- Cullman, Alabama

September 15, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: Nesting instinct

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— I don’t know when it started but I have a suspicion that it goes as far back as that ol’ mother of sin, Eve. I’m not talking about the sin itself, but about the resulting work that came with it, no matter when it started. God seemed to have planned an easier life for us, but when she ate that apple, she put a lot of work on all the rest of us that still goes on even to this day. We call it nesting.

Birds and bees do it, as do squirrels and most other animals. They all put up food for the winter, and so do farm wives and industrious men and women who love the chore of putting up fruits and vegetables for the months in which cold weather keeps us inside. Tomatoes for soups and stews, green beans and apples, and a variety of other healthy foods have begun to fill pantry shelves already.

These days, it’s debatable as to whether or not it’s cheaper to do this, unless you are putting up great quantities of produce that you have grown yourself. But, there is no question as to taste — it’s a lot better!

About two years ago I finally realized that I could freeze onions. I love Vidalia onions and now I’ve learned about Candy onions, which are maybe even sweeter than the better known Georgia-grown variety. I put up 18 bags of chopped onions last year measured in one-cup servings. By the time I ran out, they were just coming in season again. Not willing to take a chance on cutting it that close again, last week I pulled out the food processor and by the time I was finished, I’d put up 32, one cup bags.

Now there will be pre-measured onions ready to pop in the fall’s first stockpot filled with chili, and later for roasts, or casseroles calling for one cup of chopped onion. And the best thing is, when it’s time to cook for the holidays, there will be Vidalias and Candy onions, which would have otherwise disappeared from the grocers’ shelves.

There are lots of other nesting preparations that women have developed over the years to preserve foods for their families, such as drying apples and other fruits. My grandparents had one of those huge barns, the picturesque kind like in the paintings with faded red paint, and a hay loft with an open door just underneath the peaked roof. Every year about this time they took all their kids, and later their grandchildren, to the pasture where the apple trees grew. The more agile ones climbed the tree or mounted ladders, and the little ones and my grandmother picked up windfall apples…yes, from the ground (and no, nobody ever died or even got sick). They judiciously checked them for bad spots before adding them to our baskets or to my grandmother’s flour-sack apron.

For several days we would sit on the porch peeling them and cutting them into bite-sized pieces. After peeling and soaking in lemon juice, these apple chunks were spread on top of that barn to dry. I never saw anyone up there beforehand spraying it with a water hose or even sweeping it off. There were no trees close by which would eliminate leaves, but I’m pretty sure that the flight plan of several varieties of birds went directly over that barn.

But no one ever worried about things like that back then.

The apples lay there in the hot Indian summer sun for at least three days, maybe longer, if rain threatened. Then my aunt and I were given the chore of climbing up on the popping metal roof and to gather up all the pieces. The only thing that made the heat worth the effort to us was the promise of the fried pies that these unappetizing dry brown morsels would be used for later on. There must have been flies and other various spiders and bugs among the fruit, but I don’t remember any, or else I’ve just blocked them out.

Those fried pies are famous in my family. Back then they were a delicacy. They were saved in the freezer until time for some occasion that was worthy of them…like Thanksgiving or when someone died.

My grandmother had a deep freezer (yes, on the porch, but it was at least the back porch) that was as big as a casket…maybe bigger. When the door was lifted, great clouds of misty Arctic air billowed out onto the screened area where we sometimes took baths in a huge galvanized tub (yes, we used the same water, and no, there were no babies ever lost in its murky depths). That monstrous freezer was filled with bags of green beans, sliced yellow crook-necked squash, okra, corn (creamed and on the cob), purple-hull peas, sausage from when their hogs were killed, and all those precious bags of pears and apples.

Both of my grandmothers and other wives of the day spent endless hours in the summer and fall harvesting their copious gardens, freezing and canning and stocking their pantries, and in my grandmother’s case, storm shelter shelves, with vegetable soups, tomatoes, pickles, chow-chow, and anything else that could safely be canned in those huge old pressure cookers, which frequently blew a lid, sending red tomatoes up to the ceiling and on every wall and surface in the kitchen.

They always saved the prettiest jars of vegetables, jams and jellies for the cooking competition at the fair, which conveniently coincided with harvest season but the bulk of what they preserved was carefully hoarded and doled out over the late fall, winter and early spring.

The first frost of November was the signal that a few of those jars could be opened. It was such a treat to eat tomato soup in front of a roaring fire and know that every single ingredient came from my grandmother’s garden.

That nesting instinct is upon me now that the days are getting just a bit shorter, the fair is in town, and there is football on Friday nights. It hits me hard when I see apples hanging heavily on the tree outside my bedroom window. I don’t have to do this in order to feed my family, but it is now ingrained into my DNA — that nesting instinct that has been passed down through the years. I hope my children are watching!