Friday, September 26, 2014

Life without refrigeration

This post is a supplement to my book, Life Without Refrigeration .  I described some of the ways we cooled food over our many years in different places with no refrigerator, and recently I started collecting my pictures of some of those things into a folder on my computer.  I have enough of them now to make a post so the readers of the book can see what I was talking about.  I may make a second post if I find enough pictures of other things we did.
Twice I've been part of hand-digging a root cellar.  The first was in SE Kentucky in the 1999.  I used a pick and a shovel and dug out a hole in the hill behind our house.  We lived "at the head of the holler", the last house up the draw, half a mile past the last other house.  The electric meter was at the foot of the hill and the power line was strung for half a mile on tree limbs and even on the ground in places.  The power at the house was too weak to run a refrigerator.
This is me starting the root cellar hole.

There's my root cellar hole 'in progress'.  Ignore the kids, they're taking turns cutting the grass
with a weed eater.  I worked a little bit each day on digging the hole.

I finally realized that I wasn't going to get a nice big hold that I could build shelves and bins in.
So I took our old kitchen table and set it in the hole to make a "roof".  I used boards (not the ones shown in the next picture) to cover the sides so dirt wouldn't slide in there.  They were old pieces of plywood that I jammed into the dirt on the ground and up against the side of the table top.  The back-filled dirt held them in place against the table.  Ignore the girls.  They used it as a playhouse for a few days.

The finished "root cellar.  I jammed posts in on the front and put log pieces and rocks along the sides to hold the dirt in place.  I used an old door, an old wash machine lid, and a feed sack to block the front and keep heat out.  We were truly poverty and had an income under $5,000..... per year.  But we did what we could to make life more comfortable.
In this root cellar it was only big enough to set a big cooler in there.  We froze water in gallon jugs in the freezer of the refrigerator at the little mission church a mile and a half away.  On Sundays and Wednesdays we would walk to church with two empty gallon jugs.  We'd fill them at church and put them in the freezer.  When we came home we would carry the two jugs that had been in there for a few days, freezing.  When those thawed we used them for drinking water before they were carried down again to be filled and frozen.  We had three sets of two one-gallon jugs so two were always in the freezer, two were always in the cooler, and two were being used for drinking water.  (We also got water from a spring).
The second root cellar we dug was a bigger project, in NW Montana in 2003.
Those are the same four kids that were the little kids in the pictures above, plus my husband in the center.  (I married him in 2002.  I was on my own in Kentucky).
We selected this hill about 100' from the log cabin we bought and moved to earlier that year.  It was three miles from the power line and the cost to run power would have been $27,000 dollars.
We dug the root cellar so we would have a place to keep canned goods and potatoes, carrots, and other root crops from freezing.  But it was also nice in summer for keeping food cool.  Produce and bread (in mouse-proof containers) would keep longer in summer.  We also kept pitchers of water in there for making "cool" tea.  When it was 95 degrees the 55-degree water felt pretty cool.
The dirt was chopped with picks and then shoveled out.  We took turns.  Someone would chop up dirt for a while, then get out and rest while someone else shoveled it out.  After a point it got to where the dirt was shoveled into buckets and lifted out to another person who would dump it.
Initially we dug it about 5' deep, and about 6' (front to back) by 8' (side to side).
A few years later we dug the floor down another foot, for more head room.
As you can see, we laid logs on each side of the hole, then put old boards across those. We also had quite a few old wooden doors that we laid over the logs.  Next we covered that with 6-mil plastic sheeting that we bought at Home Depot.  We carefully shoveled about a foot of dirt onto the plastic, then put another layer of 6-mil plastic sheeting over the growing mound.  Then we shoveled all the rest of the dirt onto it.  The reason for the plastic was to help shed water and snowmelt so it wouldn't just soak through and drip inside the root cellar.  After 11 years it is still dry inside.

We chopped steps into the dirt for access down into the root cellar and framed it in with old boards.
Then an old door was put on with hinges.
Here is the root cellar the next spring.  We added a piece of corrugated metal above the door to funnel rain and snow away from the top of the door.  Snow had worked it's way up under the top of the door and dripped in onto the steps. 
One thing we never did was to add venting.  The doorknob hole in the door is the only place air could get in an circulate.  That didn't cause a problem for most things, since potatoes and carrots love a moist environment.  We did have a little trouble with rust on jar lids, but as long as the jars weren't in there more than a year or so, the rust was surface rust that scrubbed of well in the dish water.  A good case for using and rotating one's food storage!
The other problem is that it is too cold and damp to store onions and squash for a long period.  Those are stored in a back room in our cabin instead.

