July 27, 2012

Food Storage in the South

I'm not entirely certain how early Southerners did it, how they stored food without electricity. Of the old techniques I think of salting, smoking, drying, and root cellaring. Salt pork, dried beans, and corn bread was probably a typical meal. Without refrigeration, breakfast was likely leftovers from the night before. Because we hope to someday get off the electrical grid, I think about these things.

Food storage has been a real challenge for me. Not for lack of equipment or knowledge, but because of our climate. The intense summer heat, mild winters, and year-round humidity make keeping some things difficult.

Our first year here I tried storing my fall harvested root crops in my newly designated pantry. Even keeping the room unheated, all these kept sprouting. I observed too, that our ground never froze absolutely solid, even during the worst of our Southern cold spells. I figured out that heavy mulch on the beds enables me to harvest fresh turnips, beets, carrots, etc all winter long. Because this works so well, I don't really see the need to build a root cellar. True, potatoes end up in the spare refrigerator because they don't keep well in the ground, but sweet potatoes do well simply wrapped in newspaper and stored in a box in the pantry.

The humidity presents problems with dehydrating foods. It's no problem when we have low humidity, but when the humidity's high, the foods will get moldy before they're dried. Even with my Excalibur dehydrator I have to take care. Foods dried to a pleasing crisp soon turn soft again when the humidity is high, which is often.

I had similar problems curing hard cheeses. They tend to get moldy before they develop a rind, I think because our house temperature is so warm. We do use our air conditioner, but the thermostat is set at 82. This means it keeps the hallway at that temperature, but rooms that get sun or still have poor insulation, are much warmer. As a side note, I have to say that the insulating we did in the kitchen plus the energy efficient windows have made a huge difference in that room. In regards to cheese, I've been thinking maybe I should make soft cheeses in summer, and save hard cheesemaking for cooler months.

I have to say the humidity is a nuisance in general. It's not as bad here as when I lived in Houston. There I could work up a sweat by simply walking out to get the mail. Still, on the worst days here laundry doesn't dry on the line and begins to not smell so nice. In places where we've lived without air conditioning in the South, we've had terrible problems with mildew. More than once I've thrown away mildew covered shoes I found in the bottom of my closet, or tried to salvage books by washing the covers with diluted bleach. A dehumidifier does help, but the ones we've had generate heat as well, making the trade off not as comfortable as one might hope. Humidity is one reason we use the air conditioner. But back to food storage.

Meat is usually frozen nowadays and ours is no exception. I'd be willing to experiment with salting, smoking, and jerkies, but this will take additional equipment, set-up, learning and time, so it's still future. This makes more sense for home butchering, as meat from a local processor is prefrozen before it's picked up. Meat can also be canned. I used to do this a lot, very convenient.

Then there are the pantry moths. I know everybody has these, but with a long growing season and mild winters, it seems they are worse here than I've experienced anywhere else. How they find their way into jars with tight lids I don't know. I do know that it doesn't take long for them to destroy a gallon storage jar of grain. I have learned by experimentation that a nice chunk of cedar in the jar helps a lot. I use big chunks of cedar in the garbage cans where I store the goats' and chickens' grain as well. For our grains and flours however, I still rely mostly on the fridge and freezer. [NOTE: I should have clarified for commenters that the grains I'm having problems with are our homegrown grains: field corn, popcorn, wheat, and dried watermelon (not a grain but the moths love it). The quantity of these is bushels worth, so freezing, refrigerating, or oven drying are pretty much out of the question. :p ]

Because of all this, when I think of food storage without electricity, I realize there are a lot of things I have to rethink. The vision of the poor Southerner hunting coons and squirrels instead of roasting the fatted calf takes on new meaning. It makes sense to have smaller quantities of meat to deal with if one can't store a whole beef or two. So does winter gardening. My experiments in this have gone well so far, and I think with a hoop house or row covers we could eat more fresh so I would have to preserve and store less.

Producing our own electricity is still a long ways down the road. Still, I find that all the projects we do here require a lot of forethought and research. Experience counts in that regard as well.

I'd really be interested in the food storage challenges of others. I suspect they are different in different locations! Anyone care to share?


Izzy said...

You posted a question I've faced here in central Florida. We have no basements, and if we did they'd be way to humid I'm afraid. I haven't experimented with jerky, or smoking so I'd be interested in learning more on that account. If I come across anything, I'll share.

