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Putting Food By

Last autumn, I received permission to harvest apples from our neighbor’s tree. I had no idea what variety they were; they looked a bit like Gravensteins, but ripened later and were not very good eaten fresh. However, they made great apple sauce. When my daughter came home from college, I insisted she try some. She loved it and I was astonished to discover she had never previously tasted homemade apple sauce. That fact contrasted sharply with my own experience in Anderson Valley between the late 1950s and the late 1980s, when “putting food by” was an integral element of local life.

Some residing in Anderson Valley may not appreciate they live in a veritable Garden of Eden, but they do. Familiarity breeds — if not contempt — indifference. The variety of fruits and vegetables grown in the valley is truly remarkable. But the cycle of the seasons means the abundance of spring, summer and fall gives way to the scarcity of winter. Putting food by, i.e. drying, canning and pickling, is how one keeps and enjoys that abundance during the lean months.

My parents — particularly my father — never let anything go to waste, so putting food by became an element of our existence as soon as we arrived in the valley. I think it started with our small, ancient (50+ years-old in the late 1950s) prune orchard. French prune plums (and their bigger Italian cousins) were grown almost exclusively for drying and prunes were still a big enough crop in the North Coast back then to foster drying sheds in both Ukiah and Healdsburg. When the plums got ripe (as indicated by their sweetness and dusky purple color), we would spread tarps under the trees, shake them until fruit fell off and put the plums in boxes for the trip to the dryer. Our trees were fragile, and the yields were never high, but we usually ended up with more than 100 pounds of prunes, which we packaged in small plastic bags.

Most of the prunes were served as afternoon snacks at El Rancho Navarro, my parents’ summer camp near Philo, but we Newmans also ate our share throughout the winter and spring. I have to admit, I got so tired of prunes, I spent most of my adult years avoiding them. Only recently have I begun enjoying them again. However, I may never again taste prunes as good as those from my childhood; the old French prune plum variety has been supplanted commercially both by Italian and Improved French varieties.

Apples were another food we put by, mostly in the forms of applesauce and apple pies. Guy and Bill, our neighbors at Highland Ranch, would invite us each year to pick their apple orchard, now sadly replaced by a lake. We would arrive home with lug boxes of apples (the King variety, if I recall correctly) packed in the pickup. We also bought apples from local growers: Gowan’s Oak Tree, Art’s Apples and Johnny Peterson near Philo, and Archie Schoenahl near Boonville.

For apple sauce, we kids would prepare the apples by running them through a crank peeler/corer — a small machine, not one of the big ones apple dryers used to have, a few of which could still be found in the valley back then. Then my mother would take over; slowly cooking down the apples in big pots on the stove, adding a bit of cinnamon, and then filling and sealing the sauce in her impressive collection of Ball jars. We stored the finished apple sauce — probably 50 quarts — in the cellar under the camp kitchen, where is stayed safe and cool until needed.

For apple pies, we kids would have peeling contests to see who could make the longest apple peel. My mother became impressively proficient at making pie crust. I think she entered her apple pies in the Mendocino County Fair & Apple Show when we lived in the valley, but I cannot recall whether she ever won — competition was fierce. Most of her pies went into the camp freezer, later to be thawed, baked and savored as needed.

She also made apple butter, primarily for my dad. I tasted it once and once was enough!

Jams and preserves we made every year. Mostly they were blackberry (we had a big blackberry thicket by the river), yellow plum (we had a couple of trees) and peach (which we bought, probably from Gowan’s Oak Tree). Mostly I remember how the small jam jars were sealed; with a layer of hot wax poured over the top.

Canning tomato sauce became a necessity in bountiful harvests, because we simply ran out of people who would take tomatoes off our hands. This was particularly true during our early years in the valley, before deer developed a taste for our (then unfenced) tomato patch. Such also was the case one year in the 1980s, when I got a bit carried away and planted more than 40 tomato starts in our fenced garden plot: despite minimal care, the volume of tomatoes produced quickly overwhelmed us and all our friends. In this case, canning was nothing fancy; blanching, peeling, chopping, blending and simmering the tomatoes, with some lemon juice and salt added just before canning to pump up the flavor.

Last, but by no means least, there were pickles. My mother really got into making pickles from locally purchased cucumbers during our time in the valley. She made both dill pickles and sweet pickles, both of which proved a challenge. In the first couple of years, despite her following recipes precisely, the pickles often weren’t crisp. She finally discovered the secret to crisp pickles in the third year; the cucumbers had to be absolutely fresh when pickle-making began.

Today Anderson Valley has fewer roadside farm stands than back in the 1950s to 1980s. However, now the valley has a plethora of small farmers, many of whom bring their crops to the local farmer’s market, thus providing a selection of fruits and vegetables for putting by. In addition, most valley residents have sufficient land and water to grow their own, though fruit trees need at least a couple of years to produce well.

One Comment

  1. Todd Lesser January 1, 2019

    I loved your dad’s prunes. One summer, after the new cabins were built, your dad would trade one raisin for every nail found. I hated raisins so the deal I negotiated was five nails for a prune.

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