Pennsylvania Dutch refrigeration and clever storage of all things apple
The use of an underground cellar, built independent of any other building, had been a popular method for storage of apples, dairy, and root crops since Colonial days. On certain Colonial homesteads in southeastern Pennsylvania, the large manor house basement was subdivided to accommodate a vaulted root cellar. Ultimately, some storage and usage ideas were combined in our rich apple culture, as it was more efficient to make the year’s supply of applesauce and apple butter at harvest time, than to store the apples for a later date. Likewise, one could also store apples by drying them as, “Schnitz,” which opened up another avenue of uses, for example, Schnitz pie, Schnitz un Knepp, etc. Apples that could not be stored in their normal state for long winter months had to be processed.
Therefore, many of our Pennsylvania Dutch farmsteads in the East Penn and Oley Valleys and elsewhere had a variety of apple orchards that provided domesticated food dishes for our ethnic natives, including sweet cider, or “cider twice” (hard cider) that was once transported to the port of Philadelphia by Conestoga wagons. There, farmers made a significant profit as much of it was purchased by wealthy sea captains who exported said cargo as well as other riches to distant lands. They were also a number of farmers who sold household vinegar at the Port of Philadelphia, as well. Many a fair-sized farm had a sizable one or two-screw cider press upon which apple mulch was squeezed into barrels of cider, then stored in a giant vaulted cellar until it was shipped to Philadelphia, or processed into vinegar.
Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, as well, there existed the practice of storing apple butter in an open gallon crock and then sealing it tightly by tying newspaper down over the top of the crock. It was then placed in the attic to be stored for months. But when opening such a crock of stored apple butter, after several months, it would have formed a thick, hard crust by then. The hardest part of this crust, however, was then cut away and the remaining portion placed in a pot and heated adding a small amount of water and sugar for consumption. In a short time, the thick mass again would become a smooth and tasty treat as it was before but in this case with no refrigeration or freezing necessary. Quite a trick was Grandma’s folk knowledge of preparing food and storing it, but has become a lost art and remembered vividly by some with a mention in a column, as such.
Perhaps a precursor trait found in all of us Pennsylvania Dutch to store food in preparation, generations ago, few natives living in the North American climatic temperate zone could expect to easily survive, unless they anticipated planting gardens and crops in the early springtime or preparing canned goods and heating fuel for our harsh winters. Maybe life back in the “good old days,” and before, in Colonial times was made a little easier by this “Cider twice,” perhaps likened to Apple jack of New Jersey. On large farms in the eastern United States, great cider presses were erected during Colonial days in either special buildings, or as appendages to barns. These huge presses were capable of rendering hundreds of barrels of cider, thereby possible to store apples in another form, which, if it did not eventually turn into vinegar might very well be distilled into yet another form. “Johnny Appleseed” was perhaps more a symbol of the nation’s fertility as a whole than in just this one industry.
Then, too, if it were not for the famine-haunted past of the early European immigrants, they might not have taken up the challenge of the New World’s fertility so vigorously. As one looks back over the prominence of the apple in the early American culture, one cannot help but to be amazed at the ingenuity with which the pioneer sought various ways of using and storing this universal staple.
The Pennsylvania Dutch found lots of ways to store apples.