Today, we have refrigerators to keep our food from spoiling. In the old days, keeping foods fresh was difficult. To my knowledge it wasn’t until the 1860s when the first ice-chests appeared. These ice-chests resemble an antique carpenter’s toolbox.
Ice was cut on local ponds, rivers, and lakes during the winter. The ice was then stored in icehouses. Ice would be packed in the icehouse in large blocks and covered with sawdust to slow the melting process during hot summer months.
Prior to iceboxes, as far back as the colonial days, our ancestors learned to dry or salt meats to preserve them. Bacon and ham are a good example of salting meat to preserve it. Salt pork was another staple in those days.
The first recognizable icebox appeared in the 1880s. When the icebox was built, sawdust was used as insulation. These iceboxes have rather small compartments for ice and food. As we know, heat rises and cold settles. So in an oak icebox, the ice was kept in the top of the box with the food at the lower level. It worked pretty well. In the summer, ice needed to be added every 24 to 48 hours.
Over the years, I’ve probably owned 100 oak iceboxes. Most of these iceboxes are rather plain. A fancier icebox might have a design in the front panel. Wealthy people bought an icebox with all the bells and whistles.
Once years ago, I owned an oak icebox that had a large eagle design pressed in the front panel. There was a water faucet that when turned on would dispense ice cold water from the water reservoir.
During the winter, squash, potatoes, turnips, carrots, and such could be kept fresh in the root cellar. Shelled beans once dried could be stored for months. I hate shelled beans.
The versatile milk gravy
Milk gravy was the main recipe in much of what our ancestors prepared. Maybe a quarter stick of butter melted and then flour is added to make a paste. Now you add the milk and meat and cook until it thickens.
My favorite is dried beef gravy. When I make dried beef gravy, I serve it over potatoes for supper. I always make extra so I can have it on toast the next morning. Some will know it as S.O.S.
Many people had a ten-gallon or larger crock in the cellar in which they cured salt pork. I remember retrieving a chunk of salt pork from the crock. It was heavily encrusted with salt. You scrape the excess salt back into the crock. This chunk of salt pork was boiled a couple times to remove additional salt.
Salt pork gravy is another favorite of mine. The salt pork is sliced about a quarter-inch thick and then fried in a cast iron skillet. You remove the fried salt pork from the skillet and place it on a brown paper bag. This will draw more fat from the salt pork.
Now using a couple tablespoons of the salt pork fat, you add the flour making a paste. Add milk and cook till it thickens. This is served over potatoes. The cooked salt pork is served on the side.
Codfish gravy was another staple. The heavily salted cod had to be boiled a couple times to remove excess salt. It was served over potatoes.
For some time I’ve had a hankering for salmon pea wiggle. While this isn’t a dried or salted meat, it’s something I grew up with. It’s the same milk gravy made with butter and flour as in dried beef gravy.
My mother always used pink salmon not red salmon. Open the can of salmon and pick through it for bones and skin and then add it to your milk gravy. Now you add canned or frozen peas. Fresh peas if you can get them. Now for proper Vermont cuisine, salmon pea wiggle is served over saltine crackers not potato.
In the very early 1900s, manufacturers began producing metal iceboxes. These were short lived and produced in small numbers. Soon electric refrigerators arrived. These early electric refrigerators had the motor positioned on top of the refrigerator and you should now know why.
Some might find it interesting that ice was big business. Many Vermont companies shipped ice to Boston via the railroad.
The photo with this article is a metal “White Frost” icebox. It dates to about 1915 and is in the collection of the Chester Historical Society. This is the Cadillac of iceboxes, complete with water dispenser.
This Saturday, June 8 is my 50th anniversary graduating Chester High School. I will be walking with classmates in the Alumni Parade. Maybe I’ll see you there.
This week’s old saying applies to salt pork gravy. “It’ll stick to you like fat to a mother-in-law.”