Preserving Memories, or Why I Always Loved the Cellar

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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.”

Baby Steph in Basinette

This is me–a few months after the cellar incident.

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.

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This is one of my favorite pictures of my mom, surrounded by the fruits of her labor.

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.

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I am the author of the New Adult/Young Adult urban fantasy series, The Light-Bringer:

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I have also contributed stories (one fictional and one true) to the following volumes:

Undead of Winter Front Only Into the Storm Cover

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22 Responses to Preserving Memories, or Why I Always Loved the Cellar

  1. Joe Stephens says:

    Wow–that post took me back to my childhood! We had a device, though, that you shoved the corn cobs through and it took the kernels off. And we didn’t have a cellar, though my Grandpa PK had one and I loved going in it, though the spiders were kind of scary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sstamm625 says:

      We didn’t have a corn kerneling device. That sounds kind of cool. I don’t like spiders either, but I don’t remember them in connection to the cellar. I’m sure there were some there though.

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  2. marilynm says:

    We had a cellar too. When I was a kid I made it my office. It was just a dug out place under the house that you had to go outside to get to, my mom’s washing machine was down there. Nothing scary about it though there were spiders, but they didn’t bother me then or now. Grea post.

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  3. Doris says:

    Never liked cellars, but do have some great memories of gardening. Funny thing though, I wasn’t allowed to work in it. According to my mother, I pulled all the plants and left the weeds. Oh well. I do remember canning pickles, lime pickles, they were a favorite in our household. What memories. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

    • sstamm625 says:

      I think you probably deliberately pulled the plants and left the weeds so you wouldn’t have to work in the garden. 😉 In all seriousness, I know I chopped out some corn instead of grass when hoeing–I just couldn’t tell them apart sometimes. My mom made lime pickles too. They were never my favorite. I liked the dilly, garlicy ones better.

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  4. erinfarwell says:

    Awesome post, Stephanie! We also canned but didn’t store much in our cellar. My grandparents had a room in their basement for home canned foods. Lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Neva Bodin says:

    Now my mouth is watering for fresh cooked corn. We also canned when I was young, and I canned a lot in my earlier years of marriage, only decreasing when we moved into town 18 years ago and had no good ground for gardening. I still try to do fruit from trucks and this year had enuogh friends give me home grown tomatoes that I have some canned. The cellar was scary in the dark but fun in the daytime for me when young. It not only had our big coal furnace, but the canned goods and the old wringer washer and later the modern washer and dryer. You really helped bring the memories back. Loved the pictures too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sstamm625 says:

      We had a wringer washer too, Neva, but it wasn’t in the cellar. We had a wash house over the cellar for laundry. That’s also where Mom did the canning. There was a wood stove and a gas stove in there.

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  6. Nancy Jardine says:

    Great memories to pass on down the family, Stephanie. I have a cellar but don’t use it for storing food. At the moment it’s full of bits and bobs like ornaments I’ve no place for in the house; Encyclopaedia Britannica/s which are now probably too damp to read having been there for the best part of thirty years; and plastic toys which belonged to my daughters like original ‘My little ponies’ and ‘She-Ra’ castles and Barbie cars etc. I dread going down to tidy it every now and then – like once a decade. 😉 My vegetable garden produce was mainly stored in one of my granite outbuildings when I did grow veggies.

    Liked by 2 people

    • sstamm625 says:

      Our cellar just had food–canned stuff and bins for potatoes, onions, etc. It would have been too damp to store other things I think. I remember She-Ra. I finally just got rid of my old Barbie dolls–passed them down to my great-niece, who I hope is enjoying them.

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  7. Mike Staton says:

    Great idea for a cookbook. I wish I had compiled stories of older generations that have since passed on. I would have liked to have written a book and told stories of their youth and brought to life men and women I never got to meet because they passed on before I was born. I’m hopeful younger folks would enjoy reading tales about their ancestors. Back to your cellar post… I enjoyed my maternal grandmother’s cellar/basement. It had four rooms. One had been used for canning, if I can trust my memories. But by my teenage years, grandma Mid had stopped canning, so it was now filled with stuff no longer in use… kind of like an attic in the basement. Another room was also used for storage; back in the day before they used modern heat, it had been the coal bin when an ancient furnace’s heat came from burning coal. When you first came down the steps, you were in a large room used for washing clothes. When I was not much older than a toddler, I can remember grandma using a washer-wringer. Grandpa used the large back room as his workshop. Lots of tools, and he always made sure he had a hammer, nails and wood handy for me when I came visiting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sstamm625 says:

      A book like that would be a great project, Mike. I wish I had done a better job of collecting family memories too. I suppose I still could try to grab some. My siblings remember stories about my parents and grandparents and (great-)uncles and aunts that I don’t, because I’m so much younger.

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  8. Thank you for sharing such preserved memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What great memories you have and it sounds like a wonderful childhood. Sadly, we grew no food other than lemon and orange trees and the occasional green onion. My only memories are of oranges and lemons rotting on the grass in the backyard. Also, nobody had cellars or basements in Southern California. It was great reading your post though and makes me want to compile recipes that my mom made. She cooked a lot (mostly Chinese food for my dad thanks to her Chinese cooking courses) and always made things from scratch like pancakes, cookies, cakes, and even pizza crust. I grew up having no idea things like cake mix and Bisquick even existed.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Wranglers says:

    I’m thinking a lot about those things too. Two reasons one is the book I’m editing, It’s All About the Girls, and the other is the Family history project. I loved your story. I followed along on each step. My mom canned a lot too. Your brother shared his special place with you. I loved, and feared Grandma’s cellar. Cher’ley

    Liked by 1 person

    • sstamm625 says:

      Why did you fear your Grandma’s cellar, Cher’ley? Because of spiders, like Mike, or for some other reason? The cellar was also the only place we had underground, so it was where we were supposed to go if here was a tornado. Maybe that’s another reason I thought of it as a safe place.

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  11. S J Brown says:

    Sounds like you have some wonderful memories to pass on. I never seem to get enough out of the garden to do any canning. I tend to give away most of what I grow and freeze a few select things.

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  12. wyoauthor1 says:

    Memories and friendships — there’s a theme going in this week’s WWW blog posts! My parents had root cellars on three different properties they’ve owned over the years, and each one held vast amounts of food stuffs. I’m thinking my husband and I need one at our cabin property and we’re considering the idea — they can sure come in handy. Great post, Stephanie!

    Liked by 1 person

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