The Hungry Gap

This is the time of year known as the hungry gap. Generally for pre-industrial farming communities in the West this was the late winter/early spring period when the stored food from late year's harvest season was dwindling, but the garden was not yet producing much (if anything). Animal-based foods might also be in short supply if meat stores from the winter are exhausted and farm animals giving milk and eggs have less to eat and thus produce less. Some even posit that this is the origin of the Lent tradition of sacrifice.

In our house this time of year means I stop skipping past the produce aisle in the grocery store as our stored veggies from fall tend to have either gone bad or been eaten. If I lived at any other point in history the hungry gap would have been a time of real struggle, but for me in the modern world it means a dearth of local foods but no actual hunger as plentiful "back-up" veggies are available from all over the world. (I should admit, though, that I buy fruit year round for my fruit-crazy kids.) As I shop I try to reflect on the privilege I have to not go hungry while at the same time think meaningfully about the social and environmental impacts of buying food from halfway around the world.

Every year during harvest season abundance we try to plan our food storage for the coming months. Mostly this means canning, freezing and an improvised cold cellar in our basement stairwell. Some things work better than others and we tinker with the system each year. Last fall we added an improvised clamp to our storage repertoire, and as we came to the end of the carrots in the cold cellar last week we decided it was time to dig up the clamp and see how it did.

With the snow gone we moved some of the small rocks that were holding down the top layer of the clamp: a collection of old seed bags used to keep moisture out. Underneath that layer is straw for insulation, and under that a thin layer of dirt covering the veggie bins we buried.

Inside the bins are veggies we haven't seen in over 6 months.

We buried turnips, beets and carrots. Rose drew a map just after we made the clamp to help us remember where things ended up.

Eric was skeptical about the results since all January we had cold temperatures with no snow which means the ground got extra cold in those weeks without snow cover. In the end, though, things were not quite so grim.

The beets and turnips survived! I was thrilled to see fresh-looking beets as they have long since succumbed to rot in the cold cellar. The turnips in the cold cellar were still going strong, however, so perhaps next year we'll pick something else to bury. The carrots didn't fare so well, unfortunately...

Fingers crossed as we dig up the carrot bin.


Oh well. Did the extra cold environment affect the carrots' texture and make them more prone to rot? Was there contamination in the bin and the microbes eventually just took over? It's disappointing since carrots are such a staple veggie for us - I think Rose has had carrots in her school lunch every day since the late fall. We'll try again next year and see if different winter conditions lead to different results. For now we can celebrate the addition of beets to our hungry gap diet and look ahead to the abundance of summer.