Then the walls were lined floor to ceiling with hay bales, which provided insulation. Only then was the cellar ready to add new ice. The hoist and ice tools were moved to the pond, which generally had ice over a meter thick and ideal for our purposes. The first thing done was to create a pilot hole in the center of the pond from which the ice removal progressed toward the edges. After this hole was cut, a larger square was cut with holes drilled at the four corners and one on the side opposite the pilot hole. The purpose of the pilot hole was as much to allow a place to cut from and allow the ice tongs in, as to center the operation. Now the hoist was wheeled over the block to be removed and the tongs inserted into the holes on the sides as far as they would go. Uncle R had his own measuring method, which consisted of marking the blocks at two "axe handles" long by one "axe handle" wide. This worked out to a rectangle of ice roughly two meters long, one meter wide, one meter thick, and extremely heavy. So heavy in fact, that the farm wagon could carry only one at a time to the cellar entrance without fear of damage to the wagon. Getting the ice onto the wagon took a combination of moving the wagon and team into place as close as possible followed by R and F hoisting and manhandling the block into place to be lowered to the wagon bed. Once in the bed, it was held in place by iron pegs that fit into the "ice rails" installed to run in parallel from the front to the rear of the wagon bed. The operation then moved to the cellar and the "tricky" part, as R would say. The west side of the cellar had one of the two doors leading to it, the other being on the south side and accessing the food pantry off the kitchen. Once there, the ice block was slid back in the wagon using block and tackle installed above the door. Prior to cutting, a specially designed three-rail ramp had been installed leading at about a forty-five degree angle through a short earthen "hallway" to the cellar floor. A block and tackle was used to lower the blocks slowly down the ramps until they settled on the floor. The floor was sturdy and level enough to allow the blocks to be slid and hoisted into their final spots. The room held four blocks along each side lengthwise, two regular and one half size on the north end, and two regular on the south end to allow for access from the pantry. These were stacked three blocks high. When completed, the west side door was fully blocked off by hay and ice and the "hall" filled with smaller blocks of ice to help prevent heat intrusion from the door. The pantry door was "insulated" by virtue of its being wood and approximately four inches thick, with a sheet steel surface on the cellar side. While not perfect, all these elements managed to accomplish the desired ends, a large, cold, reliable space for long-term storage of semi-perishable items, and short-term storage for perishable items. When the room was ready, we'd restore the items which had been removed according to how soon we'd need access to the various items. The semi-perishable goods were generally home-canned foods and butter, along with other items I can't recall well enough to inventory. Barrels of potatos, corn, apples, and root vegetables were long-term also. Shorter lived things were mostly homemade sausage, raw fresh meats, eggs, and some fish. Many things, like fish, were kept on ice in addition to the cold of the room. Perishable things were mostly ground meat and dairy products. My aunt knew from long experience what would keep for how long and be useable, and directed the stowing of cellar goods like a plump, apron-clad general. As the year wore on between seasons, the cellar was a constant source of amazement to me. I'd often ask to be allowed to take a flashlight or lantern down to retrieve needed things, simply so as to see how much the ice had melted since my last foray. It never receded appreciably on any of those occasions. I did, however, always manage to snag a juicy apple or two for my future snacking pleasure. We didn't have much in the way of candy, chips, or other denizens of todays cupboard shelves, and we were much healthier as a result. Our "treats" were apples, rhubarb, and maple sap flavored snow in spring. Nowadays I consider those things treats. I don't know where R and F got their cellar knowledge, other than from their dad. I think it was one of the long-established methods of food storage passed down over the centuries. We had many stored foods beyond those in the cellar. My relatives who fished for a living would supply another relative with fish, we'd supply the needed varieties of wood, and my uncle and cousins would smoke the fish in a large one-story barn-like shed. Much of the fish was eaten by them, traded to us for the wood and some farm goods, and the remainder sold and shares of profits allotted between the fishing cousins and the smoking cousins. We always had smoked herring, salmon, flounder, and salted pollock, cod, and haddock available, as well as sardines from the canneries that still operated at that time. Some foods were smoked by us, such as hams, turkeys, and wildfowl. We also had a time set aside for making sausages, jerky, dried and spiced beef strips, and