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It's a Crock!

It’s a Crock!

During the great American immigration period of 1790-1890, stoneware crocks were essential! As our pioneer families moved west in search of rich farmland and new opportunities, every mule-drawn wagon carried an assortment of crocks.  Large thirty gallon crocks sealed with a wooden lid and beeswax would protect their precious flour, cornmeal, coffee and sugar. Crock jugs would be used to store water (and of course whiskey!). Every pioneer woman carefully packed her stoneware butter churn and batter bowl. Stoneware serving bowls and plates were the only tableware that many of the settlers brought with them.

Stoneware is a type of pottery fired to a high temperature (about 1,200°C to 1,315°C). While it originated in the Rhineland area of Germany around the 1400s, it became the dominant house-ware of the United States circa 1780-1890. Americans began producing Salt-Glazed Stoneware about 1720 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Yorktown, Virginia. American Stoneware pottery was usually covered in a salt-glaze and often decorated using cobalt oxide to produce bright blue decorations. While salt-glazing is the typical glaze technique seen on American Stoneware, other glaze methods were employed. Vessels were often dipped in Albany Slip, a mixture made from a clay peculiar to the Upper Hudson Region of New York and fired, producing a dark brown glaze. Albany Slip was also sometimes used as a glaze to coat the inside surface of salt-glazed ware.

 

Early American pioneer women treasured their crocks, which enabled them to preserve fresh food for their families to eat during the lean winter months.  Cabbages would be harvested right before the first hard freeze, shredded and soaked in a salty brine to pull the water out of the cabbage, then allowed to ferment for thirty days in a stoneware crock with a weighted wooden lid. During the winter, when fresh vegetables were not available, cabbage saved many a pioneer family from Scurvy, which is caused by a Vitamin C deficiency. Other vegetables were preserved via fermentation, including carrots, broccoli, onions, peppers, beets, radishes, cucumbers and turnips. In fact almost any vegetable can be fermented.  Peeled garlic, peeled ginger, and herbs such as basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, or oregano were often added to flavor the “pickled” vegetables. Ham and bacon were “cured” in a stoneware crock for about one week, then smoked. The pioneer woman stored her sourdough starter in a covered crock bowl and zealously protected her “starter” on the coldest nights. She would tuck the crock bowl with the precious starter dough under her bed covers to make sure that the yeast was not killed by the low temperature.

Stoneware crocks were also required in butter processing. After the cows were milked, the milk was left to settle in a cool place, in a crockery “setting” dish so the cream would rise to the top. After half a day or so, the cream was skimmed off and ready for the churn. Small home producers would collect a few days of milking to have enough cream to be worth churning, and a little fermentation would "ripen" the flavor. But the cream couldn't be left waiting too long in summer-time. When enough cream was collected, it was churning time! Moving the cream constantly by churning produced butter by separating out the yellow fat from the buttermilk. The buttermilk was served with cornbread for supper and the butter was stored in a crock in the coolest spot in the house!

I love these old stoneware crocks because they played such an important part in the lives of my pioneer ancestors! When I am at a flea market or estate sale, I cannot pass up these homely bowls, crocks and jugs. Some people adopt stray dogs; I adopt lonely orphaned crocks!

 



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