Tamara Burke

Tamara Burke

Vermont closed down two weeks before Easter, four weeks before the scheduled last day of skiing, nine weeks before Memorial Day, and this, the week of Labor Day, marks 25 weeks of caution and COVID.

The Guardian, a British newspaper, has added a new section to their COVID-19 coverage: readers contributing what they’ve learned during the pandemic.

I learned there are 20 pounds of butter in my freezer.

If you’re attempting to visualize 20 pounds of butter, it’s a wall of butter in your freezer ten inches high by over two feet long.

There’s actually more than 20 pounds, because I have two freezers, and that butter inventory only encompasses one. But 20 pounds, as a number, is embarrassing enough. For perspective, that’s 40 batches of Parker House rolls, a recipe that calls for a glorious half pound of butter for heaven and a heart attack in a pan, with each little roll contributing about a quarter of your daily allotment of fats and a nice solid 100-plus calories. Naturally, we consume a good half dozen of them, each, as they come out of the oven.

That I don’t make Parker House rolls very often has nothing to do with the complexity of the recipe.

Lest you think I rushed out and panic bought butter, no, I didn’t. The butter infestation is a known freezer issue called “displacement and recall.” Smaller items, in a large freezer, tend to flow down to the lowest point, creating a recall problem as you’re standing in the store trying to remember if you need butter or not. Being uncertain, you err on the side of caution and, when you finally get around to organizing the freezer, there’s all that displaced butter.

Along with packages of grated zucchini you meant to use for delicious breads now freezer burned beyond recognition, and several sacks of frozen corn you didn’t know you had.

I'm telling you this because it is September and many people took up victory gardening this summer. So many people that W. Atlee Burpee & Co. seeds had its biggest sales season in its 144-year history. Those of us accustomed to picking up our vegetable starts in June found them sold out in the beginning of May. The greenhouses replanted, sold out again, then ran short of compost and potting soil.

Unless you are incredibly disciplined, experienced, precise or just plain lucky, your garden will be producing well in excess of your capacity to consume the bounty, leaving you with three options: Throw it away, give it away or preserve it.

Throwing it away can take the form of simply tearing the plant clean out of the ground and heaving it into a compost pile. The cucumber and zucchini plants met that fate this week after evidence of their productivity threatened to overtake the kitchen and the neighbors installed game cameras on their porches.

Depending on your point of view, preserving food is either pure drudgery or seriously fascinating science with the bonus of being edible. I tend to the latter because preserving the harvest has been a human problem for thousands of years. Each generation developed techniques based on the technologies available to them.

Meat was smoked, packed in salt or dried. Fruits were dried or packed in alcohol; the traditional German Rumtopf was originally a method of bringing exotic tropical fruits to Germany by packing them in rum and sugar to preserve them. And vegetables have been pickled, fermented, dried, shelved, packed in sand, canned or frozen in an effort to keep them through the winter months.

And that's just the stuff that’s come out of the garden. Layering straw over carrots will keep them happily in the ground this winter. Stacked hay bales and plastic will keep greens like spinach fresh and hearty well into mid-winter.

When freezer space is in short supply, the next step down in the food chain of preservation is canning. This summer I’ve stuffed things into canning glass I never expected to see outside my freezer. Blueberries went into canning jars; they sit on the shelves, navy blue and ready for holiday pies. Black currants were canned into cordials, beans and beets into pickles. I ran out of conventional glass and pulled out the vintage Lightning jars.

When canning glass is in short supply, you take the next step backwards, down the technology chain of food preservation, to lacto-fermentation.

Doesn’t that sound scientificly advanced? Actually, it is nothing more than using Lactobacillus, the friendly bacteria found on the surface of cabbage leaves, and salt, to create fermentation. When cabbage leaves, and their happy hangers on, are submerged in brine, the bacteria converts the sugars in the cabbage, and any other vegetable you’ve stuffed into the jar, into lactic acid, creating an environment inhospitable to other bacterial growth.

The overgrown Swiss chard stems, the excess of leeks, the little broccoli that pop out after the main harvest, shredded carrots, all can go into the brine with the cabbage, where it works itself up into a perfect state of crunchy, sour, kraut.

You can lose a lot of vegetables into jars of kraut.

Brining vegetables into sour, probiotic-infused, joy has the added advantage of not requiring canning glass. Vegetables will brine in clean plastic mayonnaise containers or recycled spaghetti sauce jars.

There are two extremely satisfying sounds associated with preserving food: The plink of a sealing jar, as it cools, and the pop and hiss of escaping gas, that lets you know your fermentation is bubbling along. Much as I love the convenience of a freezer, you just don’t get that satisfaction from closing a Ziploc bag.

To borrow from the World War II campaign, if you’re wondering if we can produce enough food to feed ourselves? Yes we can.

We just need the containers.


Tamara Burke and her family were longtime residents of Stowe, leaving the Garnache-Morrison Memorial Forest as a gift to the community. She and her husband, the sheep, and a riot of golden retrievers now call Craftsbury home. She continues to work in Stowe. Email letters to news@stowereporter.com.

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