Pickled, Potted and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World

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We may not give much thought to the boxes in our freezers or the cans on our shelves, but behind the story of food preservation is the history of civilization itself. The ability to preserve food was the key that liberated humans from the anxious life of the hunter-gatherer, forced to follow migrating herds or to forage for seasonal berries and leaves. The development of portable, preserved food enabled the great explorers to travel into the unknown and gradually map the planet, facilitated the conquest of new ...

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Overview

We may not give much thought to the boxes in our freezers or the cans on our shelves, but behind the story of food preservation is the history of civilization itself. The ability to preserve food was the key that liberated humans from the anxious life of the hunter-gatherer, forced to follow migrating herds or to forage for seasonal berries and leaves. The development of portable, preserved food enabled the great explorers to travel into the unknown and gradually map the planet, facilitated the conquest of new territories by great armies and navies, and created routes for the expansion of trade and the exchange of knowledge and culture that opened up our world. It allowed us to expand our daily menu from the limited repetitious range of our ancestors to the multicultural, international choices we enjoy today. In Pickled, Potted, and Canned, Sue Shephard weaves together the stories of the inventors and key developments of food preservation in a lively and richly detailed narrative that spans centuries and continents, a fascinating blend of social history, popular science, and man's ongoing curiosity and inventiveness. It is a tale filled with extraordinary characters, old legends, and new revelations. It describes how Attila the Hun and his men "gallop cured" their meat, how cooks became chemists and chemists became cooks, how men made or lost fortunes, and how some even lost their lives -- like seventeenth-century statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon, whose death was caused by an experiment with a frozen chicken, or the worker in an early canning factory, killed "most ridiculously and ignobly" by an exploding tin of turkey.

From the primitive techniques of drying and salting to the latest methods that have allowed us to feed men in space, Picked, Potted, and Canned gives us insight into the histories, cultures, and ingenuity of people inventing new ways to "cheat the seasons."

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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
Next time you come back from the grocery store, take a good look inside those paper bags. Should you see any of the following -- vinegars, jams, jellies, dried fruits, dried beans, canned vegetables, frozen foods, yogurt, aged cheese, smoked sausages, or smoked salmon -- please take a moment and raise a glass of (fermented) beer or perhaps some kefir (fermented yogurt) to the many heroes of food preservation.

From the Romans, who cured hams with salt, to Nicholas Appert, (b. 1740) the father of modern-day canning techniques, and Clarence Birdseye, the poster boy of modern frozen foods, these and many other heroes appear in their moments of glory in Sue Shephard's comprehensive history of food preserving. In the process, they not only extended the shelf life of food but the shelf life of expeditions, from those of the Roman colonists to the Lewis & Clark expeditions and the NASA space flights.

You've heard the adage, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." There are two shining examples in Pickled, Potted, and Canned. First, there is the case of the Scottish housewife Janet Keiller, whose husband bought an entire shipload of bitter Seville oranges for almost nothing in the wake of a shipwreck. Janet transformed them into quantities of the now-famous Keiller bitter orange marmalade, changing her family's fortunes in the process. Another is the story of Edmund McIlhenny, whose family estate after the Civil War was reduced to nothing -- nothing that is, but a crop of Tabasco peppers and some piles of salt: the very basics of McIlhenny's Tabasco sauce to this day.

Shephard rolls through the centuries and civilizations as she reviews the many methods of food preservation: drying, salting, smoking, fermenting, concentrates, preservation with sugar, bottling, canning, refrigeration, and freezing. You'll find plenty of good history and plenty of good food stories. (Ginger Curwen)

Library Journal
Written in a lively style by a creator of several British television food programs, this book recounts the development of food preserving from the time of the ancients to the era of the space program, from East to West and all points in between. The 16 chapters individually treat each technology, e.g., drying, salting, pickling in vinegar, smoking, fermenting, canning, refrigerating and freezing, and dehydration. Well-documented facts come alive with anecdotal support and the sense that the author truly cares about the ingenious way that humanity has preserved itself by preserving its food. Ultimately, one indeed understands that humankind's wanderings would have been impossible without the science of food preserving and its ability to improve flavor. While there are no recipes, the bibliography supplies a superb reading list for picklers, potters, and canners. Culinary history continues to be popular reading, which is just one reason to purchase this fine book. Highly recommended for public, academic, and special libraries. Wendy Miller, Lexington P.L., KY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This fact-filled chronicle of the development of food preservation delves into the historical context as well as the various procedures used for such ancient methods as salting, drying, smoking, and fermenting. Modern techniques like freezing and dehydration are also discussed. The development of each process is followed from its earliest time. Most innovations were born out of the necessity to keep an abundant harvest of food preserved during the winter or for long voyages. In turn new techniques empowered humans to undertake impossibly long journeys to map out trade routes, conquer distant lands, discover new continents, and eventually explore outer space. One especially interesting chapter tells of a late-18th-century race between the English and French to find a better way to preserve food and retain its flavor, nutrients, and palatability. The hero of this adventure about the process of canning was a French cook with an understanding of chemistry and a flair for business. His story is exciting and action-filled enough to be a book unto itself. This work is an excellent source for information about a small but important slice of history.-Penny Stevens, Andover College, Portland, ME Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743216333
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/1/1901
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Food preserving helped make it possible for our nomadic ancestors to settle down in one place and build agrarian communities where they could live in reasonable confidence that they would not go hungry through the variable seasons and the many other difficulties that nature might throw at them. Food preserving also made it possible for some of our ancestors to travel, taking their food with them as they journeyed over long distances to explore unknown places, confident, if they could find no fresh food, that their portable provisions meant they would not starve.

