By Stephanie Stamm
On the day my parents first brought me home from the hospital—after I had spent two weeks in an incubator because I was nearly two months premature—my fifteen-year-old brother took me to the cellar. Upon discovering this, my mother, understandably concerned for her tiny youngest child, asked my brother in some alarm, “Why did you take that baby to the cellar?” He replied, quite matter-of-factly, “I thought she’d want to see it.”
I don’t know if it was because this infant visit somehow impressed upon me the centrality of the cellar to home, or if it was something else altogether, but I do know that I always loved going to the cellar. I loved its coolness in the summer heat, I loved all the varied colors in the jars of fruits and vegetables stored there—the bright red tomatoes, the green beans, the golden peaches, and the purple jams and jellies—and I loved its damp, earthy smell. Sometimes, I’d walk down the stairs, unlatch the door and step inside just to breathe the air. Similar to the aroma of freshly-turned soil after a rain or that released when wet leaves are lifted from their resting place on the cool ground beneath a shady tree, the scent of the cellar was dark and rich and fertile. To breathe it in was to take in the essence of life itself.
In our home, like those of many other people of my parents’ generation, the function of the “heart” of the home was divided between the hearth and the cellar. We didn’t have a hearth per se. We had an oil stove for heat and an electric stove for cooking—although my mother was known to heat soup on the top of the oil stove if the electric went out and to set her coffee cup on it even when the electric was on just to keep her coffee warm. Certainly, those places of fire and heat were central to our household. However, the kitchen stove alone could not provide us with nourishment. Without the cellar, it, like the oil stove in the living room, was just a source of heat. The cellar was our Aladdin’s cave, filled with the food that, through my mother’s kitchen alchemy, would be converted into our meals.
From mid-spring through summer and fall, we’d plant and tend and harvest and preserve. Our garden was large and sometimes it felt to me like we’d never be finished with hoeing—the corn was the worst, with its early leaves looking so much like grass, it was difficult to tell them apart—or picking beans—the vines made my arms and legs itch—or breaking beans—for days in a row we would sit with upturned cold packer lids full of beans on our laps, breaking off the ends and snapping the beans into bite-size pieces. But for each gardening and preserving chore I didn’t like, there was another I did.
I found it somehow satisfying to dip my hands into a pot of warm, red-purple water and slip the skins off the freshly cooked beets. I begged to be allowed to plunge elbow deep into a bucket of cut tomatoes, squeezing and squishing until they were all turned into juice, ready for cooking and then canning. And nothing could be better than getting the corn ready for freezing. We’d shuck the ears and heat them until the corn was just barely tender. Then the steaming ears would be dumped into a galvanized bath tub full of cold water to cool them down enough for the kernels to be cut from the cob with a few long strokes from a very sharp knife. With a bathtub full of fresh corn-on-the-cob, how could we possibly not have taken a break now and then to eat one or two? And when we were filling the freezer bags with the kernels Mom had already released from the cobs into the enamel dishpan over which she stood, how could we resist scooping up a handful and stuffing it into our mouths? Fresh-picked and fresh-cooked, it was the best food in the world!
I’ve been thinking about all of this, because I’m working on a family project now, collecting my mother’s recipes and stories about her cooking and memories of life on or visits to the farm from my siblings and nieces and nephews. I am having a lot of fun revisiting my own memories, reading their stories, and compiling them all into one volume. I hope it will be something my family can treasure down through the generations.
Connect with me:
I am the author of the New Adult/Young Adult urban fantasy series, The Light-Bringer:
I have also contributed stories (one fictional and one true) to the following volumes: