I've never gotten very far away but I'm happy just where I am." Lois Hendershot Mellott was snapping beans in her farmhouse canning kitchen. Her husband Delmar calls her a "homebody."
Mellott's life revolves around her farm. These August days fruits and vegetables ripen so fast that she is always canning cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, beans or corn. "It's just the way of life here. Everyone does it. You learn when you're a kid, you get married and you do it all over again."
For the past five generations, Mellots and Hendershots, of good Bavarian and Huguenot stock, have owned the same farmland in Warfordsburg, Pa., just above Hancock, Md. All Lois's relatives live within a 10-mile radius. When Delmar and Lois first married they lived with Delmar's mother in the house now owned by son Lex, 28. Seven years later they moved to their present 90-acre beef cattle farm. Its white frame farmhouse with gabled roof was built by Lois's uncle, who lived there with her grandmother. Lois grew up just across the hill and walked by to see her grandmother almost every day.
A beautiful woman at 47, Lois Mellott's country club figure and peaches-and-cream complexion do not seem those of a woman who tills a vegetable garden the size of half a city block. When not weeding or planting food for her husband, two sons and daughters-in-law, Mellott is feeding family, farm hands and friends, baking bread and pies and putting up preserves. Except for purchases of coffee, sugar, butter, milk and cleaning aids, Mellott relies on her own farm for food. Occasionally she'll barter with neighbors and friends. "A few years ago we traded a slaughtered half-cow for my chest freezer."
When Mellott used to visit her grandmother, the basement housed a furnace and coal bin. Delmar converted it into a canning kitchen, adding a sink, stove, freezers and dishwasher to create a workspace cool in the summer. On the still unfinished walls are pegboards holding huge mixing bowls, stock pots and sifters. Boxes filled with empty peanut butter, juice and Mason jars adorn the floor and ceiling-to-floor shelves are filled with preserved peaches, sauerkraut, apples, string beans and the like.
As the water boiled in a 20-quart pan on her electric stove, Mellott tossed the morning's batch of string beans into the bubbling water for a fw minutes. Deftly, she wiped her sterilized quart jars which later would fit into her pressure cooker. On an unlighted burner, the lids and rims were sitting in already boiled water. As soon as the few blanching minutes were up, Mellott ladled the beans into a large strainer. When they stopped dripping, she packed the bright green vegetables into the jars, pressing them down gently with a spoon. Then she added a teaspoon of salt and boiling water from a kettle, leaving a 1/4-inch head space.
"The books say to fill the bottles with the water used for boiling the beans. I change it because it gets too dark. Maybe I am losing valuable vitamins but that's okay with me," she said. Wiping off the lids to make sure there were no bumps, she placed the rims on and screwed the jars tight, first with her hand and then a canning sponge, bearing down with the strength of a farmwoman. After 25 minutes in the pressure cooker, with the jars bathing in an inch of boiling water at 10 pounds pressure, the beans were ready. Botulism? Never a problem for her. With the quiet confidence of one who has generations of putting up food behind her, Mellott just follows what she learned from her mother. Her advice to city canners is simple. "Make sure your utensils are cleaned well, work quickly and count boiling time from the moment water returns to the boil. Follow instructions carefully and you won't have any problems." After a few days Mellott always removes the rims and washes the jars with a sponge. "This way you make sure the jars are sealed, keep the mold off and can recycle the rims. Delmar's mother taught me that."
Mellott's two mammoth chest freezers are stocked with vegetables, fruits and meat. "Pork has the shortest freezer life, three to four months before the fat becomes rancid." Some berries, on the other hand, have been in the freezer three to four years. Spinach and corn last almost as long, but broccoli gets frosted in less than a year, she says.
Opening a neatly filled freezer Mellott pointed to the 26 chickens slaughtered the day before. Her nicked fingers and feathers strewn outside near the barn told the tale. The whole Mellott family performs this task in three early morning sessions, fattening up a hundred chickens on commercial feed and cracked corn for eight weeks beforehand. Everybody plucks feathers, then scrapes and cuts the chickens up before stuffing them into freezer bags.
