Getting Back to Our Root Cellars
BY CLARA SILVERSTEIN / PHOTO VISUSCHKA (SHUTTERSTOCK)
Last winter, when Cheryl Wixson of Stonington, Maine, wanted to make dinner, she popped a trap door in the kitchen floor, climbed down a ladder and opened tubs in her root cellar. She sorted through Red Delicious apples and carrots before selecting red cabbage for slaw.
Wixson’s reliance on a root cellar for fresh vegetables in the depth of winter connects her back to her heritage as an 11th-generation resident of Maine. The self-described “food engineer” and chef refers to a photo of her extended family in rural Aroostook County at the turn of the 20th century.
“There were seven children, and they understood how to grow food and how to put things by. That’s what we all did. There was no supermarket,” she says.
Part of “putting food by” for Wixson’s family—and thousands of other New Englanders—was a root cellar, an underground room that uses the earth’s naturally cool temperatures to preserve foods. These cellars are usually located underneath a home or dug into the side of a hill, though one enterprising farm in Maine used to store vegetables in an empty crypt at the local cemetery. In North America, root cellars date back to Colonial days but went out of favor when electric refrigerators became widespread in the 1920s and 1930s. Now they are making a comeback, thanks to renewed interest in preserving and eating food grown close to home.
At one time, root cellars helped people survive in a harsh climate. “Beginning in the early 1600s in New England, house cellars were used amongst other things to store root crops during the winter,” writes James Gage in Root Cellars in America: Their History, Design and Construction 1609–1920. Inventories also showed that people stored milk, preserved meat and kept their beer in root cellars, according to Northeastern University professor Elizabeth Collins Cromley in The Food Axis. Though New England’s short growing season made root cellars especially useful, they could be found in other parts of America—in homes both grand and humble. At Monticello, former president Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, excavations at the site of slave cabins uncovered brick-lined root cellars used for food storage.
In 19th-century New England, people planted their gardens with root cellars in mind. The Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook states, “It is little wonder that root crops were grown in such abundance … they were by far the easiest to preserve. Stored in root cellars, potatoes, turnips, beets and carrots could be kept for months in barrels of sand.” In Root Cellars in America, Gage mentions that 19th-century farmers also used their root cellars to store food for dairy cows, beef cattle and sheep. Responding to market forces, farmers also stored crops “until mid-winter or later when much higher prices could be commanded.”
As food distribution became more widespread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people didn’t need to rely on their root cellars as much. Home construction changed, too, making traditional cellars with dirt floors and stone walls—a space with naturally steady, cool temperatures and good ventilation—a relic.
Nowadays, people who create or use existing root cellars are more interested in returning to traditions than in profiteering. The motivations are also philosophical. “A good cellar is the gateway to experiences and a food philosophy that’s more important to some of us than 24/7 wall-to-wall convenience,” Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie write in The Complete Root Cellar Book. Margaret Christie, special projects director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, elaborates. “Root cellars are, of course, a low-tech and energy-efficient way to store products harvested in the fall in order to expand the range of seasonal products available in the winter. Those attributes make them a good fit with the goals of sustainable agriculture. They allow the serious gardener or homesteader to eat homegrown food all winter without the time and energy required by many other storage methods, such as canning and freezing, or to supplement canned or frozen products.”
The proliferation of how-to guides since Mike and Nancy Bubel published their classic Root Cellaring suggests growing interest in root cellars. Wixson teaches a workshop in root cellaring during the Common Ground Country Fair hosted each fall by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and says 50 to 60 people have attended each of two sessions. Jennifer Megyesi, owner of Fat Rooster Farm in Royalton, Vermont, and author of The Joy of Keeping a Root Cellar, says she fields inquiries about root cellars from people all over the United States and Canada.
Megyesi’s interest in root cellars is personal—she grew up with one—as well as philosophical. This fall, she filled her cellar with crops including winter squash, apples and potatoes. In the colder part, she put cabbages, kohlrabi, carrots, celeriac and celery. She expected onions kept in a dark spot to last up to 11 months. “Instead of purchasing [vegetables] in the dead of winter that come from outside of the United States, I have a ready supply to eat from my own land,” she says.
The Joy of Keeping a Root Cellar explains how to create a root cellar and also how to fill it. Charts give practical advice about which vegetables to store and the best ways to store them. The book also covers other preserved foods, including pickles and home-canned goods. Megyesi uses her cellar as a curing area for sausages, pancetta, pastrami, prosciutto and homemade juices and wines. Two other how-to books, Root Cellaring and The Complete Root Cellar Book, contain practical building and storage advice as well as recipes to make from foods stored in the cellar.
Wixson says that a root cellar can be practical even for people who don’t have time to grow their own food. She recommends stocking up with food grown by local farmers because it supports the local economy and keeps food from traveling hundreds of miles from farm to table. She follows her own advice. “Certain crops don’t grow well where I am, so I get them from other farms,” she says.
One somewhat hidden challenge for those who own a root cellar is keeping an eye on produce to make sure it doesn’t spoil. Theodore Roethke, a poet whose family owned a greenhouse in Michigan in the early 20th century, describes what can happen if someone abandons the food that is stored. In his poem titled “Root Cellar,” Roethke writes, “…what a congress of stinks!— / Roots ripe as old bait, / Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich…”
Checking on the crops in the cellar, even after they are packed away, helps avoid this situation. Wixson makes it sound like fun. “Visit your roots every day. It doesn’t do any good to put them away and never look at them.”
The reward for the work of creating a root cellar and tending the vegetables in it is fresh produce in the dead of winter, something our forebears relied on for survival in New England, and something we can appreciate to this day.