Preserved foods have played a significant role in our social and cultural history, and it is arguable that without the ability to preserve food, man might have been forced to continue his wanderings as a hunter-gatherer, following migrating herds and foraging for seasonal foods. A preserved harvest to feed people through the winter also allowed the slow evolution of the social and cultural complexities that owning and storing secure stocks of food and having long periods of seasonal leisure brought in their train. It encouraged the growth not only of arts and technologies, but also of social stratification, slavery, and endemic warfare. Without preserved food man might not have been able to send out large armies and naval ships to explore new lands and seas and conquer new territories. There might have been no great expeditions into the unknown, no great discoveries of navigation and science by men such as Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Drake, and Livingstone. There might have been no creation of the trade routes along which knowledge and culture were exchanged. The Poles might have remained unreached, rivers uncharted, mountains unscaled, and the moon unvisited. None of the greatest achievements in travel, exploration, and survival could have been possible without the increasing ability to preserve and carry food into places where none was available. Even now, men and women still take up impossible-sounding challenges to cross oceans, deserts, and ice, and still plan to live on preserved provisions, albeit using the latest in science, technology, and nutritional knowledge.

Few people in the developed world have to worry about hunger anymore. Yet the first thing everyone does when a crisis looms is to rush out and panic buy, stockpiling great quantities of preserved foods. It is this same instinct that drove our ancestors to find ways to keep supplies of food ready for all eventualities throughout the year. But then, unlike in modern society, they spent a great deal of their time worrying about where the next meal was coming from and most of their energies in producing, storing, preserving, and cooking their food. Abundant autumn crops of fruits and nuts and great quantities of fresh young summer vegetables all seem to come at once, for this is nature’s way of ensuring the successful reproduction of each species. Short of stuffing themselves in the summer and autumn and starving for the rest of the year, ancient peoples had to find some way of cheating nature and turning these gluts of good things into food that would be available for eating all the year round.

Though the severity of the climate might vary, at least the rhythm of the seasons was predictable. Our forebears also had to find ways to provide against less predictable disasters such as diseases that ravaged them, their crops, and their livestock. In some parts of the world they also had to suffer long periods of drought, flooding, freezing, or tropical heat and invasions from aggressors and scarcity of food during the long, dark years of war. For many people the threat of famine from any of these causes remains a grim reality.

In the small, isolated, self-sufficient communities around the ancient world, people began searching for ways to preserve life by preserving food. What they found, with their extraordinary ingenuity and powers of observation, was a variety of ways in which they could harness the elements and use the natural chemicals around them to halt the inevitable processes of food decay, even though they had no scientific way of explaining how or why something worked. They developed different methods by combining drying, salting, smoking, and fermenting. Each community evolved techniques best suited to their climate, their food supplies, and their particular needs and culture. In the northern regions, for example, where the harsh winters made it almost impossible to find fresh foods, the people dried their food in the cold arctic air, cured their bacons and hams in the smoke hole over the hearth, and, when they discovered salt, they pickled and fermented fish, meat, and vegetables. The nomads of North Africa and the Slavic regions, who had no place to store food but plenty of daily milk supplies from their traveling herds, found ways to keep it by drying it or fermenting it into yogurts and cheeses carried in bags slung from their saddles. In the Middle East, surplus catches of fish, meat, and fruits were laid out in the sands or on their rooftops to dry in the baking sun to keep for many months. The gradual discovery of the preserving powers of heat and cold, salts, sugar and spices, vinegars and alcohols, and, later, airtight seals and containers slowly transformed the way people ate and influenced their developing cultures and lifestyles.

Food preserving did not simply keep food safe for eating, it also changed the texture and taste of foods, sometimes in a way that seemed revolting to people not accustomed to it. In some African and South Pacific countries, the powerful high flavor of rotted, fermented foods was much appreciated. The use of different food-preserving techniques around the world helped form national cuisines and taste preferences. Scandinavian and Russian people love sour tastes, while in eastern Europe sharp vinegary tastes became popular. All over the world, poor people subsisting on dull, monotonous, cereal-based diets were able to make highly flavored preserved sauces, pickles, and relishes to pep up their meals. Preserving also rendered some foods more palatable and processed some inedible, even poisonous, plants into safe and digestible nourishment.

