A Pig in a Puncheon

Recalling the preserving of a past generation

Need something to eat in the middle of winter? A simple trip to the fridge or even to the grocery store is all we do today, but just one or two generations ago, it wasn’t that easy for many Islanders.

Rural PEI in the 1940s and 50s was still a place where many houses didn’t have electricity, so refrigerators and freezers weren’t always available to help keep food safe. Islanders had to rely on preserving techniques to tide them over the winter months and preparation began in the spring.

“She planted a huge garden. She would get bags of potatoes, and carrots, and turnip, all the vegetables she could get, she would get and store in the basement,” said Edith Young of her mother’s preparations. Salted cod, pickled mackerel and herring were added to the mix so that during the winter months, meals could be prepared easily.

One of five children, Young grew up in Abney, PEI. At age nine, when her mother, Vivian O’Connor, was widowed, life became more difficult for the family. It was 1949 and her mother took work when she could, but eeking out every possible way to save money and feed the family was vital. “We always had good food, we don’t know how she ever did it, but we always had lots of food, good food.”

Chickens and their eggs were part of the family’s livestock during the spring, summer, and fall but in the winter, the unheated chicken coop meant the fowl couldn’t be kept. However, egg preserving was vital for winter baking. “She took a crock, and she put a layer of coarse salt, a layer of eggs, a layer of coarse salt, a layer of eggs till it’d be full. We didn’t eat eggs in the winter, she saved them for baking.”

In the spring, a piglet would be bought and then raised throughout the summer. “We had the pig all summer. And I can still see her, if she had an extra egg or some extra milk, she’d take it out and give it to him along with his feed. And she’d stand and talk to him and scratch his back. I don’t know how she ever got him butchered in the fall.”

“She would make the best sweet pickle and she had a puncheon. And she would fill the puncheon about half full of sweet pickle and then she would put the pork in that. And then she’d put enough pickle brine over the top to cover it.”

The puncheon, a large oak barrel, was kept in the unheated porch and was opened during the winter months to allow for portions of meat to be carved off for meals.

Along with preserving the pork and eggs, there was always an abundance of jams and pickled preserves. “She made strawberry jam, raspberry jam, wild strawberry jam, blueberry jam, pumpkin jam, applesauce, and mostly apple jelly. She made mustard pickles, green tomato chow […] she’d have hundreds of bottles. She had her own gooseberries and blackberries and she made that up into jam too.”

Today preserving is back in vogue and store shelves are lined with mason jars, pickling spices, and all the necessary items to make the recipes our grandmothers and mothers did. It is, however, quite unlikely we’ll go back to having a pig in a puncheon to tide us over the winter months.