The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Lay By and Store

By Edith C. Riggins © 1987

Issue: July, 1987

My ancestors crossed the mountains, forded the streams, invaded the wilderness, and learned to "make–do" with the food they could catch, kill, pick wild or grow in forest clearings. They successfully prepared for winter's onslaught to such an extent that it became a part of the genes and chromosomes to be handed down through the generations.

These pioneer ancestors of mine, all buried in Carroll, Floyd, Grayson and Patrick Counties, Virginia would turn over in their graves if I didn't follow the "lay–by–and–store" principle, so at the beginning of each summer, I dutifully push my hair back under a bandanna, tie on a crisp, fresh apron, enter my workshop, which is called "kitchen" at other times of the year, close the door and "fall to."

I stem, cap, peel, pare, core, dice, break, seed, pit, scald, blanch, strain, sterilize, pack, slice, quarter, silk, skin, shell, look, discard, inspect, hull, crack, pick–out, snap, trim, scoop, pinch, shuck, grate, and steam.

I convert strawberries into jams, preserves, shortcakes, and freeze enormous quantities, prepare some for ice cream, and leave a few for cereal bowls.

Raspberries, which aren't eaten raw, turn into jams and juices. Baskets–full are thrust quickly through the workshop door when anyone is bold enough to knock.

Under my hand blackberries turn into jelly, jam, frozen–delights, and cans of juice for later use. My grandfather leaves his place at Oakland Cemetery and is always there looking over my shoulder, telling me how delicious a "cordial" would be! He operated a distillery in the 1800's.

Blueberries get the same treatment. Shiny navy–blue jars line up on the shelves. Some make it into conserves, cereal bowls, and muffins.

Gooseberries are converted into tart, juicy pies, and each berry is patiently pinched on both ends (my Quaker great–great just blushed – she's buried at the Old Quaker Cemetery) to remove the stem and the stubborn blossom. Some are frozen for winter use, and juice is canned for pectin.

Currents make beautiful bright jelly, and combined with raspberries, turn into delectable pies. The blended juice of currents and raspberries make a delicate–tasting jelly that recreates the flavor of dewberries – which marched into oblivion when civilization marched over the hillsides. (The voice that interrupted then was my great–great–great–grandmother who reminded me that she was out picking dewberries when Indians captured her and carried her away to their village. She didn't say, but chances are it was her unusual talent of hunting and cooking dewberries that enabled her to escape. I'm sure the Indians, once they tasted her wares, would have sent her out day by day to gather dewberries. Whatever the case, she had to escape – blackberries were getting ripe at home.)

Peas, by the gallon, are shelled, used in salads or frozen. Corn, by the bushel, is shucked, silked, scrubbed and eaten on the cob as is, or is cut off into chowders, soups, creamed dishes, succotash, or packed for the freezer.

Beans are snapped, trimmed, and cooked in huge pots with new potatoes, or they're cold–packed into jars for pressure canning. Beets are boiled whole (horrible death) and made into Harvards, diced, pickled, or canned.

Tomatoes are versatile. They get squeezed, skinned, gobbled, salted, juiced, quartered and sauced. They may be pushed through a strainer, hot–packed, cold–packed, or frozen.

Limas are buttered, steamed, frozen, or added to corn for succotash. Onions are cut up young for salads or left to grow big for storage.

Cucumbers are sliced for salads or put in brine for pickling. Jars in beautiful green shades line up on the can shelves. Spicy fragrance permeates everything. Knocks are wishful now.

Hot peppers are strung and some get tossed into the soup pot. Sweet peppers that escape the salad bowl are stuffed and frozen for future use.

Peaches come in by bushels and go out sliced on cereal, in pies, cobblers, dumplings, shortcakes, and in countless cans of golden halves in heavy syrup. Pears are baked, canned, or stored as is. Plums get the cold–pack treatment and lovely deep tones add richness to the shelves.

Apples are made into sauce, pies, deep–dish delights, cakes, cobblers, betties, butters and jelly. they are baked, canned, and frozen in slices for future pies.

Grapes are picked off in a running battle with the spiders and converted into juice and jelly. Heaven help the poor spider who doesn't escape the battle field!

This ends my summer season. I cautiously emerge from the workshop and take a look at the barren fields, the empty trees, the dying vines. Slowly I take off my spotted, torn, mottled apron, and when I turn to survey the stuffed freezer, where a mosquito would be hard–put to find standing room, and the rows and rows of beautiful green, red, yellow, chartreuse, navy, plum, and orange–colored jars waiting in all their splendor, I'm sure I hear countless sighs of relief and contentment come from the bones of my ancestors – those pioneers.

From the subterranean depths there is also a chuckle or two when my immaculate, well – groomed neighbor comes by, looks at me, and says, "Haven't seen you all summer. Are you just back from the Bahamas?" And the chuckles turn into guffaws when she adds enviously upon seeing the fruit of my labors. "Oh, you are so lucky to have all that."