Remember Psycho – Norman Bates – those final scenes – door bursting open, light swinging? Is that the image Cellar brings to your mind? Or, the opposite – maybe a nice rosewood staircase spiraling downward to a humidity and temperature controlled hideaway, full of racks of fine wines – elegantly stacked on a stone floor. Although personally I wouldn’t know the difference between a Chateau Leoville Poyferre, ‘58’ and a bottle of Ripple, 2011 – the idea of a cellar devoted just to wine hoarding does bring up a soft comforting vision.
For most of us, however, cellars don’t generally bring pleasant thoughts – menacing shadows, too quiet, moist, spider havens, “down in the cellar behind the axe” type of image. Dank and Dark – something from the lower levels of the Spanish Inquisition – Nitre glistening on the walls, maybe a rat scurrying for the corner. Cellar imagination seems to bring certain uneasiness, not quite outright fear, but a stirring consciousness of unknowns lurking below ground level.
My own working experience with cellars is confined to two kinds – Root and Fruit, although I had a passing acquaintance with a Coal Cellar at one time. Lets take a look at Root first.
If you know what a Root Cellar is then you are probably past 65 or living on the north end of Lake Baikal, still using one. Since the beginning of time, people have used the natural coolness of 55-degree earth to preserve root vegetables in a hole with a dirt roof and a door. We’re talking potatoes, apples, pears, plums, squash, radishes, carrots, beets, onions, tubers, and roots. Thus the Root Cellar – kept things cool in the summer, and free from frost in the winter.
My first introduction to an RC was in Heber, Utah – six steps down into an earthen bunker, not too far from the pigpen. Carrots, onions, potatoes, pears, apples and the like. Like in this case meant my grandfather’s homemade beer (he frequented the Heber Pool Hall for games of whist, but lacked a “bit of the ready” for labeled brew). Part of my early education, under my grandmother’s firm hand, was to learn the difference between a turnip, a parsnip and a rutabaga – learned those lessons well down in the root cellar– avoided them all ever since.
There was no light, just keep the door open when you went in – make sure another grandchild was not around to slam the door, tapping a wooden peg through the outside hasp. Have to admit, I did lock down an unsavory cousin once, explaining to him that: 1, His screams, threats, and begging could not be heard, 2, Raw parsnips would sustain him for several days (he was a little chubby and I reminded him of that), and 3, I really didn’t think the boogeyman resided in the recesses of his tomb. After a couple of hours, and just as we were getting in my folk’s car to leave, (my physical safety a concern) I did tell his parents where he was abiding. Despite later claims, I do not think his lifelong fear of the dark and other phobias had anything to do with this short incarceration.
Most root cellars went out with refrigeration, but nearly every lower middle class household in Utah had a fruit cellar. A windowless narrow room – screened hole for ventilation – concrete all the way around, including the ceiling –six feet high -temperature controlled by the surrounding earth. Dark ninety-nine percent of the time to keep vegetables from sprouting, fruit from ripening and to discourage any Clostridium botulinum microbes that might be waiting their chance. Of course, the darkness provided a fertile breeding ground for spiders and their close relatives.
Our cellar was under the front porch, a single light hanging down, stocked always to its full capacity by late October, providing largess through the next summer. Newspapers covered the unpainted shelves – never to be changed. After my mom’s death I found papers from the 50′s still laid as a base.
Each fall my mother would gear up – and launch an all out attack on the fruits and vegetables we had raised, purchased or traded with neighbors. Canning involved quart glass mason jars (left over from last year), lids (same thing), new seal caps, and huge caldrons that could hold up to 12 one-quart bottles. It also involved very high heat, boiling water, burns and sticky spills on our linoleum floor.
Doing a couple hundred quarts of fruit, vegetables and legumes was child’s play for my mother – we had home bottled pear, peach, apple, apricot, cherries, plums, raspberries, tomatoes, chili sauce (the best), asparagus, cucumbers and onions, mustard pickle – you name it – row after row resided in the fruit cellar – sometimes 15 years or so before being opened. Pickled Beets were my least favorite – my mom added large amounts of Red Dye Number #2 to enhance the color and, our chances of contracting cancer. Apricots were the best, because there was a piece of pineapple in each bottle.
Bottled fruit from the cellar was the standard dessert at our house. I complained that the lack of cakes and pies was stunting my growth. This brought on a vicious lecture from my father about not being grateful for what we had. He had grown up during the Depression on a hardscrabble farm in Raft River, Idaho – some miles north of the Utah-Idaho line. I’ve been up there and it is a Godforsaken Country, but I did question his repeated telling of tough times – walking five miles to school backwards, clad only in bib overalls and barbed wire shoes. Chased every step by a pack of rabid wolverines – nothing to eat but jackrabbit ears and magpie claws. I feigned interest and sympathy each time this tale of woe was repeated, but was unrepentant – saving to buy Hostess Snowballs – thereby keeping my sugar and cholesterol levels from reaching dangerous lows.
Twice a year came dreaded instructions from my father. At the back of the fruit cellar was an 18-inch square metal door, which led into a Chamber of Horrors – the crawl space under the house. Average height, two feet, trenched and molded into rough terrain by various concrete and other building materials left behind – an inch or so of headroom countered by a sudden drop off of three feet – dark as the pit. Why go in? Because our main sprinkler turnoff was on the opposite side of the crawlspace. The main menace was catfaced spiders (yellow, bulbous body, black eyes and fangs) waiting to pounce, backed up by other arachnids, centipedes, scorpions, snakes and my own imagination. All my dirtiest clothes on, work boots, a large cap and gloves – flashlight turned off most of the time so I didn’t have to look. It still took about ten minutes round trip twice a year – like crawling through an infiltration course with the Hounds of Hell after you.