Looking down at me.  Those are milk crates full of rutabagas and turnips by my legs.  There are shelved floor-to-ceiling behind and to my right in the root cellar room.
This is the same root cellar today.  As in, literally today, five minutes ago.  The old mattress next to the door is one that we usually keep over the door, and flip it to the side when we go in.
It insulates the door from summer's heat, and in sub-zero weather it helps keep the 'warmth' in.
Summer temperatures in the root cellar are usually between 50 and 55.
Winter temperatures are usually around 35 to 40.
It's been in use for eleven years.
Neither root cellar, in Kentucky and in Montana, cost anything to build except our time and sweat other than the plastic sheeting in Montana,
Other times when we find ourselves without refrigeration are when we go camping.  Normally people take coolers and ice.  But when we go camping, it's sometimes for a couple of weeks or more in the back country.  We take a lot of dehydrated and canned foods, but even some of the canned foods have to be kept cool once they're opened. 
Since we are mainly in the west where the air is dry, we're able to use evaporative cooling for some things.
This is a jar of cream cheese.  The cream cheese was at 'room temperature' on a 75-degree afternoon when we opened it.  I set the jar in the shade and laid a small thermometer on the jar and covered it with a wet washcloth.  I returned from time to time and poured a little bit of water on the wash cloth to keep it wet.  A few hours later the thermometer read 57.  That's not safe enough to keep most food from bacterial grown, but with cheeses, butter, and condiments you can do this for a short period of time, usually a day or two depending on the cheese and how wet you keep the cloth, and what the outside temperature is. 
The breeze (even if it doesn't seem to actually be blowing) cools as it evaporates the water.  I've known of off-grid people who use this theory in their homes by pinning wet sheets over the outside of open windows to cool their homes.  Free "air conditioning". 

This is only sitting in the sun momentarily while I took the picture.  Under the towel, sitting on an inverted bowl in an enamel pie pan, is cheese, butter, and a container with 5 eggs in it.
There is water in the pie pan and the towel is wet.  The towel wicks water up from the pie pan and keeps it wet.  I still walked by now and then and poured a little water over it.  The upside-down bowl in the center kept the food up out of the water.  When I open a stick of butter I drop it into a small canning jar to keep it dry.  The cheese was in a ziplock bag.
It was February in the desert of southern Nevada and the days were in the 50s, the nights in the 30s.  We had no problem keeping these foods cool enough with this method.  However we did not try to keep meat or milk in these types of conditions.  We used powdered milk and canned meat.
We often 'boondock' camp around the north end of Lake Mead (SE Nevada).  In the winter and spring the water cools into the 50s, and then 60s.  It's a great place to keep drinks cool.  I put cans and bottles of pop and juice in a nylon stuff bag and used a piece of baling twine to keep it from drifting out from the shore.

Other times we tied jugs of water to an old tired (left there by someone besides us!) and let them float out in the water, for making 'cool' tea.  That 55 to 60 degree water tasted pretty good when it was around 90 degrees at dinner time.
Sometimes we did use a cooler with ice.  I don't like my food floating in melted ice water, so I have two half-gallon water-tight containers with wide mouths, and I dump the ice in there when we buy ice.  It keeps the cooler cold without having my food ruined by the meltwater.
Sometimes we dig a hold about a foot deep and set the cooler in it and bank the sand or dirt back up against it.  Then we get an old sheet or blanket wet and put it over the top of the cooler.  That'll make the ice last more than twice as long.  But if we're only camping for a day or two we just make sure the cooler is always in the shade.  We move it from one side to the other as the sun moves.
Why in the world most coolers are dark colors is beyond me.  The sun heats them up and melts the ice faster.  Next time I need a cooler I'll buy a white one no matter what!

I'm shaking my head looking at this picture.  I left the cooler sitting OPEN!!!  At least it's in the shade, but I shouldn't have left it open.  This was a day trip, so I probably wasn't as concerned about keeping the ice for very long, but still.  I can't believe I left it open!  :)
Like I wrote in the book, there are many ways to keep food cool without a refrigerator.  But you have to be very careful of which foods you allow to be stored at warmer temperatures.  Never use milk or meat that hasn't been kept cold (as in below 35 F.or so), or that isn't preserved by a safe method. 
If you're interested in looking closer at the book, click on the link below the picture.
The purpose of this post isn't to sell books, it's to provide some pictures to go with the text of the book.  I hope they will be interesting and helpful, with or without the book.
Please leave comments or questions below, or email them to:
Thank you. 

No comments:

Post a Comment