Woolly Bits said...

we don't have your warm temperatures here, but we have similiar problems with humidity! if I did dry food in a dehydrator, how to I keep it from going soft again, because even twist-off lids don't keep it dry forever:( dried meat would be a no-go, because I couldn't keep it that way - so no jerky for me here:) I think if you go back into historical times, you'll find out what can be done in your area. e.g. yeast bread has been virtually unknown in our area here. one reason is that it has to prove/rise... difficult in a cottage you share with many people in one room, together with the cattle. and difficult to bake in an open fire! but also difficult to keep in those conditions! there is a reason for eating a lot of soda bread! same for other foods and storage. and of course during famine times they had so little that storage just didn't come up! I have to freeze most of what I want to keep, but I am aware that this won't work without E - and freezing a lot can get costly during power outages, when you cannot use up all that's in the freezer! we have a small generator, but of course that won't work in the long run, because we'd have to get a lot of petrol if we wanted to run it for a long time....

Farmer Barb said...

Humidity is always the anti- around this area, too. We have good dry days, but only one for every seven of the other. They may not be as hot sometimes, but they are there. For dehydrating, the finish has to be done in the air conditioned house. Then you can catch the crunch and seal it in small containers. I have long felt that chickens are about the size animal I feel like messing with. I have butchered lamb and find the umpteen bags in the freezer were like a millstone around my neck. A good rooster and a solar powered light or two will give you the potential for your own food year round.
My new favorite insulator is the foil bubble stuff. We had a freak snow storm on October 30th with a power outage. Along with that was no kitchen ceiling and a gable end vent. No insulation. No seal against the outside and no heat. The bubble stuff was stapled over and under the joists and it helped keep me sane. I will be applying more as the budget allows. It helps me deal with the hot summer sun on the west side of my house. When the kids are not upstairs, I use it to cover their windows. Farmtek has one that is white on one side and foil on the other. It keeps me from blinding the neighbors. I am dying for the day I can walk away from needing other people to supply my family's basic needs. Like yesterday: big storm. We have a Berkey water filter, We filled lots of five gallon buckets for flushing and filtering. We own Freeplay Energy's Indiglo lanterns from the same guy who sells the Berkeys. My children were not scared of the power outage this time. We bring in the outdoor solar lights and they serve as night lights. It is crazy, but it works.

for a last note: the dehumidifier was best designed for cool basements where the heat they throw off doesn't matter as much. I have to empty my bucket at least twice a day.

Angela said...

We're in the southwest but we'll be building a root cellar. We've thought a lot about going without the refrigerator and electricity because even with solar or wind you still need to keep up with power needs and pay the huge price.

I gave myself a few months to just think of how I would do that with a family, and finally blogged a little about it yesterday.

Nothing's set in stone, and yes it does take a bit of restructuring our thoughts on how we keep food.

I think it's possible for sure. It does take creative/critical thinking. I'm going to write a part two for my blog on food storage, because I think really that is the most important thing for our families.

On a side note, you can get all the air out of your dry food cans by vacuum sealing them to keep the moisture out and make your dry goods last longer.

I've seen them sealed with a vacuum sealer you can buy from the store and also homemade sealers made with a brake pump (pretty cool and no electricity needed).

Here's the link to all different videos on youtube about vacuum sealing:


Jackie said...

Fascinating! From the Great White North we tend to look upon the South with longing. Warm temperatures, light weight clothing and year round summer. Seems a dream compared to winter boots, heavy coats, lugging the snow blower up and down the driveway and solid -20C or -30F from mid December to March. As for food storage we tend to can everything, meat and vegetables. Our growing season is so short that fresh greens are available for only half the year, but root veg can be preserved by canning just fine. I have a friend who uses a vacuum sealer and has great success with it. Eggs are another victim of the tough winter. It is possible to keep hens laying year round but egg numbers inevitably drop off in the colder months. Although the girls love kicking around in the snow for whatever they can find, funny and heart warming to watch. Eggs are best preserved over winter by pickling, I have heard of them being hard boiled then canned or frozen, will have to try that one. There is one good thing about very cold winters, snuggling up besides the wood stove can't be beat!

Anonymous said...

My people have lived along the blue ridge in Virginia since the mid 1700s and I have thought about how they did it for a long time. I pieced some things together from old stories but I don't think they stored some things but butchered in the winter when needed. Lots of grain was stored and milled when needed. Of course there was cured pork which may mold a little but you cut that off. We had root cellars but canning was the big advance, before that it was sealed in crocks with wax under lids. My great grandmother dried fruit on a roof under sheets. Too much to explain here but I don't think they ate coons and possums like TV says, more like a bear which would last awhile. Oh and the moth eggs were in what ever you put in the jar, that's how you get infested with them.

