Reaping What Was Sewn (and “How To” Year-Round)
Subsistence farming is an existence derived from the heart of the land, both beautiful and raw. To those who carried the practice, landowners who grew crops were as much a part of the land as it was theirs to manipulate and master. Farming was that of subsistence for the early residents of Roanoke, few that there were in the 17th century. In this era of Outer Banks history characterized by self-reliance, limited trade routes, and isolated living, growing foodstuffs was an inherent part of survival.
Farmers were meticulous in their planning: sewing plots of field peas for animal feed, corn for human and animal consumption; beans, squash, and potatoes for calorie dense foods sustained the workload that was required. Dairy cows gave sweet milk, pigs provided hearty meat, chickens cleaned the food scraps, laid eggs, and occasionally furnished the table (plucked and roasted.) What was planted by the hands of the landholders fed families, livestock, and financed their property through trade. Each landowner and family member had their responsibilities that were integral to the day to day, that ensured their work would yield throughout the year. Eking out a livelihood on sand and pinewood demanded diligence and spirit.
The fourth-generation Etheridge, Adam Etheridge IV, was an accomplished landowner like his fathers before him. High yields of crops (corn, field peas, Irish and sweet potatoes) fed the family in the abundance of summer, but it was critical to ask what to do with an abundance of food in one season to replete the scarcity of others?
Cooking for the Etheridge Family
With food preparation a critical aspect of Antebellum livelihood, buildings were erected on the property that had their own individual purposes in food preparation. These included a cookhouse, a stilted dairy, and a smokehouse, all used year round. From anecdotal statements from Etheridge descendants and U.S. census paperwork, researchers at Island Farm have identified Christiana “Crissy” Bowser as the Etheridge family cook. Crissy, a single, African American woman lived on the Etheridge property from 1820 to 1910. Her occupation, listed as “domestic” on her death certificate.
Later federal-agricultural census reports from 1880 recorded a land lease which included a 2-acre garden and livestock of one pig and four chickens. Journal entries recorded “Aunt Crissy’s” assistance with preparing wedding feasts and of cooking for other landholders on Roanoke Island.
Hot peppers preserved in a glass jar by vinegar solution, on display at the Cookhouse.
Saving from Months to Years: The Art of Preservation
Cooking food was the first priority before moving to focus on preservation, so a dedicated place for starting and maintaining a fire was required. Thus the cookhouse was built. Fires and cooking necessitated a cookhouse to keep potentially dangerous fires from destroying the family dwelling. Before the age of fire departments and hand-held extinguishers, the best way to prevent house fires was not to have them! The cookhouse, in addition to food preparation, acted as a storage area for dry goods, which kept rodents and other pests away from the main dwelling.
The art of preservation, revealed in a successful pickle, salting, jam, marmalade, jerky, smoked good, or any other preserve, boils down simply to the removal of water. Reducing the water content of food stops harmful bacteria from growing and dramatically extends the shelf life. Fresh fruit on the farm like muscadine grapes, lasting only days off the vine, could be boiled, mixed with a sugar syrup, and preserved into a jelly that would remain fresh in the pantry for up to two years. A myriad of food preservation techniques allowed the family rich and filling foodstuffs during a time of year when fresh food was scarce. Preservation was also a wise technique in addition to using all that was produced, as it also saved time. In cooking larger meals, it paid to have small sections of the meal prepared and waiting.
Methods and Techniques
The easiest form of food preservation, tried and true to the 21st century, is a simple dry. Leaving plants and vegetables, laid out in the sun or bound and hung near the heat of a fire, evaporated water stored in a plant. Drying preserves a large amount of food with a minimal amount of effort.
Adjacent to the cookhouse, an herbal and medicinal garden was kept for fresh seasonings. Cooking herbs like rosemary, thyme, parsley, and sage were bundled and left hung along the mantle of the cookhouse throughout the growing season. Medicinals like mullein and rose petals were preserved in the same manner and used for teas or tinctures. Smaller foods with low water content, bulb crops like garlic, chives, onions, cayenne peppers, were strung and left to dry. Seasonings were crushed or ground into a fine powder when ready for use.
Corn processing was a task saved for idle periods of winter. After harvesting the ears, corn cobs were dried, then shucked. The kernels were ground by way of mill for cornmeal or flour. The husks were used to make children’s toys. Airtight, unopened cornmeal, left in a cool, dry place lasted between 2 – 3 years.
(Left to right) Onions, mullein, and peas are hung in bunches near the hearth to dry and store. Mullein was used to make tea for colds, coughs, and respiratory ailments.
