Hilling root vegetables for winter
by Ruth Baker
Jul 10, 2010 | 2092 views | 0 0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
We lived in rural Alabama before the days of electricity came to the farms. There were no refrigerators or freezers. To preserve food, we canned, dried and “hilled.”

There were several hundred jars of fruits and vegetables canned in Mason fruit jars. The fruit was in half-gallon jars because this amount was just right for a cobbler pie baked in a large enamel dishpan. Twelve children, with “kith and kin” could eat a cobbler in one sitting.

There was a large set of shelves in the offset of the open hallway and it was draped with a quilt in the winter. No heat except in the fireplace rooms and kitchen left canned goods in jeopardy of freezing in the winter.

Apples and peaches were sun dried on a sheet of tin covered with a guano sack sheet. It took a few days of direct sunlight to get them ready to be packed away for the winter. The best place to secure the fruit after drying was in the 50-pound lard cans with tight-fitting lids. Fried pies from these fruits were a favorite dessert for everyone.

Irish potatoes were spread out in the corncrib or other area and dusted with a white lime powder to keep the bugs out. When the weather turned cold, they were covered with an old quilt or blanket and maybe hay added for insulation.

Sweet potatoes and turnips were put in a “hill” that had been prepared in the edge of a patch near the house. A shallow hole was shoveled out, hay was added, and the turnips and potatoes were put into place. A teepee was made of cornstalks; dirt was mounded over the stalks to make a cave. An old burlap sack was hung at the small opening at the front. The hole and its coverings kept the root vegetables below the frost line and they remained firm and usable all winter.

Mama would hand any available child in sight a dishpan and tell them to run get a pan of potatoes or turnips. Mama would cook her meal and then line the bottom of the oven with sweet potatoes to bake with the remaining fire in the cook stove. Of all my memories, I can see the stove full of softly baked potatoes.

When we children arrived home from school, the first place we headed was the kitchen. The oven door was opened and potatoes removed and eaten by hungry kids. One day, my sister, Ollie, had grabbed a potato and was in front of the cabinet with a knife in hand, cutting chunks of butter and placing on the potato. I grabbed a potato and elbowed her out of the way and found a bowl of butter on the other side of the cabinet. I was enjoying my snack when she turned and said, “Why are you eating that lard?” I gagged and ran out the back door.

Mama had skimmed off the fat when she stewed pork and saved the fat for seasoning or to make soap. I had been happily eating the lard for butter and never noticed until she told me. It has been said that kids with their ravenous appetites would eat anything that did not eat them first. I think I proved that true.

Another day, I had just pulled out the largest potato in the oven to eat when Daddy came through the kitchen. “Put that back and get a smaller one. You won’t eat that.”

I whined out, “Yes, I will. I’m hungry.”

“Alright. You better be sure you don’t waste it,” he replied.

Of course, I could not eat it and I slipped inside and put it in the “slop bucket.” Every farm kitchen had a bucket for scraps of food to be collected for the hogs. He came through the house and saw the big potato in the bucket. He marched me through the house, pointed at the bucket and ordered me to get it out and eat every bite or I knew what I would get.

I reached inside while he stood there, and picked it up, gagging the meanwhile, and carried it to the back steps. I was sitting there crying when my brother, Elbert, came to me to see what was wrong. I told him the story. He took the potato, carefully broke it open to fresh, unsoiled center of the potato. He took a finger and scooped out potato, smeared it all around my mouth and told me to go around the house and come up the front steps where Daddy was sitting. “Walk slowly,” he said, “and let him see the potato all over your lips.”

I did as he told me while he carried the rest of the potato to the hog pen and got rid of the evidence (which I should have done in the first place).

My dad wasn’t easily fooled and I am sure he wasn’t that day; however, at times he gave us a way to save face and avoid a whipping.

Ruth Baker is a retired educator and a published author. She has written on the history of Walker County and its people for over 27 years. She may be reached at 205-387-0545.