LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — It was not unusual, when I was growing up, to run out of taters in the house about this time of year. And that meant we had to open up the tater hole much, much earlier than originally planned when we’d holed them up the previous September.
We didn’t have a root cellar or a spring house on the place there in the head of Blair Branch, so we tried to keep enough potatoes upstairs in the house to get us through the winter and last until planting time next spring. But we usually seemed to eat way more taters than Dad thought we would because taters taste mighty good if you don’t have anything else to eat and you’re too sorry to open a jar of beans or kraut.
Taters also made a great bedtime snack if you rolled them up under the grate and let them bake in the fireplace ashes for a couple of hours and that probably accounted for the short supply more than anything else.
I’m reasonably sure that I never bought a potato out of the grocery store until I’d been out of college several years because Dad always raised enough to feed several families. He bought and planted Kennebeck and Red Pontiac seed potatoes by the hundreds of pounds and he always saved a few hundred pounds of Irish Cobblers over the winter just for planting the following year. And no matter how hungry you might get, you never ate the seed potatoes. I don’t recall ever needing to.
Anyway we had a tater hole out there beside the main garden, about 50 yards from the house, that had to be dug back out every fall. The bottom was lined with dried corn fodder stalks and a few bats of hay, on top of which many bushels of potatoes were dumped and covered with more hay and fodder and even a couple of old bed quilts. This was covered by a layer of rolled asphalt roofing and the whole thing was covered with another thick layer of soil.
Suffice to say that getting into the tater hole early was a pain in the behind. But on a late January or early February day when the outside temperature was above freezing, it could be done. You simple removed a little dirt around the edge of the hole, poked your arm under the roofing and stuck it down through the hay and fodder until you felt taters and then you pulled them out, one at a time, and wished to high Heaven that you’d saved back enough to eat on when you holed them up last fall.
We never tried to hole up onions or anything besides taters that I recall, but John Bowers holed up apples, pears, onions and even cabbage. I’ve gone to John’s house there on Feds Creek in the dead of winter, reached down into his tater hole and pulled out cabbage heads that were as white as snow. He stored them with the roots turned upwards, but not touching his taters because the outer leaves would rot off. You grabbed the cabbage by the root, yanked it, and only the head and root came out. It actually tasted much better than when it was garden fresh.
We raised onions that we ate on all winter but we stored them indoors. By this time of year they would be so strong that it’s a wonder the juice didn’t take the hide off your hands when you peeled one. But soup beans aren’t fit to eat, in my opinion, if you don’t have a good onion and corn bread to eat with them.
I don’t try to save taters or onions over the winter anymore, but my brothers, Steve and Keeter, there in Letcher County, do. I still grow a few of both to eat fresh out of my spring garden because a mess of peas ain’t fit to eat unless they’re steamed with new potatoes. Ditto for scalded lettuce if it doesn’t have some green onions mixed in with it. And that first mess of green beans goes down a lot better with a good green onion.