The Old Paths: Preserving the old ways

By Leslie Bray Brewer - Special to The Stokes News

Well, it’s getting nigh on to cold weather, and there’s a tinge of red in the leaf realm. Y’all got your hogs killed and your preserves put up in the pantry? Oh, wait—these are modern times where we buy our bacon at the grocery store and search out farmers markets for someone who still makes homemade jams and jellies.

(I know some of you readers still preserve your garden produce, but I would guess there aren’t many of you who slaughter hogs any more. If you do, please let me know so I can come experience it.)

When my two adult daughters were little bitty girls, I bought a homeschool unit study program called “The Prairie Primer.” I liked the thought of reading aloud all nine Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books to my children and using each chapter as a daily lesson. Sadly enough, we didn’t make it through the entire program.

Since I believe in second chances, I pulled out ye olde prairie primer when my oldest son and youngest daughter hit middle school. They seemed to enjoy it more than the other two, so we finished the entire program over the course of two years—making our own butter in a jar, gathering around the piano to sing the old songs Pa played on his fiddle for Laura and Mary, visiting my Daddy to have him demonstrate how a muzzleloader works, crying together when Laura’s dog Jack died (uh oh, spoiler alert).

However, there were still parts of the program we simply didn’t have time for. (I mean really, where do you find a hog bladder to illustrate how Laura and Mary used one for a balloon during hog-killing time?)

Still believing in redemption, I recently dusted off our by-now-nearly-ancient prairie primer to teach my youngest son what life was like on the old paths. Since he is my final child (barring a miracle from God), I am bound and determined to complete every single activity in that unit study.

So we’re learning all sorts of things about food preservation, how to survive in the wilderness, the resilience of the human spirit. (By the way, I still need a hog bladder.) My son has cringed, grimaced and fake-gagged quite often as we read aloud the accounts of hog-killing in Little House in the Big Woods, but I want him to know how his ancestors lived.

As I read how Ma used every part of the pig to preserve food for the winter, how Pa smoked venison to put away in the attic, how bear meat remained frozen all winter in the shed as they chopped off portions as needed, how the pantry shelves were full of garden preserves, how the cellar brimmed over with turnips and carrots, how braided onion chains hung in the attic where the pumpkins and squashes were stored for winter, I felt all warm and snug inside. And I realized how things have changed even from the days of my childhood. My pantry shelves are filled with canned vegetables from Food Lion and Ingles. My cellar does not exist. My attic is reserved for plastic tubs of out-of-season clothes. My freezer has no bear meat fresh from Pa’s muzzleloader-hunting forays, but rather boxed pizzas and chicken strips from Sam’s Club.

But if we go back just one generation, my Mama still has a cellar and pantry full of home-canned green beans and other goodies from their garden and a freezer full of deer and turkey meat, courtesy of Daddy’s modern rifle. Her days of squirrel and rabbit meat might be over, but I remember eating those meats when I was a child. Grandma Bray used to can them for the winter.

Through just one or two generations, we have been transformed from a “waste not, want not” food-preserving society into a rather wasteful one. A well-stocked grocery store on nearly every city block (and at least a nearby Dollar General even out in the boondocks!) has turned us into a nation of consumers rather than producers.

Because of our proximity to prepared food sources, as well as the relative ease with which we can buy it, food preservation is quickly becoming a lost art. We even waste a lot of what we buy. Many people won’t eat leftovers. My family eats them sometimes up until nearly a week later because we spent a lot of years struggling financially and know what it’s like to have a nearly-empty pantry.

During those tough years when we had to rely a lot on deer meat and beans of many varieties, one experience remains etched in my memory. A dear friend of mine had kept my kids one day while I worked. When I went to pick them up, she had fixed tacos for supper. As we were leaving, I witnessed her scraping a considerable amount of leftover seasoned hamburger into the trash.

I will never forget the desperation that overwhelmed me. I wanted to rummage through her trash and salvage that deliciously-spiced meat that would’ve been such a delicacy in my impoverished home. She didn’t mean any harm; she simply had enough money to buy more ground beef the next time she needed some, so leftovers could be trashed.

When I polled my friends on Facebook this week about what foods they tend to throw away more than others, many said they throw away very little—eating leftovers or freezing them or using them to create new dishes.

One of them said that after she worked with hurricane relief and charity efforts, she realized how precious our food supply is.

In my next column, I plan to delve more into the subject of leftovers as well as the need for us to preserve the old ways of survival. If our country had a major economic crisis, we need to be able to feed ourselves when Harris Teeter shelves are bare. I am not sure this modern generation could survive the economic devastation that accompanied the Great Depression.

Some of the old paths aren’t worth traveling anymore, but some need to be explored all over again. When it comes to food, pardon the pun, but I’m hungry for the know-how to ensure we have what we need.

Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at Her blog is at

By Leslie Bray Brewer

Special to The Stokes News