Freezer Burn (Or, How I Learned to Be a Midwesterner)
After I first saw A Christmas Story, I promptly licked the gate to our horse pen to see if my tongue would stick to the frozen metal. I remember balancing on the gate—bulky nylon snowsuit, mittens, boots—my tongue tentatively brushing the light dusting of snow on the oxidized metal bar. It was cold and metallic and tasted sort of like manure.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a Midwest winter (I lived on Long Island then) and my tongue only stuck a bit—unlike Flick’s in the movie. It smarted afterwards, though. That was all the evidence I needed that I should indeed avoid licking frozen metal.
By the time I moved to Northwest Indiana in my mid-30s, I had long since forgotten this important lesson of my childhood. But it was only one of the many ways that I was totally unprepared for winter in the Midwest. I barely owned a jacket, let alone a pair of snow boots. During my first visit to Indiana, it was so cold that we were warned not to go outside. The locals said this was because of the wind chill. And the massive piles of snow were because of the lake effect. This was not simply another climate zone, it was a place with a different meteorological language.
This should have been a red flag. A big red flag on a frozen flagpole that I was about stick my tongue on. Instead, I tried to pretend that I was hip to living in the Arctic. I practiced the lingo, regaling friends back home with the story my journey to the land of snow and ice.
“It was 20° below zero,” I said. “With the wind chill,” I added, as if I knew what I was talking about.
Fortunately, it was summer when we moved to Indiana and I found refuge in the farmers market and its cheerful bushels of peaches and beans. Now this wasn’t so bad, I thought. I made friends with Beth, an organic farmer with a curious marketing strategy. Each week, she’d point out the flaws in her harvest, offering me free blemished peppers or overripe zucchini. I, in turn, would insist on paying for the freebies, and then she would insist that I only pay half price. I would feel too bad to say no, and then feel bad for paying only half price, and then feel bad for spending my money on vegetables that I didn’t want to begin with. It occurred to me that I seemed to have the bartering thing backwards.
On the other hand, maybe I was finally starting to fit in with the natives: Beth’s combination of generosity, humility and guilt was apparently contagious. Still, I was dubious when she urged me to stock up on her peppers and freeze them for the coming winter. Could you really freeze a pepper? Did I seem that naïve?
When the first hard freeze arrived that November, only a forlorn scattering of winter squash remained at the once-bustling market. True, the grocery was well stocked with fruits and vegetables—but the apples were from Chile, the lettuce from Mexico. And if it was “organic,” it came wrapped in more plastic than a DVD of A Christmas Story and tasted about as good.
Being a coastal foodie, I was accustomed to my asparagus in spring, my collards in winter. Sure, an occasional bag of frozen peas was OK, but frozen—or, heaven forbid, canned—corn? Please. The supermarket in November was when I realized that I was truly a stranger in a strange land. Suddenly, Beth’s frozen peppers began to look really good.
I like to think of that winter as our first one on the great Midwestern frontier. Yes, we had indoor plumbing and a grocery down the street, but keeping the family on the food pyramid meant that we had to make do: frozen spinach, frozen peas, frozen corn. It wasn’t about taste. It was about survival.
I imagined myself in a special feature in Midwest Living magazine: “Frozen Vegetables Your Family Will Love!” (More like, “Frozen Vegetables Your Family Will Tolerate.”)
Two years later, I was the proud owner of my very own chest freezer. No more soggy, bland frozen food for my family. I was going to seize the harvest! That summer I froze and canned 50 pounds of peaches, put away 10 pounds of green beans and asparagus, bundles of mustard and turnip greens, and cases of pumpkin butter and strawberry, blueberry and peach freezer jam. And, of course, I froze 40 peppers. We were ready for the collapse of industrial agriculture, or at least for winter in South Bend.
I felt very pleased with myself. I was a veritable suburban homesteader. I was following in a long tradition of pioneer women. I felt, well, almost Midwestern.
But, you know what they say about pride. It was in the middle of processing 50 ears of corn on a sweltering July day that I finally remembered why wet body parts should never meet frozen metal.
If you’ve ever frozen vegetables, you know about freezing them first on cookie sheets before packing them into baggies so that the bits don’t stick in one big clump? While I waited for my first batch of corn to freeze, I was busy blanching more and cutting off kernels. Then I stuck my juicy hands into the freezer to check on the trays.
You know the feeling when you slam the door and as it’s locking you remember that your keys are on the kitchen counter? Except then you can call a locksmith or let yourself in through the garage. When you’re alone in the kitchen, three fingers on each hand super-glued to an ice-cold tray, you are suddenly the kid stuck to the flagpole.
You are holding what feels like a burning hot pan, but you can’t drop it: It’s stuck to you. You can’t touch it and you can’t let it go. This is the moment when you begin to panic. You can see the headlines: “Mother’s Hands Frozen in Preparation for Midwest Winter.”
They don’t tell you in Midwest Living what to do if your body parts are frozen to a metal object. Maybe this is because this kind of thing doesn’t happen to real Midwesterners—at least those past the age of 10. Perhaps. I prefer to think of the incident more as a rite of passage: trial by … ice.
I won’t tell you how I got my fingers off that tray. Since I’m trying to fit in here, I wouldn’t want to sound like I was complaining. Or bragging. I’ll just say that I have a new definition of the term freezer burn. I can assure you that it’s something you want to avoid.
Originally published in Edible Michiana magazine, Summer 2014. Reproduced with permission.
Illustrated by the wonderful Katie Eberts. Thank you Katie!