• Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    When the Upper Valley Localvores took their first 100–mile diet challenge in August 2005, we came upon a serious stumbling block. No local salt! Tomatoes and corn–on–the–cob were abundant, but oh, we needed salt. Fortunately, one of our members had vacationed in Maine and brought back a precious supply of sea salt. It made us wonder what our Upper Valley ancestors had done for salt.

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  • Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    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.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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Revisiting the Traditional

photos of farmers cerca 1920

Written By

Ginger Nickerson

Written on

June 01 , 2007

Imagine a place where 98% of households keep vegetable gardens, 97% have cows and poultry, 93% grow potatoes, 58% raise pigs and 54% have apple trees – all to provide food for the home.

Imagine a place where maple syrup from the backyard provides sweetener for households, where hard cider from fresh apples provides continual refreshment, and where most local produce, berries and meat can be enjoyed year-round thanks to canning, pickling, and cellar storage.

This place is closer to home than you might think. Only, it was central Vermont in 1923, not 2007. A study of the Randolph and Royalton area conducted that year by the UVM Agricultural Experiment Station came up with this data, and it demonstrates that rural Vermont families of just a few generations ago had no difficulty finding “local food” – it was all around them.

These days, concerns about our diminishing oil supply are causing many Vermonters to revisit the idea of community self-sufficiency. Groups of “Localvores” – people who choose to eat as much food as possible from within 100 miles of their home – are sprouting up around the state. Can knowledge about the diets of our recent ancestors provide us with some inspiration and ideas?

Two foods central to the New England diet in the early 20th century (and back to pre-colonial times) were beans and corn. New England housewives frequently engaged in the ritual of cooking dried beans to make baked beans.  The beans would be soaked and left to simmer for one night, often on a Friday, then baked all day in the oven on the following day.  The staple food in many Vermont homes on Saturday night was baked soldier, Jacob’s cattle, or yellow-eye beans. Many families still have their grandmothers’ special ceramic bean pots. 

Corn appeared frequently in the forms of cornmeal mush, cornbread (“Johnnycake”), or succotash.  Vermonters cultivated two types of corn: sweet corns, such as Golden Bantam, that were eaten fresh off of the cob or stripped from the cob and either cooked in succotash or canned, and flint corns. Flint corns have hard kernels that must be dried and ground for cornmeal. People would use flint corn for human consumption as cornmeal and as a grain for their livestock.

Other products, such as potatoes, eggs, dried beans and parsnips, were often traded for goods at the local store. In fact, many seniors in Vermont today still refer to doing their grocery shopping as doing their “trading.” In those days, rural families purchased only foods they could not produce on their own, such as flour, salt, spices, and dried cod. As one older Vermonter stated: “If you went to a store, you bought stuff you couldn’t make.”

Providing food for the family also dictated how rural residents spent their time.  Household activities were often organized around planting, weeding, berrying, harvesting, threshing and canning.  In the fall, dried beans were threshed and sorted, apples were cored and dried, sweet corn was canned, and flint corn was husked and hung from rafters, or taken to the gristmill to be ground for meal. Much time was devoted to “putting up” or processing food for the winter.  Almost all produce, berries and even meats could be canned or pickled.  Storable vegetables such as winter squashes, leeks and onions, cabbage, potatoes and other root crops were sequestered in the root cellar. 

During the winter people were limited to eating salt pork, dried cod from New England waters, foods that had been canned or dried, and potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.  Farmwomen would boil a large kettle of potatoes one day, then serve fried potatoes with breakfast, lunch and dinner the following day.  Families would also boil root crops with corned beef for a New England boiled dinner.  The next day they would use the leftovers to make red flannel hash – the red color coming from the beets they added to the dish.

By the time spring arrived, people were looking forward to eating something green. The first foods to come out of the ground were parsnips that had sweetened over the winter, dandelion greens, wild nettles and fiddleheads. Because of their high winter intake of fatty foods such as salt pork and chipped beef, people looked to spring foods as cleansers. Dandelion and grated horseradish root were among the foods considered great “spring tonics.”

The advantage we have over Vermonters in the 1920’s is that we don’t have to grind our own flint corn or eat a winter diet restricted to potatoes and corned beef.  While growing our own food can be a soul-satisfying experience, we can also find fresh local food by shopping at area farmers’ markets, joining CSA’s, or enjoying a quiet evening picking berries at a local U-pick farm. In the process, we may discover new recipes, meet interesting new people, or feel more deeply rooted in the local landscape that sustained our ancestors so well – and that can sustain us into the future.

Photo from the Library of Congress, photographer unknown, circa 1916

About the Author

Ginger Nickerson

Ginger Nickerson

Ginger Nickerson gardens in the cold pocket of Worcester, where she dreams of someday cultivating tropical plants. Green Mountain bananas, anyone?

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