Quinn said...

I think salt played a much bigger role in preserving meats years ago. And folks canned a lot of meat and fish - still do, actually.

Your mention of the moldy leather shoes rings a sorry bell! I've got two pairs of boots I can't bear to throw out, but also can't bear to touch. They've been "airing" on my screenporch all summer, in hopes the mold would dry up and die. Now I hope one of your wise commentors will post a solution!

Renee Nefe said...

I think that humidity is only good for allowing me to wear my rings without them spinning on my hands. ;o)
I think that I saw that someone else mentioned that you're not going to be able to make jerky in that humidity...moldy meat is not good. Even here we sometimes get moldy jerky and we have to add humidity to our air.
I know that when I lived in Louisiana that we would store our potatoes under the house with straw and lye. I don't know why it was done that way...perhaps to keep the animals out?
I'll have to see if I can check out some books about southern pioneers but I believe that for the most part they ate what was in season. I haven't seen much mention of canning in the books I've read so far.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous, the moths were in whatever you stored, they simply hatch in the jars. Quick fix, research Diatomaceous earth, BUT make sure you get FOOD GRADE! The other kind is for cleaning pools and has additives, you don't want to eat that. Around here we swear by the stuff. It goes in grain, in food bins on and in the animals to prevent pests, etc. I know this is a bit off subject but DE will help with your stored grains, and before people get queezy on me, commercial outfits used to use it all the time but now they have chemical ways of doing it. :)

Unknown said...

Great questions, all ones that I have myself in hot and humid Georgia. Great advice in the comments!

Bernadine said...

I've wondered some of the same things: if we were suddenly without electricity for some time, what would we do? My husband fantasizes about putting up a windmill but our location isn't conducive. Solar panels are too expensive. We are totally dependent on electricity to preserve food using a vacuum sealer. I did have pantry moths once. They came in some ground up corn husks I used for the bottom of my bird cage and quickly took over. I had to empty the entire pantry, wash all the shelves, toss out infested stuff and store cereal, grains, beans, rice, flour... in the fridge or freezer for a while or store things in air tight mason jars. It was gross finding the larvae crawling in interior shelves. I'm still on the lookout though it's been several years since they were eliminated. I still store bird seed in the freezer or in a glass jar, cereal in plastic containers and don't store open stuff in the pantry.
I hope you find a solution and then share it with us all. Best wishes.

Unknown said...

It's dry here, high desert, but I'd like to live in the mtns. nearby. I hate humidity, ick. One way to get rid of moths is to freeze (for about 3 days) any grains you buy, before you store them. I do this whenever I buy flour, oats, etc, cornmeal. Works great! It kills any little things you don't see... I think salting would be a way to go too...

Misty Pines Homestead said...

From the South-My ancestors dried beans and most things like grains were stored in a cloth bag.Meat was smoked in a smoke house.Animals were killed when needed.My hubbys ancestrial house has a root cellar still there.They were big farmers.Straw was used for cover veggies in these.Some homes didn't have a cellar so they just dried what they could.Most hunted wild game to provide meat to keep from killing their livestock because the livestock is what they survived on.What they didn't eat they shared with family members.It really wasn't any different then as it is now with people who live off grid.

CaliforniaGrammy said...

Gosh, we just don't have the problems you and your "fans" seem to have. I've never heard of "pantry moths." I guess that's one of the many good things about living in the mountains above California's central valley.

However we'd be in a pickle if the power went out for more than a few days. The generator would help us though as long as we had plenty of fuel handy.

Anonymous said...

Leigh, here in MA there's a big push for solar roof panels. Went to a seminar & learned that off grid is horribly expensive but that private non-utility companies are paying homeowners dividend-like monies if they install solar that's connected to the grid as a exchange for the power generated. Some installations are owner financed and some are only partial. Either way, the payback is pretty quick. A relatively new roof is probably better than a mid-old one like ours. We've decided to stick with the solar setup we've got. But you should research the MA setup for yourselves, esp the off grid costs. Sue in MA

Sunnybrook Farm said...

I replied above but I came out as Anonymous for some reason. I worked in local archaeology for several years and researched the area. I noticed that a smokehouse was usually present and it would have a good lock on it while there might not be one on the house, thieves were around in the old days, I had a great aunt who shot a man's thumb who was trying to steal chickens. Food was taken very seriously. There was very little wasted, what you find in trash areas is usually completely worn out. It was really different from today in some respects.

