When Fred Fussell read Jenn’s post from earlier this month on storing veg for the winter, it brought back some memories. Fred is probably best described as an archivist of Southern folk culture, and in the ’70s he was assistant director of the 1850s reproduction village of Westville, where he met his wife Cathy.
When Cathy and I were working at Westville, we were taught by a knowledgeable oldtimer just how to create a proper in-ground storage bin for sweet potatoes. It’s called “hilling your taters.” And it’s pretty simple.
First, on level ground, dig a hole that deep enough and wide enough to hold the amount of taters you have on hand. At Westville we usually added a peck or so per hole, and several holes were made each year. Line the sides of the hole with cedar shingles in such a way as to form a kind of underground barrel, and line bottom of the hole with a thick layer of dry pine straw or hay. Put in a layer of sweet taters. Then add alternating layers of hay and taters until the hole is nearly full. Cover the last layer of potatoes with a pretty thick layer of hay. This should bring everything up to just below ground level. Then build a “tee-pee” over everything by placing cedar shingles or shakes so they overlap roofing style. Make a small “chimney” at the top by placing a large tin can, with bottom intact, in the center of the tee-pee. The can should be placed bottom up. Cover the whole affair with the dirt that’s left from digging the hole. Tamp the dirt around the tee-pee tightly with the shovel blade so it’s packed pretty good all over. When you need some taters, just brush away the dirt that’s over the can, lift it out, and reach in to get what you need. Then replace the can and tighten up the surrounding dirt. Add more straw to the hole as the level of taters goes down over the winter. To be sure everything stays completely rain proof, the whole works can be covered with a square of canvas or a sheet of roofing tin. The taters should stay nice and cool throughout the entire winter. The surrounding earth will provide just enough moisture so the taters don’t dry out while they’re in storage.
The Fussells’ boy, Jake Xerxes Fussell, by the way, is a phenomenal guitarist whose debut record of fingerpicking blues is set to be released Jan. 27. And in what is an uncanny coincidence, the first song released from it is the catchy coastal Georgia worksong, “Raggy Levy,” which talks promisingly about eating a couple of sweet potatoes right off of the fire.
Jake debuted this song a few years ago in the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, when Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” came to town. It’s loverly. Go ahead and give it a spin.
This song’s pretty catchy too.