Updated: Sep 30, 2022
By Roy Barrette
One of the more pleasant tasks of late summer is the harvesting of the fruits of the garden.
In these days, when freezers are the rule, there is less canning than there used to be (although in my opinion tomatoes are better canned than frozen), but it is a poor countryman’s kitchen that doesn’t have some jars of jam on the shelves. We have the old standbys, strawberry, raspberry, currant (in a more elegant form called Bar-le-Duc) and gooseberry. Strawberry-rhubarb is not to be looked down upon either.
When I was a boy, people seemed to make more plum jam, and plum-and-apple jam, than they do nowadays. The apples stretched the less plentiful plums and assured the jam’s setting by reason of the added pectin. Plum-and-apple jam was put up in large jars and was always on hand for small boys to slather thickly on bread, without making much of a dent on the contents of the larder.
Then, of course, there are pickles. Nobody yet has discovered how to freeze a cucumber successfully, and I hope they never do, so we pickle them: sweet, kosher, dill, whole, rounds, sliced. We pickle zucchini, too, and it is difficult to distinguish them from cucumbers. There is also the dilly bean, which some inspired person invented few years ago. At eighty cents a jar, which is the price they first sold for, I must have pitched about $200 worth of potential dilly beans on the compost heap last week. My personal preference in pickles is mustard chowchow that needs hard, crisp cauliflower to be perfect.
The potato haulms should be browned off by now and, if the spuds are dug and cured for a day or so before being stored in a cool cellar, they will keep well—provided the sprouts are rubbed off a few times during the winter. We never get many potatoes to store because I like to eat them when they are about half the size of a Ping-Pong ball, stealing them from the side of the rows before they have a chance to get large. Those that elude me are usually taken back to Delaware by my son-in-law, who says they are superior to the local irrigated product.
Peas, corn, and beans, of all species and varieties, we freeze aplenty. During my lifetime I have grown almost every variety of corn available, but have finally settled on “Wonderful,” which I obtain from the Harris Seed Company. “Wonderful” is good both for eating off the cob and for freezing. We have a little device we got from the Vermont Country Store that splits the kernels and strips out the innards in one motion. I can recommend it to all who like cream-style corn.
I learned years ago that onions grown from seed keep far better than those grown from sets. We are digging ours now and will cure them in the sun before we put them up attic to spend the winter. We were eating our last crop until May, which is pretty good going. The garden also provides us with those aristocrats of the Allium family, shallots. We got our start from an old market in Washington, D.C., that has long since been torn down, though our shallots carry on from year to year. They grow in clusters rather like garlic; they also need curing, like regular onions, but this being done, will keep for years. The other member of the onion tribe we would not be without is the chive. We have a few clumps in the flower garden, and early, before the flowers appear, we cut the tender green spears to the ground, and chop and freeze them for later use on vichyssoise, or anywhere else we may desire.
The beets and carrots are ready to go to the cellar, and the various types of squash will be picked as soon as the stems harden. If you gather squash too soon, or if you fail to cure them before storing them, you will lose a lot. It should be remembered, too, that they ought to be handled like eggs and not like rocks. A small bruise on the skin will inevitably develop into a decayed spot on a squash.
Yesterday, when I was picking a pint of late strawberries, I noticed a splash of yellow amidst the broken cornstalks and found a couple of good-sized pumpkins. I suppose some people make pumpkin pie from scratch, but our cook uses the canned variety, so our pumpkins will be strictly for Halloween. With the roadside stands charging $2 or $3 apiece for them, it is worth poking a few seeds in the corn rows.
This is an essay from the 2022 reissue of A Countryman's Journal (originally published in 1981), a collection offering personal glimpses into the joys of small-town Maine life. Roy Barrette, a neighbor and friend of E.B. White, wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper and published three books.