Susan said...

Interesting (using the term loosely) problems you have in the south. I do not function well in humidity, so I keep going further north! I am trying to can and dehydrate more, because we have intermitent power outages and I'd like to rely less on my freezer. The DE info is great - I use it for everything, especially with my hens. It takes care of everything from mites to parasites. I'd be interested in learning how to cure/salt - it sounds like you've got quite a challenge there. But, if anyone is up to it, it's you.

Leigh said...

What excellent comments! I'm checking in from the library. Turns out I had to order a new computer; just got a tower. Hopefully I'll be back online from the comfort of my own home next week.

Izzy, do come back and share anything you learn. Building a smokehouse is on Dan's "someday list," so I'll post about that when we finally get to it.

Bettina, so interesting how different peoples dealt with their regional problems. I figure with the freezer, I can always can everything perishable in it if we lose power for more than a couple days.

Barb, amazing what necessity can inspire! We have the bubble foil insulation around our air ducts; hadn't thought of it for other things. Love those Berkeys! I'm not familiar with the lanterns and don't think our Berkey dealer had those. Who did you get them from?

Angela, I will definitely have to come read your blog posts once we get back online (time limited here on a library computer). This is an interesting and important topic.

Your mentioning the vacuum sealing reminds me that somewhere I have one of those manual pump ones! Got it for Y2K and packed it away. You've inspired me to go find it!

Jackie, I imagine you have less eggs than we do during winter! They freeze beautifully if beaten as for scrambled. I did a how to post on that here, how they worked for cooking, here.

Anon (Sunnybrook?) yeah, but how do they get in there so fast, LOL. Interesting history, confirms what I've been thinking.

Quinn, I hadn't thought about that with salt. We don't have fish, but meat cans very well. Sorry about your boots! I know how hard it is to part with a good pair.

Renee, I need to read some of those historical books too! I'm wondering now about that jerky and how they kept it or maybe they didn't ???

AHH, thanks! I've heard of many good uses for DE. I'll have to invest in some and experiment.

Rugratmommy, we're in the same boat!

Bernadine, we researched both wind and solar but there are obstacles as you mention. I'm guessing our ancestors expected at least some loss due to bugs and mold.

Nancy, that's so true about freezing. In fact, I keep all my grains and flours either in the freezer or the fridge.

Annnightflyer, very interesting. That's the direction I think a number of us are headed.

Janice you are so lucky not to have those moths!

Sue, that's very interesting about the roof panels. I'll have to look into it. The last time I researched solar for the house I figured out it would take longer to get my money back than I have years!

Sunnybrook, I've seen back porch freezers around with locks on them! The no waste part is something I really admire. Modern science tells us so much of an animal is bad for our health so that we no longer utilize all of it. It's something we need to learn to change.

Susan, don't tell anyone I said this but I hate humidity. Thanks for the info on DE too. And when I get to curing meats, I'll post about it!

Anonymous said...

Any dry products I bring home goes into the freezer for 3-4 days first then into jars, I haven't had a pantry moth in my house for over a decade.

2 Tramps said...

Very thought provoking post! My nephew is going to college in Nashville - he loves it - I would die there - heat and humidity, oh no! I had never thought about all the things you have to contend with in the south. Living here in the high desert of Oregon, we have a dry climate. After reading your post, I feel very fortunate to live here. It does get hot in the summer but it cools down most nights.

Whiffletree Farm said...

Even here in Vermont we get bugs in the dry goods so I oven can everything dry. I place my grains in a canning jar, lid off, and bake at 150 degrees for an hour. I fill the oven to capacity when I do this because we have a lot of dry goods but from spring until mid autumn, the insects are as interested in my food as I am.

Lady Hawke said...

Leigh, Others have said it but the moths hatched from eggs that were in whatever you were trying to store. Some people have used the freezer to kill any eggs that may have been in your grains or dry goods. Put the items in the freezer for approximately 3 days. Then take it out of the freezer and dry can it. No more bugs.

Ngo Family Farm said...

So interesting! My husband's family used to live in Vietnam (very hot and humid all-year and no electricity for most people) and I've learned some about food preservation just talking to them. Lots of pickled vegetables, meat butchered as needed, dried and salted meats, and soups that can be left out and re-boiled. I also noticed they didn't eat foods outside of their regional cuisine, and I think this is much like eating only in-season foods here. I read something recently that said if we can't grow things in our region of the country (blueberries, for example), that we shouldn't be eating those things! Kind of extreme, but in a way, it rings true.

