This Week in Jewish Farming: Packing the larder

Ben Harris

(Ben Harris)

There’s something comforting about seeing stacks of squash and knowing they will last through the winter. (Ben Harris)

When I was a kid, Friday nights were the coziest night of the week.

My family was strictly Shabbat observant, and Friday night meant the onset of 25 hours with no TV, no car and no cooking. It was the latter that gave those nights their warmth and intimacy. Friday afternoon was a flurry of kitchen activity, but by the time darkness fell the dining room table was laden with platters of home-cooked food and the fridge stocked with hearty provisions.

In winter, there was the added heat of my mother’s cholent simmering in the crock pot, its meaty aromas gradually building through the night and filling the house with the smell of sustenance.

My mind has flashed back to those scenes repeatedly as we’ve started pulling our winter storage crops from the ground over the past few weeks. There’s something so reassuring about seeing those stacked crates of onions and winter squash that won’t give out in a week or two like most everything else we grow. For the Sabbath of the coming winter, there will be food.

Regular readers of this space know that, for this farmer at least, worry is a constant companion. In part, it’s the nature of a CSA (community supported agriculture farm) that takes people’s money long before any seeds have been planted. Then there’s nature’s fickle ways, throwing up a relentless series of obstacles to the harvest of top-quality vegetables. And finally, of course, there’s me – hard-wired to fret.

Strange as it sounds, these storage crops are a potent — if partial — antidote to all that. Most of what we grow are fleeting, ephemeral things. Tomatoes are in season for just a short window in late summer. Kale and collards and chard can hold in the field for much longer, but they wither into nothingness within days of harvest.

Butternut squash? Now that’s a durable thing: hard and solid and capable of a little rough handling, in it for the long haul.

While they’re growing in the field, these crops are just as vulnerable as any other – and arguably more so, since winter squash typically requires 100 days or more to mature. But after harvest, once they are pulled and cured and properly stored, they morph into the endurance athletes of the plant kingdom. For months, they will retain all their nutrient goodness and hearty flavors, waiting only for the chef’s knife to release them.

Our first harvest came in early August when we pulled our onions, over 100 pounds of which are already tucked away in my apartment. Another 200 pounds of butternut and delicata squash are currently curing under a shade cloth in the greenhouse and thousands (!) of pounds more are nearly ready to be pulled from the field. Some indeterminate quantity of potatoes remains buried in the earth awaiting our shovels.

It’s an incredible relief knowing they’re there, that as autumn sets in and the first frost looms on the horizon, I’ve got a dependable stash to draw on. Much like those Friday nights of my childhood, I sleep a little more soundly (operative word being “little”) with a larder filled with nourishment.

Yes, it’s an awful lot of existential baggage for a pile of gourds and tubers to bear. Fortunately, they’re durable things.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.


From the annals of Jewish farming: In 1957, Israeli farmers successfully raised a new type of potato capable of growing in the desert heat of the Negev.

Ben Harris is JTA’s former associate editor.