You can store more than just roots

Root, etc. Cellars

by Mollie Doyle

Root, etc. Cellars

Elizabeth Cecil

My initial intention for an article on root vegetables was to expound upon the healing qualities of root veggies—tuberous roots, taproots, tubers, rhizomes, corms and bulbs—of which there are many. They are high in key vitamins (K, B6, A, etc.), rich in complex carbohydrates, high in fiber, and chock full of phytonutrients, which are the biologically active substances that give plants their smell, color, and flavor. According to Dr. David Heber, the founding director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA, eating seasonal vegetables helps animals’ and humans’ bodies transition from season to season. In other words: in the fall, eating root vegetables can help our bodies make the shift from warmer to cooler days.

But then Hurricane Earl came along. As I dragged the deck chairs and everything else inside, I began thinking about food storage. If we lost power, how would we store our food? A cooler might last for a day or two and I was okay with a little milk going bad, but what about all the vegetables? We had about five or six pounds of carrots from two weeks worth of CSA, not to mention the beets, radishes, and squash. What would be the best way to store them?

I mentioned this to my friend Caitlin, and she told me that her aunt, Marie Scott of Beetlebung Farm, used to store her carrots in wet sand and eat them all winter. The notion of eating fresh, local carrots in January intrigued me. Particularly, from a health perspective—there could be nothing better than eating fresh, local, organic vegetables year round.

I went to the library to do some research. Information was relatively limited. I did learn that you can keep carrots and beets fresh by burying the roots in damp sand or sawdust and then storing them in a cold place (32–40°F) with 95 percent humidity for up to five months. Other tips included storing potatoes in bins with 25 pounds of rice. Using this much of one food to preserve another seemed wasteful to me. I called the Allen Farm’s Mitchell Posin, who I knew had added a root cellar to his basement, to compare notes. Mitchell was washing a pile of freshly picked red potatoes, and chatting with his wife, Clarissa, and son, Ned, when I arrived. Mitchell first showed me an entire barn full of drying garlic—a spectacular sight.

As we made our way to the garden, Mitchell said, “You know, any vegetable you buy, you should pay $20 more for. Vegetable farming is so much work.” Then he leaned down and pulled a large carrot out of the ground and said, “Taste this. It hasn’t even sugared up yet. The longer you leave them in, the sweeter they get.” It was probably the best carrot I’ve had all summer.

Then Mitchell took us down to his root cellar. I had imagined that the cellar would be an elaborate stone vault, loaded with valves, air ducts, and temperature gauges. In fact, it was a very basic white cinder-block basement room with metal shelves and two vents. One vent was up high to let warm air out, and the other down lower to let cold air in. That’s it. When I asked how long his vegetables lasted in this simple room, he told me that in April the beets started to get a little mushy. April!

I began quizzing him on the do’s and don’ts of root cellaring. When does he plant vegetables? How does he prepare them for storage? Does he use sand for his beets and carrots? Rice? He shook his head, saying he was a novice. That he just follows the advice of his friend and mentor, Michael Doctor.

Michael Doctor runs Winter Moon Farm in Hadley, MA, which sells organic root vegetables in the winter months. Winter Moon Farm supplies places like Whole Foods, along with local food co-ops and restaurants. His “root cellar” is a converted barn that stores 120,000 pounds of root vegetables.

Michael made the switch from a seasonal CSA farm to producing and selling roots. “I have always been able to feed my family year-round, and I wanted to bring this idea to my community. I wasn’t sure if there would be a market for it, but it turns out that more and more people are appreciating and understanding the value of fresh, local food. I also wanted to make the planet a little healthier. A lot of our energy consumption in this country is due to transporting food, which is crazy. I can feed a lot of people for a lot less,” he said. Michael delivers 10 percent of his produce by bike.

Because his operation is so large, Michael doesn’t have time to put carrots and beets into sand—though he says that method works well for smaller operations. He just throws his vegetables into bins and puts them in an “environment that supports these living organisms.” Translation: cold and wet. And he doesn’t sell potatoes, because they are the “easiest things to store. Just throw ‘em in a bin in your basement.”

Root cellaring is not rocket science, it is Nature at its best. Not only are root vegetables good for us to eat in the winter, they are also naturally inclined to stay fresh all winter. It is just our modern lives—full of heat and refrigeration—that have gotten in the way.

I have begun dreaming about serving friends roasted yams, buttered beets, and butternut squash soup that I had harvested, stored, and prepared. I felt emboldened. I can survive another cold winter.