Gardeners and Cooks Keep The Rural Arts Alive

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Lynne Coffey with garden vegetables. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Late July is the time to make sauerkraut on Love Mountain, where the rows of Stonecrop cabbage have stayed sweet and tight and green. Gardening on the mountain is a little different from gardening down below, said Lynn Coffey. Her tomatoes ripen later, but all in all she’d rather have the cooler air.

Coffey said she grew up eating sauerkraut, a staple from her family’s Eastern European heritage. “We didn’t have a garden or anything like it,” she said. “I grew up on Florida’s Gold Coast, and we bought our sauerkraut.” For reasons she has never understood, she was fascinated with the idea of country living, self-sufficiency and simplicity. “I think I told my parents when I was six that I would someday live in the mountains and raise and hunt my own food.”

All of that came true, and more. People on the mountain and most people in Nelson County are familiar with Coffey’s work. For 25 years, she wrote and published Backroads Magazine, a chronicle of “plain folks and simple living,” and later published several book-length collections of mountain lore. A city kid, “I knew nothing when I started,” she said. “I walked all over this mountain learning everything I could from my older neighbors. I think they humored me just so I’d leave them alone!”

Coffey’s well-stocked pantry. Photo: Lynn Coffey

Johnny and Nin Coffey (relatives of Lynn’s husband, Billy) were her mentors on sauerkraut making. She liked their sauerkraut cutter and bought a similar one. Billy made her a sauerkraut tamper. Both are large tools made of wood.

Coffey likes to salt and tamp her cabbage in layers, putting down four inches or so of cut cabbage and salting it before cutting another layer until the crock is full. On the top go some fresh grape leaves, shiny side down, then a plate and a big clean rock to weigh it all down. “That’s it,” she said. “Nothing could be easier.”

It didn’t seem so easy the first time though, she admits. “By that time Nin had died and Johnny lived with his sons. I had him on the phone for each step of the way.” Like her old neighbor, she put the crock under the house, to ferment where it was cool and dark. When it was time to can the sauerkraut, Coffey crawled under the house and found a suspicious top layer of mold. “I ran back in and dialed him,” she recalls. “He told me to pull it off, so I set the phone down and ran back out.” She found the cabbage below the mold to be perfectly fermented, delicious, crisp and tart: “It almost tasted carbonated,” she said. She either cans it cold and processes the glass jars in boiling water or heats the whole batch to pack in clean jars.

Coffey’s sauerkraut joins dozens of jars of jellies, pickles, honey, soup, vegetables, fruits and tomatoes in her pantry, all from recipes learned from her studies of rural wisdom and all made with love on Love Mountain.

Pickles and Jam

While other brides might be showered with china and crystal, Carolyn Rhondeau became the proud owner of a hot water canner and a pressure canner when she married in Idaho, courtesy of her mother and mother-in-law. It was no surprise: “I grew up canning and preserving,” she said, “and just continued doing it.”

Now living in Crozet, Rhondeau limits her food preservation to pickles, chutney and apple pie filling, taking advantage of nearby fresh fruits and vegetables at Henley’s orchard or a nearby farm stand. One look at her beautiful bread and butter pickles and it’s clear she knows a thing or two about what she’s doing.

But she’s always learning, she said. At a church dinner in West Virginia, she liked the sweet pickles so much she asked for the recipe from an elderly woman who said she’d no longer be making them. With a few adjustments to the recipe, she’s found it produces reliably excellent pickles.

Carolyn Rhondeau grew up canning. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Rhondeau has other motives besides thrift, superior taste and a love of cooking: “I like to know what’s in my food,” she said. “When you buy something like this off the shelf, it’s not always that healthy.” She likes her own freezer jam because it requires less sugar than the store or conventional homemade product.

Rhondeau is also a master gardener and helps out at the Albemarle County Fair, now in progress at the Highland fairgrounds. “We’re not getting the same kind of entries as we used to,” she said. “In the past, everyone liked to bring in their vegetables, flowers, baked goods, jams and jellies.” She encourages gardeners and home cooks to consider the fair and make future plans to enter garden produce or any of a dozen other categories under “home arts.” You can see this year’s best examples through Saturday. Find out more at albemarlecounty fair.com.

The Happy Gardener

The Campbells’ friends say that in case of a national emergency, they’d move in with them and survive just fine. It’s true! Fern Campbell, also a master gardener, fills her freezer, pantry and makeshift “root cellar” with everything anyone could need to sustain them. But freezing, canning, cold storage and drying are not her only strategies for having food available in every season. Fern and her husband, Cleve, keep a large and varied garden going almost year-round with succession planting, prudent row covers and constant crop rotation.

They fight bugs with decoy plants as well as by attracting predators for the most destructive pests. They enrich the soil with winter crops, make sure there are plenty of butterflies and bees to pollinate, and mulch heavily for weed control. In late July, after two weeks of 90 plus weather and no rain, the Campbells had armloads of lettuce and spinach peeking out under a sunshade, with the smaller plants––still fresh and crisp––still coming on strong. Part of their success with mid-summer salad greens is the shade; part is the appropriate variety. Several varieties of southern peas resist the heat and drought, with pods growing long and fat under the blazing sun. They’ll be dried and vacuum-packed for winter storage.

Every inch of soil is heavily used, but it’s also replenished with crops like buckwheat that keep the soil shaded and weed-free and are then cut and allowed to decompose and enrich the soil. The Campbells are adopting some permaculture techniques: it’s a system of gardening that keeps soil in constant use in lieu of tilling, interplanting within the rows to confuse garden pests, and returning everything to the soil, imitating what happens in a woods or natural meadow.

Ferm Campbell dries and packages southern peas. Photo: Theresa Curry.

With so much going on in the garden and kitchen, Fern keeps a journal through the season, noting not only what, when and where she planted, but also harvest dates. She also records what she canned, froze and dried. “That’s so I don’t overdo it,” she said. “I’ll check off how many we have left at the end of winter.” Still, it looks like there are plenty of extra vegetables and jars, and visitors leave the sunny kitchen with armloads of them. But there’s no sign that she plans to cut back anytime soon, she said: “The garden is my happy place.”

The garden is Fern Campbell’s happy place. Photo: Theresa Curry

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