Yesterday’s Freezer & Yesterday’s Fridge

Posted on January 29, 2015 by in Blog, Uncategorized

Meatball Soup, page 101

The Midwest where we live is held now in the cold, hard grip of midwinter—snow and ice everywhere. I suspect our climate has weather similar to the winters in Eastern Europe where my mother’s and father’s families made their homes. In Food, Family and Tradition, my cousin Ibi vividly remembers “Winter in Munkács” (page 100) as a “procession of dark, cold, windy, rainy, damp days varied only by snow falling from the grey skies….” Brrr! She remembers the tall wood-burning clay oven in the living room, which provided heat, and the wood- or coal-burning stove in the kitchen on top of which they could cook three to four pots. One of these pots was always soup, which filled them with a warm, cozy feeling and offered relief from the bitter cold. One of their favorite soups was Meatball Soup or Frikadelki. I often make this because of Ibi, her memories, and most of all because it is a one-of-a-kind comforting cold-weather soup. (Recipe on page 99-100).

I certainly cook more soups in winter than in summer, but I often reflect as I reach into the home freezer or fridge for soup ingredients—fish, chicken, vegetables, whatever strikes my fancy—how easily available food is now, year round. Back in the day when my parents and grandparents were warming themselves around a clay oven “at home,” refrigerators and freezers did not exist. What did exist was ice, and everyone made the most of it, harvesting it from the Tisza River in midwinter to make what was, in practice, yesterday’s freezer. And in the midst of summer, those smart practical cooks, instead of reaching into a fridge, took a trip down to the underground cold cellar, so vividly described on page 208:

“The Cellar: Yesteryear’s Fridge

For the convenience of today’s cook, this cookbook provides tips on cooking in advance, refrigerating or freezing. However, originally, all the recipes were cooked fresh on a daily basis, a culinary tradition in which the family took great pride. One reason for this tradition was the limited availability in the 19th and early 20th century of refrigeration in my parents’ hometowns. The childhood home of my mother, Margit Kirsche, was built four steps above ground level, with entrance steps on one side of the building. Right behind those steps, attached to the back of the house, was a short door. The door opened onto eight steps going down to their cellar, an underground room with a mud floor and no windows. This underground room kept hardy vegetables from freezing during the winter, and maintained a cooler temperature and steady humidity for storing food supplies during summer months. They used the cellar on a daily basis for storing dairy products as well as onions and potatoes.

My mother’s cellar was small compared to the 30-foot-square, 8-feet-deep cellar used in Vásárosnamény (Hungary) for commercial meat storage. The cellar was filled with ice cut from the nearby Tisza River in winter. The ice was packed with straw and stayed cold throughout the summer.”