Preserving methods created interesting new kinds of foods that entered the traditional meals of different cultures: succulent smoked hams, spicy dried sausages, and sweet cured bacon; chewy dried fruit that seem to taste of sunshine; jams and marmalade and rich, sugared fruits and nuts. Milk was transformed into thick salted butter and hundreds of kinds of matured cheeses. Varieties of strong dry breads and biscuits were developed to eat with cheese and potted meats. Delicate gravlax, pink smoked salmon, and salt cod became ingredients for classic national dishes. The need to preserve food to survive may not now be so important, but the desire to eat the foods and enjoy the unique tastes that preserving has given us is as great as ever. As Alan Davidson wrote in his book Mediterranean Seafood, “Tastes once acquired are often retained when the reason for acquiring them has disappeared.”

We know a lot about how people lived and ate and about their food-preserving traditions around the world from the many travelers who, over the years, were useful observers as well as themselves being consumers of preserved food -- men such as Herodotus, the Greek geographer and historian who in 460 b.c. journeyed throughout Turkey, the Aegean, Egypt, and Persia, “never tiring of his interest in other men’s customs, religions and techniques,” including food preserving. The eighteenth-century Chinese magistrate Li Hua-nan traveled all over China talking to the local people about their food and cooking. He was especially interested in food-preserving methods and how they helped ward off starvation. The merchant Marco Polo traveled from Venice to the Chinese court of Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century, marveling at the strange new foods and exotic cuisine. Later came those with a more political agenda such as William Cobbett and Daniel Defoe. Men were not, of course, the only travelers. There were many women, equally famous for their wanderlust and derring-do, who traveled alone in far-flung places. The first known woman traveler to record her journey was Egeria, a devout Christian from Rome who traveled to the Holy Land in a.d. 383. Many others followed, though the majority of those now famous were Victorian women -- Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Mary Kingsley, Marianne North, and Isabella Bird.

For travelers, food had to be light, compact, long lasting, and nutritious. Different cultures from all over the world have nourished their traveling compatriots with varieties of dried meat, dried bread or biscuit, dried fruits, and fermented dairy products. Sea travel presented much greater problems for people sailing out of sight of land with no possibility of replenishing provisions for many months. Storage space on wooden ships was limited and the conditions were often quite unsuitable for keeping foods.

Preserving large amounts of food quickly before it spoiled required the help and cooperation of everyone in the community. Until the eighteenth century, few households in northern countries had enough land to grow hay for winter fodder, and by November the farmers had traditionally slaughtered all but the best of their livestock, which they kept back for breeding in the following year. The butchered meat was salted into barrels, laid out to dry or hung up above the hearth to smoke. Neighbors visited each other to assist with the salting, the sausage making, with cutting the cabbage for sauerkraut, preparing the apples for cider making and with fruit drying, butter churning, and cheese making. In many cases, they pooled their produce to make communal preserves, producing great barrels of wine or giant cheeses to be stored in their cellars, or bundles of sun-dried fruits, peppers, and tomatoes, which they laid out on the roofs of their houses or hung out in the dry air like washing. Cooperative food preserving helped to strengthen the sense of community, and everyone went home with a bit of fresh food to eat and some to put by, their stomachs filled from a good traditional feast to celebrate the job well done. For most ordinary people in the world, these food habits changed very little until the demise of the old traditional food preserving cultures in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet when people are uprooted and forced to move as settlers or refugees to a new land, it is their food traditions, including their preserving methods, that they cling to and continue to celebrate in their new homes. This is especially true in the United States, where the numerous “ethnic” cultural communities are turning away from their initial assimilation as Americans and rediscovering a pride in the culture and cuisine of their origins.

Life for us in recent decades has moved and changed so fast that it is difficult to appreciate how slow progress in food development has been in the past. In describing the history of food and food preserving since prehistory, it is very easy to get lost in time. Great events in history certainly affected everyone’s lives -- invaders, settlers, and travelers brought new kinds of food and influenced cooking and tastes, particularly among the wealthier households. But for the majority, the basic traditions of food supply and preserving did not greatly change for centuries, and so neither did their diet. Their cooking pots were filled, if they were lucky, with much the same unchanging ingredients, which varied only in type and quantity, as they struggled to survive through the unyielding seasons and natural or man-made calamities. Each family strove, in its own particular way, to preserve the products of the July orchard for the January larder. Every man’s ambition was food for himself and his family; every woman’s rule was “waste not, want not.” For the vast majority of the population, wherever they lived, as rural peasants or urban workers, it was satisfaction enough if their bellies were filled.

Life could be greatly improved, however, if they managed to preserve for more than their own future needs. A surplus of preserved food could be kept by until there was enough to be taken to market to be sold or bartered for tools, pots, vital salt supplies, and other necessities. As populations increased and moved from the country to work in the towns and cities far from the main sources of fresh foods, the need to find foods that were cheap and plentiful and could travel well became even more pressing. Religious dietary laws in Europe forbidding the eating of meat on certain days resulted in a huge demand for fish in the towns and cities inland. Fish was very perishable and had to be preserved quickly. This led to a burgeoning trade in salted and pickled fish, which encouraged authorities to increase already crippling taxes on salt and sugar. Meat was often moved “on the hoof.” But fresh meat was always very scarce and the rural poor rarely saw any meat apart from the few animals of their own that they kept to be salted, dried, or smoked at home in the autumn and winter months.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of the food supply problems arising from the move from an agrarian to an industrial society were eased by great improvements in agriculture and food production. New fertilizers gave higher crop yields and the introduction of mechanized farming, the production of winter fodder for livestock, and the development of industrialized food processing in mills, breweries, and food factories increased the availability of affordable food. The causes of dietary diseases such as scurvy, rickets, and beriberi were not then properly understood, but their association with a diet dominated by certain preserved foods was recognized. The British navy, in particular, which had doubled in size during the Napoleonic wars, was still suffering from its inability to deal with the problem of scurvy, its ignorance of vitamins, and its inefficient victualing with so much salt food and hardtack. Armed forces throughout Europe and the colonies were desperate for a solution.

