Plastics have really taken over as the containers of choice, but their safety is often in question these days. Glass, of course, was and still is used, but at one time pottery crocks were used to hold foods for storage.

Not only were they used to store foods but also for fermentation processes and pickling. Made from rich clay deposits here in Ohio the pottery was made into practical items that helped families survive winters by storing and keeping their foods. They came in all sizes and shapes, some twenty or thirty gallons to little pint-sized jugs that used corks to keep in the flavor of its contents.

My memories of these old crocks are many and varied. Perhaps one of the most fragrant was when sweet pickles were being made, always in mid to late-summer when small pickles or small cucumbers were plentiful. First they were put in the crock with a salt water brine and left in for several days. A plate was laid on top, forced into the water by a clean, smooth rock, then covered with a clean towel. The top was skimmed daily of scum to prevent any mold from growing. Once finished in the brine sometimes an alum bath was used to crisp the pickles.

Then a mix of apple cider vinegar, spices and sugar were boiled and poured over the rinsed pickles. Talk about good smells, the spices and vinegar would fill the house with odors of exotic places, cinnamon and allspice, ginger and cloves. This was heated each day for several days then the pickles were put through a water bath canning procedure.

When a can was opened the sweet chunks of pickle were crisp and tangy with the flavors of many spices. It took a couple of weeks to make them, but the results were worth the waiting.

Other of summer's produce found their way into crocks. Cabbage was shredded, put into the crocks with salt water and left to ferment into sauerkraut. Again the cabbage was weighed down with a plate that fit inside the crock and a rock, then covered with a towel. This needed to be skimmed daily, as well. Once the fermentation process was complete, about 10-12 days, the kraut could be kept in the crock, covered with a towel, or a seal of paraffin could be poured over the plate and around the edges. Its tangy goodness and tart taste went well with many a winter's meal of pork or beef.

All types of vegetables and fruits could be pickled and kept. Carrots can also be made into a sauerkraut, and pickles can be made of squash, green beans or green tomatoes. Dilled green beans are a real treat, while green tomato pickles spark up winter meals. Pickled peppers, cauliflower, even immature corn-on-the-cob can produce interesting winter foods.

My in-laws made plum preserves and stored it in gallon crocks for winter. Bushels of green gage plums were washed, put into a huge, copper pot with gallons of honey and slowly stirred and heated over an outside fire until the proper consistency. This was not a short-term job, but one that required a lot of stirring and just the right amount of fire underneath so it wouldn't be scorched. This sweet treat was the best to put on bread while eating the beef and pork summer sausage made during butchering days. The gallons of plum preserves could also be sealed with paraffin to keep throughout the winter and were stored in an unheated upstairs room during the cold of winter. Apple butter could be made much the same way, and made its way into those crocks for storage, as well.

Large crocks, at least 20-gallon, were reserved for brining or curing meat after butchering. A brine was made of sugar, salt, and a small amount of salt peter or sodium nitrate, which was mixed into gallons of water. This was poured over the meat which was weighed down in the crock to keep it under the curing solution and kept cold during a curing period which could last up to 60 days, if it was a large ham. After the curing process, the meat was removed from the brine, soaked for a couple of days, dried then hung up in a smoke house to be smoked which gave it more flavor and good aroma. Usually these hams and cured meats were left hanging in an attic or upground cellar and remained their until used.

Crocks were also used to store fried foods, such as sausages and pork steaks, in a crock. The meat was fried, placed in the crock and with each layer a layer of lard was poured over to cover it completely, then another layer of meat, then lard until the top was reached. The lard completely covered the meat and kept it over winter. To use, one would dig out the required amount of meat and reheat.

Many things were put through a fermentation process, including hard cider which was put into crocks with added sugar and yeast then allowed to ferment at room temperatures about 10 days. It was then jugged and corked, perhaps in another pottery container. The corks were often sealed over with paraffin to keep. I'll have to say I have no experience in doing this but know of many people who enjoy making fermented home brews.

All those pickling and fermentation processes allowed our ancestors good eating come winter when there were no gardens producing. Crocks were a major part of that plan and held many different treats to carry the family over winter. Although today they are used more for decorative purposes, its good to remember that those pottery crocks were once the backbone of a winter food supply.


Jeannine Roediger has lived on a family farm all her life, first as a farmer's daughter and now as a farmer's wife. She writes weekly for the Times-Bulletin and enjoys gardening, quilting, cooking, bird watching and writing.