Mellott's mornings are reserved for gathering vegetables and weeding. Her coffee breaks consist of kneading dough for bread or prepare pie crusts. "It's easy to do two things at once because everything's so close by." Outside, a holler away in bowling alley rows, string beans alternate visual flavors with feathery dill. By the barn berry bushes sprawl beside asparagus ferns. Neat rows of onions, cabbage, broccoli, peppers, cucumbers, lima beans, okra and beets compete with each other for space. Unlike us weekend gardeners who boast about each ripe tomato, Mellott's comment on her garden was short: "We've got lots of weeds." The grapevine and strawberry plants waiting to be thinned are close to the house and the corn, taking up half the garden space, grows across the road. Fifty more pounds of potatoes are at her son's.
It is this seasonal cycle of food planting, passed on from generation to generation, that shapes Mellott's spring and summer. By mid-April, as soon as the ground is soft enough to till, lettuce, spinach, beets, peas and onions are planted. Just as this first planting signals the time to butcher a cow, strawberry preserving forewarns Mellott that chicken slaughtering comes next.
After that it's time to freeze spinach. "That's a job. First we have to pick and wash the leaves three times. Then they are cooked until wilted in a tiny amount of water, drained, cooled and put into plastic freezer bags. We make about 25 pints each year. This is woman's work and we all share." According to the inherited rituals of the Mellott farm, some preserving tasks are done by women alone, some by women and men working together.
As the fruits ripen, Mellott makes quince, crabapple, black raspberry and raspberry preserves. Instead of boiling the fruits way down and using cornstarch as her mother did, Mellott just follows the instructions on commercial pectin packages, often using a bit less sugar. "Last year there were so many weddings in our church that I gave each couple a dozen jars of jellies and jams as gifts. Of course, I helped, too, bring food for the wedding. All the women help each other that way."
Corn is another major job. "We cook it about five minutes in boiling water and then, when it's cool, scrape off the kernels before freezing. Mother cuts the corn first and then brings a small amount of water to almost a boil before cooking the kernels. I am afraid the corn might burn but she thinks it tastes better that way. Personally I can't see the difference."
Early September is sauerkraut time. A family slaw cutter, the kind most of us have seen at antique shops, cuts up the cabbage, food processor slicer blade fashion, only this time with human energy pushing a wooden block over the razor-sharp slicer. The sliced cabbage drops into large crocks and is mixed with salt. "Delmar's mother says to salt the cabbage as if you were going to eat it, using just a bit more salt." Mellott's rule of thumb is 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons of salt to each pound of cabbage. Mellott men force down tne cabbage, covering each crockful with a plate weighted with a rock. The briny brew releases bubbles for several weeks. When the process stops Mellott discards the scum and the top three inches of the kraut and turns the remainder into pint jars to be processed for 20 minutes in a boiling water bath.
A welcome drink during sauerkraut sessions is Mellott's grape juice. The basic recipe calls for 2 cups of purple grapes and 1/2 cup sugar in a quart jar. Cover the mixture with boiling water and process for one half-hour in a boiling water bath. Grapes can be left in for drinking or strained out -- delicious either way.
The height of the pickling season is late August and early September. Mellott uses the same recipe for her cucumbers, pickled beets and spiced apples. The jars are filled with the prepared fruit or vegetable. Covered with a mixture of one cup each of cider vinegar, sugar and water and 1 teaspoon pickling spice brought to a boil, the jars are then processsed in a boiling water bath.
Apple-butter-making is reserved for the late fall, after apple cider has been made at nearby presses. After the cider is boiled in Delmar's grandfather's old copper kettle until it is reduced by one-third, a quantity of apples id added from the supply kept in barrels in the cellar or the back porch. The apples are accompanied by sugar to taste. The butter is stirred constantly for an entire day until it reaches the thick consistency.
The last putting up of food is reserved for Thanksgiving Day. A dozen 300-pound pigs are butchered before turkey-eating time. "It's a family affair with everyone working from dawn to dusk. We butcher the pig, make chops, ribs, hams, separate the livers and make our own sausages." Hams are cured and stored at Lex's meat house and sausages are filled in jars and processed. By noon everyone is famished.
Except for the storebought turkey, Mellott relies on her family's larder to fill the table with country-style vegetables, fresh cider and grape juice, pickled beets, jams to go on the hot-from-the-oven rolls, and of course homemade apple, blueberry, peach and pumpkin pies.
Lovingly, Mellott watches her whole family eat the food which she worked all year to grow, to weed, to can and to cook. When she glances at her stocked freezers and those shelves lined with filled jars, she sighs with relief and satisfaction. "I love to see the jars and freezers full," she says. "The jars look so pretty on the shelves with all their colors and I feel so secure for the winter ahead."