Spurred on by these demands for change, scientists and inventors began to make great strides in understanding the biological causes of food deterioration, in improving people’s diets, and in the creation of new methods of food preservation. The invention of heat processing and canned foods, which could be transported everywhere, kept almost indefinitely, and could feed rich and poor alike, changed food preserving forever. Refrigeration and freezing transformed the fishing and meat industries, and the ever wider ownership of fridges and freezers since the 1950s has meant a whole new range of foods could be preserved and stored in the home. Railways and faster shipping meant that both food and people could be transported quickly and more efficiently. New preserving methods meant that food could now be imported and exported in huge quantities, and the economies of a number of countries were transformed. If food could be satisfactorily preserved for long storage and freighting, it was now valuable for international trade.

By the 1930s food in Europe and America was becoming big business, and a vast new range of exotic, previously unknown foods began to appear in our shops. Despite the poverty and hunger of the 1930s, many people could begin to vary their diet more and to radically change their cooking and eating habits. The old traditional processes that had served so well and become part of the culture and daily life of communities all over the world gradually gave way to new industrialized food processing. This process is still continuing in many parts of the world, and irradiation and other methods of the future are still being tested and explored.

The word “preservative,” along with “additive,” has gotten itself a bad name in recent years. The developed world has become obsessed with healthy diets, organic foods, and the “sell-by date.” Public fears of additives and preservatives, genetically modified crops and irradiation have sent many people back to so-called organically grown fresh products and to some of the old “natural” traditional methods of preserving from the past. In America, in particular, they are now adapting old ways to more convenient, modern techniques so they can enjoy the gourmet pleasures of “homemade” smoking, bottling, pickling, and jam making. This is partly out of a desire for foods with real taste and quality and partly from a wish to return to a simpler world where, despite the poverty, hardship, and simple diet, the food was at least home-produced and one knew where it came from, how it had been processed, and what was in it.

The science and technology of food production will continue to be of major concern. While science has enormously improved both the safety and quality of our food today, consumer fears about the introduction of new kinds of processing and packaging, particularly when it seems to profit the food industry rather than the consumer, continue to be voiced (though malpractice and food adulteration is an ancient problem that has worried people since classical times). But we should also always remember that throughout history food preserving has provided cheap, plentiful, and varied food supplies for a vast number of people where there had otherwise been hunger and malnutrition. We should be just as concerned about our capacity to feed every mouth in the world’s continually exploding population. We are still a long way from achieving this, but food preserving will certainly continue to play a vital part.

Each climate needs what other climes produce,
And offers something to the general use;
No land but listens to the common call,
And in return receives supplies from all.
The general intercourse, and mutual aid,
Cheer what were else a universal shade.
-- William Cowper (1731–1800)

Nearly everything we eat today has been treated in some way or another in order to prolong its life as a safe, transportable, salable, and storable food. On returning from our local stores or supermarkets laden with our week’s food supplies, we start by unpacking quantities of food that we have selected from the freezer cabinets. We will also put away tins of cooked vegetables, meat, tuna and sardines in oil, fruits in syrup, and concentrated soups. We might also have bought bottles of vegetables pickled in brine or vinegar, olives and sun-dried tomatoes in oil, sauces, and mayonnaise. We will “put up” on the shelves jars of chutney, jam, and marmalade, and into the store cupboard will go packets of dehydrated, extruded, or freeze-dried products such as soups, milk, vegetables, coffee, cocoa, tea, sauces, custards, and gravy, as well as cubes of concentrated stock and tomato paste in tubes. We will have stocked up with packets of dried pasta, rice, pulses, nuts, and dried fruits such as apricots, prunes, and raisins. We may even have bought fresh products such as meat, bread, milk, and butter that we will “preserve” for later consumption in our own fast freezers at home.

