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Food Detective: Root cellar revival

The old root cellar Galena’s SteamboHouse. (Phocourtesy David Hammond)

The old root cellar at Galena’s Steamboat House. (Photo courtesy David Hammond)

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Updated: April 10, 2011 12:15AM

On a recent trip to Galena, we stayed at Steamboat House, once owned by Daniel Harris, who built the city's first steam-powered river-going vessel.

Wandering around behind this textbook-charming Gothic Revival mansion, I noticed a massive structure built into a limestone rock outcropping. It looked ancient, like a crude mausoleum, overgrown with brush and blocked by snow.

Glen Carlson, who with his wife Char owns and runs this bed-and-breakfast, told me this strange structure once was one of the area's many root cellars. Now, it's Glen's tool shed.

Like the steamboat industry, which sank when railroads cut their way through the country, many root cellars were buried and forgotten when refrigerators moved into every household.

Still, here and there, people are reviving the tradition of maintaining a cool, dark place where food can be stored during the summer and retrieved, as needed, throughout the winter.

Rob Gardner is editor-at-large of the Local Beet, a Chicago-based blog devoted to "a practical approach to local eating." Gardner keeps a root cellar of sorts where he warehouses the local produce his family eats throughout colder months.

How practical is this? Why would anyone use a method of food storage that went out of favor with the steamboat?

According to Gardner, a root cellar, unlike a refrigerator, isn't so dry that it alters the character of food, usually provides much more long-term storage space, and uses no electricity.

Of course, if you want a root cellar, you don't need a stone shed built into the ground.

Gardner's "root cellar" is the unfinished, unheated attic in his Oak Park bungalow. It's dark, the temperature is between 32 and 40 degrees and humidity is maintained with pans of water.

Gardner is currently storing onions, cabbage, carrots, rutabaga, apples, beets and potatoes.

"We've had turnips, sunchokes, chestnuts, celery root and quince," he says. "I monitor the attic, opening the window on occasion to let in cold air, keeping the water pans full and removing any spoiling product."

This aerial cellar preserves even leafy vegetables for incredible amounts of time; Gardner says he's enjoying spinach he's been keeping since last year.

If you like to eat local fruits and vegetables but are frustrated by the lack of regionally produced goods in the dead of winter, now is the time to start reconsidering root cellars.

Find a cool, dark place in your house or apartment to store stuff during the next growing season. This time next year, you'll be able to enjoy the local bounty, well-preserved using only natural cooling energy, the way food was kept fresh for most of recorded history.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer, Chicago Public Radio contributor and founder/moderator of culinary chat site E-mail him at

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