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Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

Rokeby Smokehouse
Rokeby Smokehouse

Written By

Jesse Natha

Written on

December 01 , 2009

In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

“Oh how I dread the first snow of winter! And the older I grow, the deeper the dread—so that if I live to be sixty, I shall I suppose go nearly crazy every November,” wrote Ann Robinson Minturn, then living in Waterloo, NY, to her family in Ferrisburgh. While the freezing weather and volumes of snow brought a great deal of inconvenience, the winter was not at all a bad time to be present at the Robinsons’ dining table, provided one was within fair proximity of a roaring stove. The previous months’ industriousness would have provided a variety of winter foods that included dried fruits, canned produce, various pickled foods from black walnuts to seckel pears, butter, fresh cellared apples and cider, and an array of grains including corn, buckwheat, wheat, and rye. These stored goods were supplemented by winter’s greatest contribution to the Robinson board—fresh and cured meats, both wild and farm raised.

A crisp morning early in December 1862 would find George Gilpin Robinson away in Montpelier, serving in the Legislature, while his newly widowed father, Rowland Thomas, writes to ask his son for advice on farm decisions during “this critical time for apples and stock.” Rowland Evans, the other son, might be inspecting the ice house, preparing it for another year of duty at the urgent request of his sister, Ann Robinson Minturn. Meanwhile, Ann’s thoughts may be resting fondly on the Ferrisburgh homestead as she and her children shiver away the days at their own farm in Waterloo; try as she might she can’t get the kitchen coal stove to burn and it remains “as black and forbidding all day as though light and warmth had never emanated from it.”

Winter was the season of plentiful fresh meat, both wild and “home manufactures.” Beginning in November the Robinsons took to the woods and swamps on the trail of deer, bear, pheasant, and quail to grace the table, allowing them to postpone the slaughter of their own hogs and cattle until later in the season. Hunting was both practical and enjoyable—nothing so pleased Rowland Evans as a good hunt on a frosty winter day. During his stays in Brooklyn, NY, he describes the lot of a Vermonter stuck in the metropolis, who must do his hunting through shop windows: “Did Walk and John Adams kill any deer when they went on their hunt?” he asked brother George in November 1867. “I saw a deer hanging up in market the other day that looked as though they had killed it.”

When winter settled in and the mercury promised to stay below 32 degrees, the Robinsons, like their neighbors throughout the Northeast, set aside an entire week for the slaughter and processing of their livestock. The family used the services of a traveling slaughterer and butcher, as the Robinsons’ housekeeper Naomi Griswold wrote to Rowland Evans in 1868: “Thompson has bucherd the hogs and the cow the beefe is verry good I wish you was here to eat some of it.” Despite Thompson’s help the family was left with plenty to do, so much so that most other tasks came to a standstill during butchering week. As Ann explained in a letter to her brother George on December 13, 1863, “we are to commence the annual sacrifice tomorrow—the rites will probably continue throughout the week—at the end of which time if the lard is not tried, the souse not cleaned, the sausages and head cheese not made—“then will my gall-bladder be ready to burst with vexation” as it says in the Arabian Nights. I dread the mess and grease—but once in for it, I hope to keep at it till it is all out of the way—we kill 7 hogs.”

Some of these products could be kept safely into warm weather—cured pork, smoked hams packed in ashes, pickled beef, and sausage patties packed in crocks and sealed with fat all could be expected to last until the following winter—but without modern refrigeration fresh meats lasted only as long as the freezing weather could keep them cool, and were quite a treat during the winter months. “I suppose you are feasting like a parcel of Esquimaux on spare-ribs… ” wrote a homesick Ann in December 1862. “We have not killed the first-ling of our flock yet, as there is yet a ham in the ashes and one piece of junk in the barrel.”

The year’s crop of preserved meats was of enough importance to warrant a careful log in the back of the Robinsons’ handwritten family cookbook. George began in 1884 to record the winter’s yield of sausage, while two years after his death in 1894 his nephew Rowland took up the record, adding a running tab for pickled beef and cured hams that he kept until 1931. The Rokeby recipe for curing hams evolved little over the years; Rowland reduced the saltpeter by half but otherwise made no notations to his Uncle George’s recipe.

Whenever the weather threatened to become unseasonably warm, much of the meat could be threatened with spoilage, just as it was on New Year’s Eve in 1864. “For two weeks the weather has been like April for mildness—and our beef, chickens & sausages ‘exercise my mind’ very much,” Ann wrote to her family in Ferrisburgh.

While thaws posed a risk to the fresh meat supply, the greater burden during the winter months was protecting fresh and canned foods from freezing, even those stored indoors. Certain crops, like potatoes and apples, would be ruined by a solid freeze, while others became only temporarily inedible. What couldn’t be packed in insulated materials or stored in a cellar was kept in the house within reach of a stove’s heat—or it froze. “The store room was Arctic in its temperature,” wrote Ann during her coal stove’s strike of 1862. “We dined on frozen bread, frozen pickles and such like dainties. For I had not thought of taking precautions against their freezing.”

During these stretches of frigid weather, the Robinsons relied on a few treats to buck them up—not the least of which was rum, bought by the barrel through a relative in Newport and garnering them a reputation as “rum drinking folk,” as they were called by a Ferrisburgh neighbor. For the more temperate Robinsons, sweet cider and winter apples were the preferred delicacies, and the family kept a range of varieties from Greenings andNorthern Spies to Vermont’s own Tinmouth, which could be harvested late in the season and kept fresh in the cellar well into the snowy months.

Sick for her Ferrisburgh home, Ann wrote to George on January 4, 1863, “Nothing is so good as that which comes from Vermont—no soldiers are so brave—no buckwheat cakes so good.” Even during the toughest months, the hardships of the climate could be overcome by the comforts of a simple meal cooked at a blazing stove, the product of four seasons’ labor, leisure, planning, and providence.

Cartoon by Rowland Evans Robinson, courtesy of the Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh

About the Author

Jesse Natha

Jesse Natha

Jesse Natha lives in Vergennes. She has written for Local Banquet and The Boston Globe. Her collection of essays Farming and Feasting with the Robinsons was recently re-released by Ferrisburgh’s Rokeby Museum. Her other interests include Italian, gardening, and helping creative people craft profitable businesses.

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