Today on the second day of April, we woke up to a blanket of snow. For most modern Americans, it elicited a groan and reactions of "what happened to spring?" But other than a few more minute of shoveling or clearing off the car, this snow doesn't affect us much. By tomorrow it will likely be all melted away, and my rhubarb, bleeding heart, peonies, and daffodils can go back on their merry way to growing.
Historically, the months of March and April have been most dangerous time of year for eaters in northerly climes. A poor harvest or improper food preservation in the fall could lead to fasting and even starvation by May. The most famous of these incidents is probably the "Starving Time" - the winter of 1609-1610 when three quarters of the colonists at Jamestown died from starvation or related diseases, brought on by a combination of laziness, provoking a war with the Powhatan people (by stealing food), and a severe drought. But the history of fasting, both among Native people and Medieval Europeans during the spring months seems to have less to do with religious observances like Lent, and more to do with the lack of readily available food come springtime.
In the modern era where food is available in abundance year-round thanks to global transportation networks and food preservation technology like canning and freezing which allows us to eat (and overeat) year-round, the idea of having to wait for food to grow in order to eat it seems unthinkable. But this was a common occurrence in the not-so-long-ago days when Americans eked out a subsistence living on small farms across the nation. Salting, smoking, and drying meats and fish, pickling perishable vegetables and properly packing root vegetables for cellaring, drying fruits and preserving them in sugar, and parching grain for long-term storage were all necessary tasks that took place nearly year-round.
If you were a good farmer (many weren't) and a good food preserver (ditto), you would likely make it through to spring just fine. But if you weren't, or something went wrong, you might find yourself arriving at March 1 with just a few softening potatoes left in the cellar and a few pounds of grain or flour left to take you through to May, when edible things started producing again. A few "starvation" foods might be available to you. Some European families might eat the long-storing root vegetables - like mangelwurtzel, a.k.a. "scarcity root" - that had been raised and stored for livestock fodder. Native people might go out into the icy waters of streams to grub up cattail or similar starchy tubers. For coastal dwellers, the annual spawning runs of fishes of all shapes and sizes helped bridge the gap between harvests.
Even for those with well-stocked root cellars, some foods just wouldn't last - fresh cabbages generally only last a few months - same with onions and apples, unless storage conditions are absolutely ideal. Dried fruits might run out or be nibbled on by mice. Even hard-skinned storage squashes don't last forever. Foods stored incorrectly might contribute to spoiling. Apples and cabbages both exude ethylene gas, which hasten the ripening (and spoiling) of other foods, and had to be kept separate from foods like potatoes, carrots, and onions. The old adage "One rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel" is a reference to the constant vigilance that had to be kept on stored foods to prevent spoilage. Foods also had to be kept in the dark - root vegetables of all kinds will begin sprouting when exposed to the light.
I recently re-read Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, and what wasn't clear to me as a child was abundantly clear as an adult - the Ingalls family came perilously close to starving that winter, subsisting largely on beans, cornmeal, and potatoes. But even in more prosperous years, their winter diet was monotonous. Salt pork, cornmeal, and potatoes made up the majority of their winter meals in Little House on the Prairie and at Christmas Laura and Mary are surprised with little heart-shaped cakes made with white flour and white sugar - a testament to Ma's baking skills as well as the general scarcity of those ingredients. In On the Shores of Silver Lake they spend the winter in the house of a comparatively wealthy surveyor, and Laura is delighted by a store of plum preserves and Ma by the house's pantry contents in general.
Monotony and lack of fresh or fermented foods often led to vitamin-deficiencies come springtime such as scurvy - a deficiency in vitamin C. A bland, starchy diet over the winter meant that any hint of spring was met with delight - ramps/spring onions, dandelion leaves, chickweed, and other flavorful greens were a welcome respite from the same old same old. Herbal tonics were taken to "thin the blood."
Today, we're largely protected from having to fast, although many Christians fast for Lent (February & March) and practicing Muslims fast for Ramadan (May-June). In most religions, it seems as though long-term fasts generally take place in the spring and therefore could be rooted in involuntary fasting due to scarcity of resources. For most modern Americans, fasting is an optional practice, although more and more people are jumping on the fasting bandwagon, as some scientific research indicates that fasting can have positive long-term effects on overall health and longevity.
As for me? I think I'll stick to root vegetables and greens in springtime and try to limit my strawberry intake to when strawberries are actually in season - May & June.
Happy snow day, everyone, and here's to a warmer (and springier) tomorrow.
Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.