If we are fortunate we may also have visited a local delicatessen stocked with delicacies and specialties from many different countries that have been preserved in the old traditional ways, which offer real flavor and quality over the often rather bland and packaged convenience foods that we have put away in our freezers and cupboards. We can choose succulent and tasty luxuries such as Scottish smoked salmon, Italian dried salami, German smoked sausages, bloaters and kippers from Yarmouth, hams and olives from Spain, salted Baltic herrings, and English sweet cured bacon, French potted pâtés, and the best matured cheeses of England, France, and elsewhere. A cornucopia of delicious, exotic-sounding foods, beautifully preserved using modern methods to produce improved versions of the ancient flavors that were once the food of the poor rural peasant. Few people today really know what these old preserving traditions were, who practiced them, and how they worked. It seems a great shame, because the facts and the stories surrounding them are so fascinating:

An understanding of what food is and how cooking works does no violence to the art of cuisine, destroys no delightful mystery. Instead, the mystery expands from matters of expertise and taste to encompass the hidden patterns and wonderful coincidences of nature. How remarkable it is, when you come to think in such terms, that heat has such fortunate effects on the flavor and digestibility of plant and animal tissues, that roast and meringue are two different outcomes of the same process, that wheat proteins have just the right balance of properties to make raised bread possible, that bread, cheese and yogurt, beer and wine are all the result of controlled spoilage! Science can enrich our culinary experience by deepening its significance, by disclosing its connections with the rest of the world.
-- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (1991)

Everything we eat has itself lived as some form of either plant or animal life. As soon as it has been slaughtered or plucked from the stalk, branch, or soil, our food starts to deteriorate. Although not necessarily immediately harmful to us, this seriously affects its value as a nutritional or edible food. The food chain is competitive, and if we don’t quickly take advantage of a food, something else will. Foods that benefit us are also very attractive to many of the millions of minute microorganisms that proliferate in water, air, and soil. Their significance was not properly understood until late in the nineteenth century when Louis Pasteur published his 1861 paper showing that microorganisms were everywhere in the air. He had drawn some air, taken from different places, through very fine guncotton filters. When the filters were later dissolved in a mixture of ether and alcohol, tiny spores were found. Pasteur then drew air through a guncotton plug into a flask containing a sterile infusion. When the plug, which was now full of the airborne spores, fell into the flask, the infusion rapidly became putrid. Pasteur had finally shown that putrefaction is caused by airborne microorganisms.

Until then, people had believed that decomposition was a spontaneous event caused, in some unexplained way, by exposure to air. This crucial mistake was to hamper the development of food-preserving techniques right up until the time of Pasteur’s discovery. Microorganisms had in fact been seen but not understood much earlier. A Dutch optician Antonie van Leeuwenhoek saw what he described as “living animalcules” through his homemade microscope in 1665. In 1774, an Italian priest Lazza Spallanzani had tried to disprove the theory of spontaneous degeneration by destroying bacteria on foods by heating them in a sealed flask. But, in a pattern repeated throughout the history of food preservation, no one was really listening enough to make the right connections, and people continued successfully to preserve their food from decomposition using empirical and, on the whole, scientifically correct methods without feeling the need to understand why they worked.

Despite their inability to see or know about microorganisms, people had, since the earliest times, observed the results of their activity. They would have seen food rot, and they began to practice a variety of effective methods of cheating these unknown creatures of their feast, developing techniques best suited to their own particular environment, using the elements and natural chemicals available. Amazingly, they also discovered how to create favorable conditions for some microorganisms so that they were actually beneficial in preserving certain foodstuffs -- bacteria for yogurt (lactobacilli naturally present in milk) and yeasts (from the bloom of the grape) for bread, beer, and wine -- in a process broadly known as fermenting.

There are different kinds of microorganisms that decompose food but most need certain common conditions in which to grow successfully, namely a warm, moist environment held on the slightly acid side of neutral and a supply of oxygen. (There is, however, a class of bacteria called anaerobes, which grow in the absence of oxygen, and in food preserving these must be destroyed at all costs. Clostridium botulinum, the cause of botulism, is the best known of these and the most dangerous.) The aim of most preserving methods is to remove these conditions in order to either destroy or inhibit the offending microorganisms already in the food. It is also very important that microorganisms should be prevented from reentering the food after it has been processed. Effective packaging and storing of preserved foods is therefore also important.

A wide variety of techniques were developed to create an alien environment for harmful bacteria. Since there are few processes that can achieve the removal of all the bacteria-friendly conditions, people soon began combining the different methods, using a selection of natural elements and conserving media. Whatever people had was put to use, whether it be the heat of the sun, hot and cold winds, hot sands, cooling coils, fire and smoke, salts, sugars, spices, herbs, acids, oils, airtight containers, or beneficial yeasts.

The development of the art of preserving was most likely a long and slow journey of trial and error, and also of taste. The idea of using combinations of different processes such as drying, airtight packaging, and low temperature would have been adopted to produce a food that would survive better than that produced by just one method. The fact that they were often complementary or that one ingredient helped to counter the negative effects of another was perhaps also a lucky accident. Nevertheless, the ability of our ancestors to observe, adapt, and “cheat” nature never ceases to astonish.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 7
Preface: The Longest Journey 11
Introduction: Shelf Life 15
1. Drying 28
2. Salting 62
3. Pickling in Vinegar 95
4. Smoking 108
5. Fermenting 124
6. Milk Products 142
7. Sugar 163
8. Concentrates 175
9. Pies, Pots, and Bottles 185
10. Navy Blues 200
11. From Cooks to Chemists 213
12. Canning 226
13. Great Journeys 256
14. Refrigeration and Freezing 280
15. Dehydration and Beyond 311
16. Feast or Famine 325
Select Bibliography 346
Index 355
Picture Credits 366
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First Chapter

Chapter 11: From Cooks to Chemists

Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.
— Brillat Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1825)

The endless search for the perfect healthy diet continues to dominate Western magazines and television as they churn out "new" information about antioxidants, fat-free diets, high-fiber diets, five fruit and vegetable diets, vegetarianism, and the Mediterranean diet. As a result, many of us are now fairly well versed in the language of nutrients: vitamins, minerals, fats, fibers, and carbohydrates. We may not completely understand what they are, nor exactly how they work, but we are not alone. Chemists, physicians, and dieticians are still exploring the known and researching the new. We have, after all, only tried eating a fraction of the potential edible resources on the planet.