corning beef. My aunt and Mrs F would spend days and weeks on end canning and preserving everything from various pickled fishes and pork cuts to jams and jellies. Almost all the vegetables grown would be grown in quantities to allow preserving jars of peas, beans, beets, rhubarb, etc for fall, winter, spring, and early summer use. Store bought food was a rarity, usually the store food money was saved for purchasing treats such as oranges, peaches, pears, and the like. The kitchen was a beehive of activity from the first harvests of early summer until late autumn. Just the smells emitting from the pantries and kitchen at these times was pure heaven. When it came to meat, we generally raised a few beef cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and an occasional "meat" goat or two that were raised for that purpose. We also always had ample supplies of deer meats, bear meat, rabbit, squirrel, wildfowl, and freshly caught fish. Fresh fish were available via ice fishing in late fall and winter, and pole fishing at other times. Uncle R, F, Dad, myself, and some cousins and uncles would go as a group on my relative's boats deep-sea fishing several times a year also. In addition, other cousins fished for lobster or dug clams, which they'd trade us for farm or dairy goods. My aunt made the best batter coated, fried clams in the world, and they remain my favorite food to this day. Not the clam strips sold in stores, those are akin to cardboard, but whole clams where the clam explodes with flavor in your mouth on first bite and the flavor can be savored to the last, slow, drawn-out chew. I often think that if someone could capture and bottle the aroma of food being canned, dinner roasting in one wood stove, and pies and bread baking in the other wood stove, they'd become a billionaire overnight. Those smells and the anticipation of tasty delights to come are a part of childhood that I fear is beyond reproducing. I think it's because of the "magic" my aunt put in every dish. Take care and enjoy life's little pleasures when you can.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Short Tale of Cows and Cats One of my responsibilities on the farm involved herding, feeding, milking, and other milk related tasks as were needing done at any given time. A quick explaination of the photos above first. On top left is a milk can of the type we used to collect the milk from the milking machines and hand milking. Next to the can is a butter churn of the type my aunt and Mrs F used to make the butter we sold. Next is a Holstein cow which made up most of our herd, as they give the most milk overall. Below that are butter churns of the ancient type my aunt and F's wife used to make the butter for our own use, as they claimed the old way was better tasting. I can't find any fault with their reasoning, as they produced the sweetest, salty, home churned butter I've ever tasted before or since those wonderful days. Then is a Jersey cow, we only had a small number of these, probably around fifteen at any time. The milk these cows produce contains the most butterfat and was used for producing butter and our household use. Going down, we find a mechanical milker of the type we used and an example of one being used. We had four of these, and they were the original reason for the generator being purchased. Lastly, we have a Guernsey cow. We had quite a few of these, around twenty-five usually. Their milk was mixed with that from the Holsteins, and comprised the milk we sold. A bit of the Guernsey milk was set aside to settle, and then put through the cream separator and the cream bottled for those wanting cream delivered along with their milk. As we had no real cold storage, other than the cold cellar, we attempted to keep the herd and milk production equal to the sales. The milk that was left over from the Holsteins and Guernseys was fed to the pigs as the liquid component of the pig slop. In this way, we generally managed to balance things so nothing went to waste. Occasionally if we had a large excess of milk, F would take some to his produce store to sell in the small city. Our milk deliveries usually required two or more runs, due to the number of customers being in the hundreds in four towns. This was when pasturized and homogenized milk was considered less healthy than raw milk from healthy cows. It also tastes one helluva lot better! We were the only farm around willing to comply with the strict laws and regulations governing the sale of raw milk to the public. One of the requirements was that a licensed veterinarian visit the farm every second day and test each cow for disease, sores, etc and the equipment cleanliness. We always passed the probings of two veterinarians with ease, as R was a stickler for detail and ensuring the safety of anything he sold. We also had several milk goats that my aunt tended and that provided househol milk only. Their milk was always my favorite, and to this day I'll go out of my way occasionally to get a bottle of raw milk and goat milk. One neat thing about goat milk is that it comes from the animal homogenized, as the milkfat stays in suspension in goat milk, unlike that of cows which rises to the top as cream. My aunt usually preferred goat milk for cooking