Alternative to Shopping: The 21st Century Root Cellar
by Betsy Miller
Before there were refrigerators, even before there were ice boxes, there were root cellars. Homemakers knew how to preserve their summer harvests for safe consumption in the dark of winter. And they didn’t pay a cent for energy.
Root cellars were a common part of every home. Whether free-standing, like the picturesque one above, or incorporated into the basement (below), it was once customary, in fact, necessary, to have a place to store all the produce that was harvested during the summer. It was quaintly called, “putting food by.”
These days, home owners are interested in root cellars for other reasons—to save the expense of electricity, to preserve an over-abundance of seasonal local produce, and to get back to basics. On Saturday, June 25th, there will be a Root Cellar Workshop at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, MA. Instructor Jack Kittredge will discuss the types of root cellars used in this region during past centuries, as well as those that can be easily created today. “He’ll talk about ways to make sure there is proper light, heat, cool air, and moisture,” says Danielle Steinmann, Associate Director of Interpretation and Public Programs at the Village. “Jack has taught a number of these workshops and knows how to adapt early storage techniques for contemporary homes.”
Included in the course will be ways to retro-fit a storage space for food into existing conditions. A root cellar can be created in a basement for little expense. And outdoor storage takes surprisingly little (if any) pick and shovel work—a mound of earth can keep a number of root vegetables fresh for months. By encasing these vegetables in straw or newspaper or just in loosened dirt, the root crops will be preserved all winter long. And the need for a freezer will be substantially reduced.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in energy-free ways to preserve crops. The Shakers were leaders in such innovations. Says Steinmann, “By incorporating Shaker history into this workshop, our goal is to make the connection between their values and contemporary life. They were interested in sustainability, the good use of land and responsibility to the earth. And they didn’t like to use energy unnecessary.”
The workshop includes a discussion of which vegetables lend themselves to root cellar storage, a tour of two or three of the Shaker root cellars on the grounds at Hancock Shaker Village, and a presentation by Kittredge of alternate designs that can adapt to nearly any situation. The lecturer will also discuss his own cellar, in use since 1982. Mother Earth News called it “the Cadillac of root cellars.” (Kittredge swears the magazine meant high quality—not energy guzzling).
With a root cellar, next winter, when the roads are bad, the wonderful tastes of summer will be close at hand. How great is that?
Root Cellar Workshop
Hancock Shaker Village
Saturday June 25, 1 - 4 p.m.