The idea that our food intake can influence our health is a very ancient one, although it was for a long time coupled with the belief that food determined not just health but also social status. Development of medical science and ideas about nutrition were dominated by the teachings of Aristotle, Hippocrates, and, later, the Greek physician Galen, who drew up a dietary "regimen of health" that remained unchanged and unchallenged for centuries. In the second century A.D., Galen declared that an individual's diet should take into consideration their age, sex, "humoral disposition," state of health, and occupation, as well as climatic, seasonal, and environmental factors. It was believed these could have an impact on the individual according to his "qualities" and "humours." For example, small children and the elderly were believed to be full of water and phlegm and should therefore eat "hot" foods. Lamb, which was very moist and "phlegmatic," was therefore unsuitable for old men or babies who already had too much phlegm. By the same principle, a choleric man would need to eat less hot and dry foods, such as cabbage, and more cool foods, such as lettuce. Galen's classification of foods bears little relation to their true nutritional content, whether they are starchy, fatty, acidic, and alkaline foods. But perhaps the most controversial and damaging rule was for fruit, which Galen classified as "cold" and considered a cause of disease. He even claimed that his father lived to be a hundred years old because he never ate fruit.

From what is known today, the Galen diet, if rigidly pursued, could have been nutritionally quite dangerous. Fortunately, few people have ever stuck rigidly to a diet. The rules for the "regimen" were as complex, time-consuming, and detailed as any modern slimming regime. Originally created for wealthy and important members of society, the rules were designed for those who had the time to analyze his or her "qualities" and "humours," as well as the wealth to afford both quantity and choice of foodstuffs. To "eat according to one's qualities" was a maxim that has been practiced by the rich for centuries. While it may have improved their standing among their peers, these diets did little to improve their nutritional health. Yet for hundreds of years, no one dared to question it.

Even more extraordinary were the so-called scientific theories on the natural order of the world that determined a parallel status for foods with those who ate them. Just as they were taught that food consisted of the same elements as themselves, people also believed that plants and animals held a place in the social order. The value of a food could be determined by its place on this ladder of "natural" society. Roots were particularly low in status, since they were buried under the earth. Common greenstuffs that grew at ground level were also thought lowly and fit only for people of low social groups. Leeks, turnips, and onions, along with the common "greens," were left to the lowly peasant to eat. Fruits that grew high in trees and birds that flew in the air were deemed more attractive and beneficial food for the "high born."

The early medieval nobleman in Europe covered his table with huge quantities of food, in particular meat. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the wealthier classes were less concerned with manly pursuits of hunting and war and were more interested in courtly and diplomatic business. Consequently, they preferred a creative table of quality rather than one overloaded with food. Feasts became an elaborate visual theater and an excitement to the palate rather than a filling of the stomach. Banquets grew more and more inventive in their menus. The ability to serve fresh foods in any season continued to be a great source of social standing. At the same time, expensive, refined foods were considered good for wealthy, refined stomachs, while coarse and common foods were deemed sufficient for the common, poor stomach. An Italian physician predicted sickness for those who ate foods inappropriate to their social status. Rich people, it was argued, should not eat heavy soups made with pulses, vegetables, or offal for they were not "nutritious or easy to digest."

These dietary theories often led people to give up nutritious foods in favor of unsuitable ones. In addition, until the sixteenth century, agricultural practice remained undeveloped and quite primitive, and traditional food-preserving techniques, as well as having practical drawbacks, were not always capable of retaining the vital nutrients in the food. All these factors helped contribute to the widespread dietary diseases that were the scourge of both rich and poor.

Many country people knew enough about their food and about medicinal herbs to counter the worst effects of a poor diet, but as soon as people moved to towns and had less control over their food provision, the problem worsened. The difficulties of bringing large supplies of foods to feed urban workers meant an increasing reliance on preserved and portable foods, and until transport could be improved, urban dwellers, with no kitchen garden or access to country herbs, often ate less well than their rural cousins. The town dwellers lived on bread, pickled or salt herrings, and cheese, with occasional cheap cuts of fresh meat such as sheep's heads or pigs' trotters. When money was short or prices were high, meat had to give place to cheese or broths made with dried peas and beans. Furthermore, urban dwellers who considered themselves to be moving up the ladder were less inclined to eat poor country fare such as vegetables. It was commonly believed that vegetables were "windy" and unfit to be eaten except in broths, or occasionally, well seasoned with oil, in salads. Fresh fruit was sometimes eaten as a dessert by the wealthy, though it was still believed to cause fevers and other ailments.