Drying native medicinal plants was a practice that settlers of the Outer Banks learned from the Algonquin inhabitants of the Island. Yaupon holly is a common tree along the Island and the only caffeine-producing plant of North America. It’s distinct oval and toothed leaves were dried or roasted to make a strong, black tea, consumed in lieu of purchasing English black tea or coffee. Yaupon was more accessible and cheaper than importing high-cost goods. The tea was used as a stimulant and medicinally for “gout, smallpox, and alcoholism.”
(Left) Dried yaupon holly leaves. The mortar and pestle to the left was used to grind leaves, spices, and herbs for cooking or medicinal use.
Aside from drying, vegetables were preserved by being placed in solution, either with salt (also called a wet salt) or vinegar. Both solutions performed the same required action of reducing water content of the food and preventing bacterial growth as a result. Both meat and vegetables can be preserved by pickling; vinegar was the preferred solution for vegetables and a salt brine for meat.
Chickens were highly prized livestock for their low work-high yield return. They laid eggs and could be harvested once egg production stopped. Chickens are attenuated to changes in light that influence physical and hormonal signals over the course of a year. A reduction in sunlight and key nutrients (like calcium and vitamin D) tells their body to conserve energy, stopping the production of eggs.
Even foods as delicate as eggs could be saved for years. Eggs were saved with a method called “barreling” which held the eggs in a medium that would keep out moisture and prevent cracking (typically sawdust, salt, or lye (wood ash.)) An initial layer of medium was placed at the bottom of the barrel. Eggs were placed pointed side down, rounded side up, so the yolk would remain stable and prevent any sticking to the air cell. Once the bottom layer was filled, another layer would be placed on top until the barrel was filled.
Sugar and alcohol were two additional vehicles for storing food. These two mediums were less commonly utilized by early settlements as they could not be produced on the farm and required trade. Preserving fruits with sugar, called “sugaring,” involved an initial dry of the fruits, by slicing them and placing them in the sun. The dried slices could then either be packed into a jar with raw sugar, or simmered in a sugar syrup, then jarred for storage. Fruit spreads, like jams and jellies, have lower concentrations of sugar, with jelly being the lowest and still provided a delectable way to save delicate foods.
Alcohol solutions functioned identically to sugaring in terms of preservation by storing fruits in solution. Spices were used to add flavors and variety to sugared or alcoholic fruits. Sugaring or alcohol preservation was used with blackberries, scuppernong and muscadine grapes, as well as figs. Sugared preserves were used in cooking and baking, while alcoholic fruits were used for baking.
MILK AND DAIRY
Drying, brining, and barreling were great for storing food without refrigeration, but what about those that go hand-in-hand with refrigeration in the 21st Century like milk and butter? Milk was another food that, while optimally fresh, was procured in abundance in summer and processed into butter to increase its shelf life. Adam Etheridge had one milk cow reported on the 1850 Federal agricultural census.
The stilted dairy was used to store dairy and foods with high moisture content. Soft foods, or foods with a high moisture content, were covered and sealed. This was either done with a cloth that was then tied around the vessel, dipped in beeswax, or sealed and tied with a hogs bladder. The tissue dried and made an airtight seal between the foodstuffs and any outside environment.
The best methods of storage for large quantities of meats were used in the smokehouse. Smoking and salting removed water, cured, and cooked meat, while also enhancing flavor. Fish, such as herring or mullet, and cuts of pork were salted, smoked, or both, to preserve for several years.
Salting preferred for fish as the small cuts would lose moisture and cure quickly; cuts of pork and beef were also salted. Meat, once rubbed down with salt, was placed in barrels for transport and storage. Salting was performed either “dry” or “wet,” such as with a solution of brine. The less water used in solution, the longer the meat preserved, but the cut would become less palatable overall. These considerations were measured when deciding how long and with which cut of meat was to be saved.
Salted meats were often cured in tandem with smoking. A smoke finish could preserve meat if salt was scarce and imbued different flavors into the cut. Salting penetrates into a cut of meat, but often only cures the cut so far; it is often paired with smoking to ensure the meat is fully preserved. Less tasty cuts, one’s that would not be served immediately after processing, would be cured. Cuts like ham, shoulders, and middling meat (jowls, fat back, neck, etc.) would be salted.
A variety of preservation techniques allowed the wealth of a harvest to be maintained. A well-trained cook was able to create amazing dishes from what they were able to keep from spoiling. When every ounce of energy goes to pulling you livelihood from the land, it pays dividends to stop and savor every drop that you reap. A boiled sweet potato pure in it’s simplicity, tasted of pure gold and hard work. A simple fried corn cake was sweeter than any pie or pastry made from molasses.
Winter was a time when other tasks needed tending to, such as clearing brush, plowing fields, mending fences and houses. It was also a time for celebration in a year well earned and well worked. As the sun takes more time to rest for its’ dawning in spring, the early farmers of Roanoke Island took the same lesson, and rested for the work yet to come.