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Suburban Root Cellars: Picket Fences Meets Cold Storage

When many envision suburbia, they think of a million gray houses with slanted roofs that all look alike, and everyone inside eats wonder bread and watches television and plays tennis. Suburbia has become, in the minds of some, a sterile and personality-less place. Or so the stereotype of suburbia goes.

What people don’t know, however, is that suburbia is populated with a stray homesteader here and there. Single moms in New Rochelle who loom weave. Nuclear families who bake their own bread (wonderful, not Wonder.) People who garden in their fenced in yards. People who eat directly from their gardens. People who store their potatoes in the basement, their onions in sacks, their carrots in sand. People like Joan Dye Gussow, author of This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader.

The following is an excerpt from This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader by Joan Dye Gussow. It has been adapted for the Web.

Before we hired an architect to help us plan what was still just a renovation, we had pretty much determined the layout of our future home. It was a row house, after all, 25 feet wide and 60 feet deep including its deck. It faced west, toward the street with a view toward sunrise on the river side. We wanted a big room, kitchen/dining/living room, facing the water upstairs, with Alan’s office and a guest bedroom behind facing the street. Alan’s studio would be a large room facing the street downstairs (he didn’t work from nature in the studio), with our bedroom and my office facing the water and the rising sun. Since so many of our choices were settled, one of our earliest questions to the first architect we hired was whether we could have a cold cellar on the same floor as the kitchen.

We had a fine cold cellar in Congers. Because our old Victorian’s basement lovingly reflected every bay and angle of the upstairs, we had available an alcove 15 feet wide and 8 feet deep that angled off from the rest of the cellar and had a small window where the stone foundation joined the timbers. Along each of the 8-foot walls was rough shelving, which we had cleaned off and painted. We walled the alcove off from the rest of the basement, insulated our wall, put in a door, and used the cool space to store produce through the winter.

Mostly we stored potatoes (in boxes on the shelves) and onions (hanging in net bags). Once we dug all our carrots before a hard freeze and stored them down there in sand. We stored our sweet potatoes there too, until we discovered that sweet potatoes shrivel up and turn black in the damp cold, after which we put them in a back bedroom. The other cold-cellar staple from December to March was a bushel box of incredibly sweet and juicy grapefruit that my mother always sent for Christmas. Those grapefruit taught me that even militantly local eating ought to allow for treats. And once my sister sent us a box of kiwi that lasted so long in the cold cellar it seemed the perfect transition fruit, so we planted two kiwi vines for the future.

We learned from this experience that a cold cellar was essential to our winter eating. And while our Congers cold cellar occupied the ideal and obvious place—the cellar—I had been finding it increasingly inconvenient to scramble down one steep railless flight of steps and run to the back of the basement every time I wanted a potato or an onion for dinner. Moreover, the kitchen/dining/living room of the new house was to be on the second floor, facing the river, and the entrance to the cellar stairs was to be somewhere in the back reaches of Alan’s first-floor studio, which faced the street. Any basement cold cellar in Piermont would be two flights down and a long hike. I wanted a cold cellar I could walk into from the kitchen.

I’m afraid the first architect gave himself away when he disdainfully raised his eyebrows and said that perhaps we could store vegetables under benches out on the porch. But they’d freeze, I said, not even mentioning that I would too when I went out to get them. He seemed unmoved by that (as by most of the other things we asked for). When we had to tell him he wouldn’t work out, he said, “Well, at least I made clear what I wanted.” And he had.

The second architect, J., seemed more responsive, and helped us design a pantry/cold cellar near the kitchen. It was to be a long, narrow space divided into two shorter rooms with the entrance from the kitchen into a small pantry area that would hold our small upright freezer. Through an insulated door beyond that would be a “cold” room, which was to be connected to the basement and the outdoors by vents and fully insulated from the rest of the house. We hoped that a fan would pull cold air up from the basement to the floor of the cold cellar through a pipe, and warm air would flow out the other vent near the ceiling.

Luckily we were on site the day the plumber began installing the heating pipes indicated on the architect’s plans, and were thus able to prevent our cold room from being toasty. We failed to notice until it was too late, however, that he had left out the floor vent through which cold air was to be sucked up from the basement into the cold room. “Not too bad,” we thought at first, when we moved in at the frigid end of January. “We’ll just open up the 1-by-2-foot vent at the top of the north wall and cold air will force its way in, exactly as it does when you’ve accidentally left the window open a crack.” No such luck. The builders had done a magnificent job of sealing the room. No air flowed in or out. The stored food probably generated enough metabolic heat to rise and push the cold air out, and the room stayed comfortably warm, even with the vent fully uncovered. Our potatoes, the mainstay of our winter diet, were sprouting much more quickly than we had planned; our self-provisioning goal was falling victim to heat.

Six months after we moved in, a former student came to visit with her husband who was, fortuitously, a refrigeration engineer. He looked over our cold-cellar problem and seemed to have a perfect solution, at least for the frigid months when we had the most produce to store. He would put a little refrigerator fan up in the vent to draw in cold air, with an attached thermostat that would turn the fan off when it had pulled in enough outside air to drop the temperature to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. He took some measurements, went back home, and in a month or so, our solution came in the mail. We installed it. Problem solved.

Solved, that is, until the morning I went in and saw that the temperature on the thermometer had fallen to 21 degrees and the fan was still running. The fan is now set on a timer that turns it on for a few hours during the middle of the night, and again just before dawn, usually the coldest of the twenty-four hours. That way, if we don’t open the door too much, the temperature stays pretty cool, but nothing freezes. It isn’t as steady a cold as we used to have in the Congers basement, but it keeps the good-storing potatoes until late April. And the onions do fine.

So the winter storage problem seemed to be solved; now all we needed was a yearly supply of onions and potatoes to store. And that turned out to be a more persistent challenge. I reported several chapters back that one of our earliest views of this now productive minifarm was of a long strip of grass—under water. Days after we signed the purchase agreement, the entire community was hit by a northeaster that produced a “hundred-year flood.” Of course, hundredyear floods are not what they used to be, given our penchant to exhale greenhouse gases every time we drive to the store. Hundred-year floods, torrential rains, tornadoes, and other expressions of Nature’s disapproval of our careless affluence are becoming more common. So, we discovered, were floods in our backyard. And floods had not been factored into our plan for self-reliance.

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