Research. Not the tedious combing through dusty books of my youth. Nope. It’s surprising what unexpected things one can learn when doing research for a book. It’s actually fun. For instance, in both The Christmas Cactus and Halstad House I wanted to make mention of how women in the 1870s and the 1920s preserved food for the winter—particularly in The Christmas Cactus where the Holcomb farm is far from town and they needed to be very self-sufficient.
While my girls were still at home, we planted a vegetable garden almost every spring and enjoyed homegrown produce throughout the summer. We also took advantage of the many orchards in the area and canned fresh peaches, pears, and applesauce. And when the fruit from the Italian prune tree in our backyard ripened after the first frost, we pulled out the dehydrator and dried sweet purple Italian prunes. Yum.
When writing my books, I drew on these experiences. But one day as I wrote a scene about the characters eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, a thought popped into my head. I remembered hearing that hens don’t always lay eggs throughout the winter.
If farmers didn’t have access to a grocery store and there was no refrigeration, did they simply have to do without, or could it be that there was a way to preserve eggs?
I brought this question up to my then ninety-year-old dad, who grew up on a farm. (To read about where he grew up, check out my book Love, Mary Elisabeth.)
“Do you know if Grandma had a way to preserve fresh eggs?” I asked.
At first his face was blank, then thoughtful, and then the “aha moment” hit.
“You know,” he said, “I do remember Mom pulling eggs out of something slimy and using them to bake a cake.”
Okay. Something slimy. What was that all about? Curious, I googled “preserving eggs” and, lo and behold, several sites and YouTube videos leaped onto the screen. Who knew? One video was entitled “How to Water Glass Eggs.” Intrigued, I clicked on it. What I found was fascinating. This was new territory for me.
Caroline, the hostess, walks viewers through the entire water glassing process. Impressive, and as it turns out, much simpler than I would have guessed. In her kitchen, which looked like a homesteader’s delight, she laid out on the table a five-gallon food-grade bucket, eggs, hydrated lime, and water. That’s it. She did a great job of explaining each step along the way as she poured water into the bucket, mixed in the lime, and, finally, one by one, placed fresh, unwashed eggs into the lime water. (Incidentally, she said she purchased the hydrated lime at Home Depot. A person may also use pickling lime—yep, the stuff you make pickles with! But evidently hydrated lime is less expensive.) I found the whole video interesting and fun to watch.
In another of her videos, Caroline cracked a fresh egg into a clear bowl, then pulled a water glassed egg out of a five-gallon bucket where it had been sitting with its brother and sister eggs for twelve months. The egg looked perfectly normal. She cracked it into a separate clear bowl and compared the two. There was not much difference as far I could tell.
I admit I haven’t tried to water glass eggs. In my house, the eggs are safely tucked away in cartons in the fridge.
But armed with this out-of-the-ordinary information, I incorporated water glassing into my stories, hoping to similarly intrigue my readers. My female characters were already hard-working and resourceful. I just gave them one more task.
So, I say, “Hooray for research.” Who knows what I’ll discover in the future?
I applaud the plucky, self-reliant women like my grandmother (and my fictional characters!) who preserved eggs from their own chickens, preserved produce they’d grown themselves, and worked tenaciously — all to provide for the families they loved. Hats off to you, every one!
Canning by Megan Marie; Photography by Gretchen Louise