The definitive book on root cellars and the cold storage of vegetables is Mike and Nancy Bubel’s _Root Cellaring_, and I’m very fond of this book. Over the years, we’ve relied on it for all sorts of things, and it has helped us find a spot in our house suitable for natural, unrefrigerated cold storage of our produce. It is a wonderful and extremely useful book.
We keep apples, potatoes, carrots, quinces, cabbages, brussels sprouts, pears, onions, beets, celeriac, parsnips and other vegetables on our porch for months – and that means that we mostly eat locally during the winter, and that we are eating cheap food, put up when it was abundant and inexpensive, rather than pricey winter vegetables. Natural cold storage requires almost no energy inputs, is incredibly cheap and available to many people in cold climates. It is almost perfect.
When I wrote _Independence Days_ which, of course, is about low-input food storage and preservation, root cellaring was central. I wrote about my experience, much of which has been guided by the Bubels – and credited them. One of the things I wrote was that we store carrots and parsnips in buckets of moist sand, which keeps them fresh longer. And this was absolutely true until this year – I’d had a bad experience keeping carrots in ventilated plastic bags (suggested to me by friend) in quantity – they’d all gone slimy. And when I tried the Bubels’ sand suggestion it did work really well- the carrots kept until March.
The difficulty of this method was that involved dealing with buckets of damp sand. The buckets were heavy, and if the sand got too moist, the carrots would sprout and lose their texture. If they got too dry, they would shrivel and lose texture and flavor. While the carrots kept well, somehow every early spring found me dumping at least one bucket of unintentionally composted carrots mixed with wet sand out on the garden. But because it had been so much more successful than my previous attempts, I advised people to do it too.
Well, this year I decided that I wasn’t going to deal with the sand. November was hectic and we just had too many other things going on. Because of the terrible weather, we had a bad carrot year, so I wasn’t keeping that many carrots and parsnips over the winter. I decided that I’d just dump them into laundry baskets, eat them up as best we can, and give the rest to the goats and rabbits as a feed supplement. I figured we’d be out of our own carrots early, but with the opening of a local year-round farmer’s market, I knew carrots would be available to me. It was an experiment born of sheer laziness and frustration with my crappy growing season.
So we threw them in the laundry baskets and ignored them. And lo and behold – my carrots look just as good after more than two months of storage, as they did in the damp sand – better, perhaps, since none of them have started to sprout. At my weekend, someone said “I thought you kept them in damp sand!” Oops! Well, yes, we did, until this year. And I even told other people to try it. But I admit, I don’t think I’m ever going back to the damp sand method, even if it turns out that the carrots don’t keep until March. The reality is that the lower PITA factor is worth a potentially shorter season (and I honestly don’t know if this will be the case). Realistically, the odds are that this year we’ll run out before March anyway.
I have long been violating some of the classic rules of root cellaring. I don’t have a completely isolated space to keep my apples in, so they go around emitting ethylene gas near my potatoes. I put the potatoes a few feet away, but somehow, no disaster seems to ensue, and we have potatoes well into spring. I don’t hang my cabbages upside down – I dump them in a box together. Now I’m adding “the maltreatment of orange root crops in the name of lazy-ass preservation” to my list of cold storage misdemeanors.
I set myself a note this morning, that if Independence Days ever actually makes it into a second edition, I should amend it, so that other people don’t feel like they have to rush around finding damp sand. And I think about all the other books I’ve read over the years where an author says “I used to say you should do this…” but then explains that they don’t do that anymore, and I know I’m in good company – just when you think you know enough to write a book…