I'm always amazed that my mother-in-law leaves so much food out on the counter, too - eggs, fruit, cooked foods...I grew up keeping everything in the refrigerator! I'd love to learn more about reducing our own dependency on electricity as well.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences Leigh. Being new to the south, I will have to go back later and read the comments left by others, as I am learning.

Anonymous said...

Leigh, is there a way to make a root cellar? Depending on how high your water table is - root cellars are usually lower in humidity. There is also the possibility of a solar dehumidifier. This would make the root cellar even better. My husband said you could probably make the dehumidifier for about $600. He hooked our dehumidifier up to a hose and put it out through the wall - no emptying that little bucket every few hours. Elizabeth

Sue O said...

Ditto on freezing before storing for the pantry moths. Also to prevent infestation once opened you need to be sure there are none where you store things. I have had great luck using Bay Leaves of all things! Got that tip from an elderly neighbor years ago and so far so good. Put whole dry leaves (several depending on size of area) just on the shelf and replace every 4 or 5 months or so. Since I can get large jars at the grocery near me for a reasonable price I can't complain about cost. Plus lots safer and some of the alternatives.
I also hate humidity! Towels only get a single use in summer because they sour so quickly before they have a chance to dry even out on the line. Yuck! LOL

Sue O

Denise said...

Leigh- you need to check out the foxfire books. They are excellent source of info. Also I have read that they dried beans in their shells by stringing them. They also dried apples this way. If you want some visuals on the way things were, check out the Victorian Farm videos on YouTube or you can rent them I'm sure. They were shown on PBS and are from Britain but the info is very interesting. The follow up Edwardian Farm wasn't as good but had some great info too.

Elizabeth said...

Sorry to hear of your computer problems as well as the humidity situation! I just got a weavil mess cleaned up. They came in with some beans I had purchased I believe and by the time I realized it...well what a mess.

trump said...

A good post Leigh and I can see what your saying about keeping certain foods fresh without electricity, and I'm really big on solar power myself and can only see this method growing as time goes on. Richard

Sue said...

I know it won't help when you go off grid, but have you thought about getting a spare fridge to turn into a cheese cave for hard cheeses? You can get a special thermostat that lets you keep the temperature in the right range for the rinds to develop properly. It's what I'm going to do once the girls start giving milk.

I lived in Florida for 8 years, and hated the humidity. The high desert works much better for me!

Leigh said...

Ya'll, I probably should have clarified that the grains I'm having problems with are homegrown, not small store bought. Consequently, trying to freeze, refrigerate, oven dry, etc is a bit out of the question because of the amount of grain we're dealing with!

2 Tramps, it's the cooling down at night that I really miss. :(

Jaime, I'd love to know more about those Vietnamese preservation methods. I've done a lot of lacto-fermenting, but find those foods still need refrigeration after awhile or they get too sour for our taste. I have to agree with regional eating, though in some parts of the world that would mean a very limited diet!

Elizabeth, we're considering making a root cellar in the old swimming pool (filled with dirt) which will become the foundation for a greenhouse. I really don't think I'll need it much except for potatoes though. Interesting idea about a solar dehumidifier.

Denise I used to have an entire set of Foxfire books! Lost them along the way but good idea for the resource.

Sue, yes I have thought of that. I actually have 2 fridges, and the cheeses are stored in the warmest part of the 2nd one. The rest is stuffed with about a bushel of field corn because moths love corn the best!

jj said...

Here in Saskatchewan, the problem is more with growing the food (in the 90 day zone 2 growing season) than storing it. Root cellaring has worked well for us, and we have few issues with humidity or bugs in the house, fortunately. Even in the summer, we store our eggs in the root cellar with no issues, and we still have spaghetti squash from last year's garden stored in the spare room...

100 Thoughts of Love said...

here is an article about sinking a garbage can in the ground ... preferably inside a shed) for food storage in hot climates; would this work for the meantime?

100 Thoughts of Love said...

oops... http://www.hobbyfarms.com/food-and-kitchen/root-cellars-14908.aspx

Frank and Fern said...

Hi Leigh,

I know this is an older post but I just read it. Do you still have a problem with pantry moths? We did when we moved to southeastern Oklahoma. I found an insect trap specifically for the kind of moth that produces the weevil that eats grains at:


They work great! I trapped a few moths the first year and haven't had any since. I have put out a few more traps about every other year and still haven't caught any more. It's worth a try.