As a result, scurvy and other scorbutic illnesses were rife, not only on the seas but in the towns as well, particularly in northern climates and among people confined to poor institutions. Hundreds of thousands died from scurvy, and many countless thousands more suffered poor health and low resistance to other diseases because they were in a "scorbutic" state. In 1940 Professor Drummond wrote in The Englishman's Food that children in Scandinavia were found to have mild scurvy at the end of the winter, which rapidly improved as soon as they ate fresh food in the spring. With people subsisting over the intervening centuries on a winter diet of salted meat and pickled fish and rye or wheat bread, scurvy was a common problem across northern Europe, Russia, and even in parts of China. During the 1850s some ten thousand California gold seekers died of scurvy, though many others survived by eating winter purslane known as "miners' lettuce."

Many other dietary diseases were rife. "Night blindness," a common and potentially serious eye condition, was the result of vitamin A deficiency. When the peasant diet was lacking in eggs, milk, animal fats, or green vegetables (usually in the winter months) they were particularly prone to this disease. Cooked liver, if it could be got, was known to provide a quick cure. The fishermen who went on long sea voyages provisioned only with flour, salt meat, and fish often found their sight deteriorating in poor light, their eyelids becoming swollen and sore. Recognizing the early symptoms, they would immediately cook and eat some cod's liver and were soon well again. Xerophthalmia is still found in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, and in parts of China where a cereal diet dominates and little or no meat or vegetables are eaten. Vitamin A deficiency also causes stones in the bladder, a painful condition that was often described by wealthy gentlemen in their diaries. Perhaps this was partly because the affluent thought that butter, offal, and green vegetables, all rich in vitamins, were foods fit only for the poor.

All over the world these and other dietary deficiencies were affecting both rich and poor who, with no knowledge of vitamins, were unaware of the causes. But they were beginning to discover how to treat them. In the seventeenth century, wealthy households that could afford oranges and lemons added the juice to older, traditional recipes for medicinal syrups made with scurvy grass, brook lime, and watercresses "to make an excellent syrup against the scurvy." As late as the eighteenth century in England people still curdled blue (watered-down) milk with the juice of scurvy grass or some verjuice or cream of tartar to make a concoction "very good to drink in the spring for scurvy." But fruit and vegetables were usually heavily overcooked, reducing their vitamin C content and, as we have seen, many of the traditional preserved foods were failing to provide a whole host of necessary nutrients.

The nineteenth century saw many revolutions, and one of the most significant was in food technology. Cooks and cookbooks, scientists in their laboratories, the poor diet of the sailors, soldiers, and the urban poor, and problems with supplying food to the burgeoning cities all conspired to foster this revolution. Many of the ideas on which it depended were slowly being developed back in the seventeenth century without, however, anyone understanding the underlying principles. Nevertheless, the greatest minds of the age were turned toward improving food preserving and, for a while at least, cooks turned into chemists and chemists into cooks. Eventually in 1861 came the breakthrough discovery of Louis Pasteur that organisms were in the air and were not spontaneously generated. He demonstrated that liquids, especially wine, could be preserved safely by heating in sealed containers to at least 60°C (140°F) and keeping them there for thirty to forty minutes. This procedure, later called "pasteurization," killed any pathogens present and most spoilage organisms as well. In the meantime, however, experimentation continued and empirical knowledge grew. New techniques were tried, but as many were based on incorrect scientific premises, it was to be a long, erratic, and sometimes frustrating journey.

So great a universitie
I think there ne'er was any,
In which you may a scholar be,
For spending of a penny.

— Coffeehouse rhyme, Anonymous (1667)

According to John Aubrey, who briefly recorded many important lives of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon, philosopher and statesman, would often, for his health, ride out in an open coach in any weather. On one freezing cold, early spring afternoon in 1626, Bacon was out taking the air near Highgate with his companion, Dr. Witherborne. Deep snow still lay along the roadside and "it came into my Lord's thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in Salt." Physician and philosopher both became so excited by the idea that they decided to conduct an experiment at once. "They alighted out of the Coach and went into a poore woman's house at the bottom of Highgate hill, and bought a Hen, and made the woman exenterate it, and then stuffed the body with Snow, and my Lord did help to doe it himselfe." Bacon, by then an infirm old man of sixty-five, became so chilled himself that he was too ill to go home. Dr. Witherborne instead took him to the Highgate home of the earl of Arundel, where Bacon was put into a damp bed. Within three days, he died. It is more likely, however, that it was the damp bed rather than the refrigeration experiment that ended his life.

Bacon was famous for favoring experiment and observation, rather than the old traditions and authorities. His interests were wide and varied and included preserving. Bacon's revolutionary spirit of enquiry and experiment lived on after him, and in the same year that he died, another "philosopher" was born. Robert Boyle, "the father of chemistry," founder of the Royal Society, and still famous for Boyle's Law, was to be the first man to take food preserving out of the kitchen and into the laboratory.