Then finally a violent exit, ripping off my clothes as my sisters insisted they could see a black widow or poisonous millipedes in the folds. I did that routine every year until I was emancipated at eighteen.
But it wasn’t all bad – trips to the fruit cellar did help me to become a lifelong addict. At a certain age I was able to reach the top shelf in our fridge – I was hooked – a bottled fruit junkie, and I might add, a very satisfying affliction. Each day when I got home from school, I went right to the Frigidaire – eagerly looking to see which quart jar of fruit presented itself – then a quick twist open, checking to make sure I was alone – let the gulping begin. Why dirty a glass?
My mom eventually caught me – letting me know that drinking directly from the bottle was uncivilized and disgusting – traits that I highly admired. Also a threat of bodily harm from my father if repeated. I promised to never do it again, but not being particularly religious in those days – about the same as now – it was a white lie promise. I continued to drink my fill – breaking open a new bottle and then refilling it to the brim with water – escaping detection. In her eighties she did admit that she knew that I was tippling and refilling, but decided I was incorrigible, and that hopefully I would grow out of it.
Well, I tried to grow out of it my senior year in High School. This was due to my father thinking it was time to revisit his French ancestry. So, I switched for a short time – about a week – to a gallon jug of Mogen David – a low end high alcohol rotgut – didn’t get apprehended – but my Dad mentioned that his expensive wine tasted a bit diluted and it was Hell to Pay if found any of us fiddling with it. Wine bibbing must be an acquired taste, because it rolled around in my mouth like spoiled grapes with a vinegar twist – I think I liked the thrill of becoming a teenage alcoholic much more than the actual drinking. My dad came to the same conclusion after going thru a couple of gallons – albeit somewhat thinned by my actions. All in all, I found that chugging away at a bottle of Bing Cherries was eminently more satisfying – the cherries having the additional benefit of pits – accurately spit under my sisters’ beds.
My mom worked at Christensen’s, the local dry goods store – millenary department – and I was used to having the house to myself for an hour or so when I got home. I would head for the fridge, lusting for a touch of the bottle. A lot of the time it was a quart of Alberta Peaches. I would grab the bottle, and lift the nectar to my lips. You had to be careful – sometimes the peaches would be halves rather than eighths. In raising the bottle, a half would let go unexpectedly and rush the bottle mouth at pretty good speed. Two things might happen – a tsunami of peach juice exceeding the capacity of your mouth would overflow and run down your chin and onto your clothes and the floor. Or, worse, a peach half would come out. If you weren’t careful you could get the entire thing stuck. Normally I had a good eye for these potential problems and could happily gnaw my way through a peach half and reduce it down to swallowing size. There might be a little backwash in the bottle, but we were all family. The final act, of course, was to replenish the bottle with water from the tap to give the illusion that nothing had been touched. Diluted or not, that juice was ambrosia.
One time, my mother arrived home early, just as I upped a bottle full tilt. As she started to unlock the back door a peach half made its landing. Aggghhhh! I had involuntarily gulped and now it was stuck. Double-handed peristalsis, trying to swallow air, coughing – nothing worked. I bolted for the bathroom unable to speak or breath – the eventual regurgitation was not a pretty sight but I escaped detection. I have carried the “Drinking from the Mason Jar” addiction through my entire life – tipping a bottle daily, although I have since branched out to milk cartons, juice jugs, and bottled stewed tomatoes. Now it’s my wife I have to wary of – She Who Must Be Obeyed.
But in those early years I would be sent every couple of days to the Fruit Cellar to get something for my mom – attempts at blackmailing, threatening and begging my two sisters had no effect. So down I went, sometimes with the opportunity of being able to pick the Fruit or Jam I wanted – Cherries and Raspberries were tied for best fruit, Peach Preserves with a touch of Clove the tastiest jam.
I was always nervous going down the stairs in the half-light – what was about to get me – an unchained maniac, scorpions, Norman Bates, the vengeful root cellar cousin springing from the crawlspace? I always sprinted up the stairs once I had a bottle in hand. Sometimes I would find one with a popped up lid – sure sign of deathly spoilage by botulism or other bacterium. These bottles I opened with the sole intent of feeding the contents to my younger sisters – I could just imagine the bacteria multiplying, followed by vomiting and massive diarrhea. No luck, my mom always did a smell and taste test herself.
Eventually I got old enough to know that Norman was not waiting for me in the basement and that the spiders had retreated beyond my hand. I found that the quiet and cool appealed, surrounded by hundreds of multi-colored jars in the dim – it was comforting – a small wooden stool to sit on. Not that I pondered any of life’s great mysteries, but I did wonder if there would be Bottled Raspberries in the afterlife. And, I would, when not hurried, open up a bottle of apricots and drink the entire quart, piece of pineapple first, putting the unwashed bottle away with the other empties for next year’s harvest.
Today, living in a larger house, there is no fruit cellar and even with a spacious yard, of course, no root cellar, although I’m tempted to start digging – confining a couple of my irritating nephews could provide good entertainment.
A pantry we have. But it’s not the same. However downstairs, there is the furnace room with a little storage space and best of all, a fully functional toilet – always a nice seat. Don’t have any of my mom’s fruit left over, but I have been known to get bottled peaches at Costco, cool them down and then slip downstairs, take a relaxing seat and sip from the jar – and yes, old habits die hard – I do fill the bottle back up – return it to the fridge – sometimes I can make a bottle last a week or so.
Sitting there brings back memories of those days growing up, the terror of fruit cellar trips with big spiders and hidden ghouls – the crawl for life under the house. Sneaking fruit and Mogen David from the fridge, refilling the bottles – the thrill of evading apprehension. And then as the years slid on by, enjoying the quiet of that calm room and pleasantly deciding which fruit I would bring up for dessert.