as well, as she claimed it made batter smoother. I couldn't prove it one way or the other, except to reveal that I've never tasted cakes and pies as good as hers were. One aspect of selling raw milk, was that when the vets discovered a problem cow, the cow had to be put in a separate area at the east end of the barn until it was cleared by the vet to return to the herd. At any one time there would be from three to ten cows in this quarantine area for various reasons. The problems were always just routine things like raw teats, bacterial infection requiring antibiotics, etc. The cows on antibiotics were cleared for milk sales as soon as the infection cleared, but R wouldn't sell their milk for an additional five days to allow all the antibiotics to leave their systems. He was deathly against selling milk with any medication in it, unlike today, where the milk in many states contains antibiotics at all times. Thankfully, antibiotics and bovine growth hormone in milk in Maine must be clearly labeled, so we can avoid the milk if we wish. One truth about all farms, without exception that I know of, is that they have resident rodent populations of various species, numbers, and habitat. They also have those critters that prey upon the little rodent residents. These generally come in three varieties, snakes, avian carnivores, and little old feral barn kitties. I use the term kitty jokingly, as these felines are not kitties. They are domestic cat varieties that have become semi-wild. They are universally known as "barn cats". The non-poisonous snakes here, the owls and other feathered rodent eaters can't even come close to matching the voracious appetites barn cats have for rodents. Their numbers seem to swell and ebb in direct proportion to the population of the rodents. This rambling tale has taken a long route to get to the memory that gave birth to it. As the quarantined cows had to be hand milked so as not to injure them further or cause contamination of the milking equipment, they became my little task twice a day. Now from this experience came the chance to study feline behaviors and foibles. I'm convinced that cats can tell time, and I know that feral barn cats have a pecking order. Normally these furballs will avoid any human contact whatsoever, but I discovered, much to my amusement, that all rules are suspended twice a day during hand milking time. Before I arrived on the scene, my aunt did the quarantine cow milking, and it was she who showed me the delights of playing with the barn cats. As I'd arrive with my armload of milk pails, a small army of the little cats would magically appear, and, if I were late, they'd be awaiting my arrival. Once they saw which cow I'd do first, they'd arrange themselves by social standing. It took me several milkings to notice this, and my aunt claimed she'd never paid that much attention to them. I guess being a young and overly curious lad contributed to my closer observations. At first they just seemed to all want milk, then I noticed the same ones always went first. As soon as I started really monitoring them, it was apparent that the oldest toms went first, then the old females, and so forth to the very newest wobbly kitten on its initial milk outing. What started as simply pouring milk into a few old bowls, put there for that purpose, evolved into a neat interaction twice daily with these amazing creatures. One day I wanted a certain cat to move away from a smaller one and, lacking anything to throw, I squirted milk from the cow at him. From this I discovered cat acrobatics, as, rather than leaving, the old cat jumped up and got a large percentage of the milk stream in his mouth. He then sat waiting expectantly for me to repeat the squirting, which I did. Each time I shot a stream of milk in his direction, he'd intercept it and make a crazy attempt to catch it all. After a few times I was laughing so hard I had to stop, catch my breath, and dry my eyes. It was then I saw him sitting majestically and licking all the excess milk from his drenched body. From this silly beginning, grew a little game I played every day I milked, until I left the farm for good. The cats figured out quickly that I liked to shoot streams of warm milk at them, and so would now line up in a rough queue awaiting their turn at the milk stream. As we grew more practiced at our little diversion, they'd line up along the top of the low stall wall and, as I directed a stream at one, it would jump up and back to the floor, and try to get every bit of it in its mouth. This provided for some rather unique cat leaps, as they all developed their own style of milk chasing. When I tired of the game or had to get back to work, I simply filled their bowls and they descended on them as though they'd never had milk before. I still wasn't allowed to touch any of them, but it did progress to the point where a momma cat would bring her babies out when they were big enough and teach them to "chase milk". And that's the end of a silly little tale of a boy and some cats with too much time and imagination. It still remains as one of my best farm memories and I've loved cats ever since. Hope you enjoyed sharing the memory with me and, until next time, take care and drink your milk.