Rootin’ and Chillin’
A resurgence in yesterday’s refrigeration
Photos by James Gage stonestructures.org
Summer and its bountiful harvest are distant memories. But eating fresh garden produce can still be part of your menu—even with spring still ahead of us. It just takes a little planning, and, if you happen to have a root cellar in your basement, you’re in luck. All it takes is a cool, dry space to keep your food fresh until the growing season begins.
Root cellars have been used since the 18th century to store fruits and vegetables like apples, pears, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, parsnips, beets, and even cabbage or Brussels sprouts. Often the root cellars were just a section of the basement that was ventilated enough to keep it cold. Some were built into hillsides away from the house.
But if you’re Farah Masani of Farah’s Farm in Wilton, your root cellar is an old well repurposed for food storage. Masani, who is the main food purchaser for area restaurants Barcelona and Bar Taco, has been living on the farm since 2011. She and her roommates share the responsibility of the farm and eat what they grow. The well stores everything from vegetables to cured meats, cheeses, and even yogurt. “We grow enough over the summer to eat over the winter,” explains Masani. “We don’t have a second fridge. It’s a waste of electricity. Why would I run something to keep food frozen when it’s frozen outside?”
Historically, root cellars start their seasonal use when the weather turns colder and the last of the harvest has been picked. According to Brian O’Hara, who runs Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, colonial homes used the basement as well as unheated attics and parts of the barn to store food. Each space has a different natural temperature and humidity level. Some garden produce like onions and garlic will sprout if the conditions aren’t dry enough, so they take to the attic. Other foods like potatoes and apples, which also need cool conditions, thrive with a little humidity.
“You use different parts of the house for different produce,” says O’Hara, who has a root cellar at the farm. “If you have a warm, dry space, sweet potatoes and winter squash improve in flavor under those conditions.”
James Gage, author of Root Cellars in America: Their History, Design, and Construction 1609-1920, says root cellars were originally under the house. But by the 19th century, those cellars were moved away from the house. Stored fruits and vegetables often give off gases like ethylene. So, keeping them away from the living area was necessary. Adding to that, many of the cellar spaces were built around the base of the chimney masonry. With a fire in the fireplace above it, the masonry would heat up leaving warmer conditions in the cellar not acceptable for food storage.
While few homes have root cellars these days in favor of refrigeration, Gage made a very strong point. In light of the harsh weather patterns—mega snowstorms and major hurricanes—having food storage that doesn’t require electricity is a good idea. “No matter what the outside temperature is, the ground temperature stays relatively even,” he says. “So, if the a snowstorm knocks the power out, you’ve still got food.” That’s what makes root cellars ideal. So all the produce you store, as well as the jams, jellies, and preserves, are still good once spring arrives. But as Masani says, keep in mind “everything has a shelf life.” Apples, for example, depending on variety, have a shelf life of two to seven months. Can you imagine enjoying a crisp, tart McIntosh on a cold day in March? It’s can be a reality when you have a root cellar.
Brian Jones, the Connecticut State archaeologist, agrees with Gage. “They are an effective and low-cost way of preserving food from home gardens,” he explains. “The main cost is in the labor invested in building one.”
Etta Kantor, a homeowner in New Canaan, hired Wilton’s BPC Green Builders to construct a Platinum LEED certified sustainable home about four years ago. She specifically requested a root cellar to be built into the home. She even has her own web site at kantorgreenhome.com to showcase the structure’s green details. “It’s a very special house,” says Kantor, who often gives tours to environmental classes from Norwalk Community College. “So many people think you can’t do this. A lot can be done to be sustainable and make a home energy efficient.”
Ross Harper, archaeologist with the Archaeological & Historical Services, Inc. and the Public Archaeology Survey Team, Inc. in Storrs, says homeowners need to educate themselves if they want to build a root cellar. “It’s not super complicated, but you need to know what you’re doing,” he cautions. “You should educate yourself otherwise food goes bad and it’s just a waste of your time.”