In one generation, in spite of the bloody Thirty Years War and civil war in England, a great era of science, mathematics, and physical experiment had arrived. According to Macaulay in his History of England, Bacon had sown the good seed so that "during a whole generation his philosophy, had, amidst tumult, wars, and proscriptions, been slowly ripening in a few well constituted minds." Men of class, fashion, and learning began meeting in the new coffeehouses opening up all over London, Paris, and Amsterdam in the 1650s. They went daily to their own particular favorite place to gossip and learn the news and to discuss politics, the arts, and philosophies with like-minded peers. Both the English and French authorities feared that these coffeehouses, introduced from the Muslim world, were filled with subversives. They certainly attracted a wide range of custom, providing a unique public place where people could gather without drinking alcohol. In addition, many of the houses provided special rooms for social or business meetings.

The young Robert Boyle, who had grown up during these exciting times, was already in touch with a circle of natural philosophers that became known as the "invisible college." These men, dedicated to new scientific enquiry and practical experiment, met regularly in coffeehouses, where they debated a wide and eclectic range of scientific ideas covering everything from mathematics to agriculture. Congregating every Wednesday or Thursday afternoon in Garraway's or Jonathon's coffeehouse in Cornhill, early members included John Aubrey; John Evelyn, botanist and numismatist; Samuel Pepys; John Locke; the statistician Sir William Petty; John Dryden; Sir Christopher Wren; Sir Kenelm Digby, Roman Catholic writer on recipes and domestic economy; Robert Hooke, mathematician and physicist; and Jonathan Goddard, one of the first English makers of telescopes.

But anyone who had paid a penny could sit by the fire and smoke as he listened or joined in debate with these able and inventive men whose insatiable appetite for knowledge was further fired by ideas flowing across the Channel from Europe. They even managed to conduct some experiments as they gathered around the warm fire and peered through the smoke into a homemade microscope or at some strange liquid in a bottle. Robert Hooke recorded in his diary: "Met with Metredony Speed. At Garaways with hime and discourses of wine and fermentation etc." On another occasion he observed "a hair worm and some miscroscopes shewd at Jonathans." Women were occasionally tolerated as spectators. Pepys describes, with some reluctance, a visit by the duchess of Newcastle: "Several fine experiments were shown her of Colours, Loadstones, Miscroscope, and of liquors; among others, of one that did while she was there turn a piece of roasted mutton into pure blood."

Gatherings also took place at Gresham College, and it was at one meeting there in 1660, when Sir Christopher Wren gave a lecture, that an idea for a permanent institution to promote experiments in physics and mathematics was raised. After the restoration of Charles II, the Royal Society received its royal charter. Its motto was taken from Horace: "The words are the words of a master, but we are not forced to swear by them. Instead we are to be borne wherever experiment drives us." This showed a clear determination to move on from the rigid laws laid down by the early classicists Aristotle, Galen, and Hippocrates. Meanwhile, a similar movement was growing in Paris, where the Acadamie des Sciences was founded in 1666.

But the informal nature of the early days of the "invisible college" remained unchanged. Essays, questionnaires, and letters continued to be circulated and shared among both the London members and those on their country estates far from the city. A small number of aristocrats and gentry, obliged to stay on their estates during the Civil War and the interregnum, had found time on their hands and begun to experiment with improving the fertility of their land, their crop yields, their livestock breeding, and the traditional ways of preserving their estate produce. These men corresponded with each other, sharing ideas and the results of their investigations. Sometimes, however, there seems to have been some rivalry and secrecy concerning discoveries. Robert Boyle records that he has heard from "an eminent Naturalist, a Friend of yours and mine, that hath a strange way of preserving Fruits, whereby even Goos-berries have been kept for many Moneths, without the addition of Sugar, Salt, or other tangible Bodies; but all that I dare tell you, is, that he assures me his Secret consists in a new and artificiall way of keeping them from the Air."

There may well have been an element of personal rivalry as well, as the possibility of financial reward beckoned. John Aubrey writes that Boyle "is charitable to ingeniose men that are in want, and foreigne Chymists have had large proofe of his bountie, for he will not spare for cost to get any rare Secret." In fact Robert Boyle was busy experimenting and investigating a wide range of ideas, in particular the activity of gases and air, and it was this interest that first led him to experiment with new methods of preserving food. Boyle, like so many others until Pasteur's breakthrough, at first believed that air alone was the cause of putrefaction and that the ability to remove it from the food was the answer to successful preserving. He would have been aware that keeping food free from air was not a new idea and that people had been attempting to achieve it with varying success for centuries. More recently, the bottling of fruit and potting of cooked meats and fish had been creating considerable interest as new ways of preserving fresh meats and fruits "beyond their wonted seasons of duration."

But it may also be reasonable to assume that another reason that Robert Boyle and some of his colleagues spent so much time and energy on experimenting with ways to preserve food "without the addition of Sugar, Salt, or other tangible Bodies" was more than simply academic. Fellow Royal Society member Samuel Pepys was for a time responsible for naval food supplies. He no doubt would have voiced the Admiralty's wish to find new ways to feed its men in the light of the then commonly held belief that salt meat caused scurvy. This was coupled with the recent challenge that fruit, which might offer an effective cure, had somehow also to be preserved for long voyages. The most effective methods known then involved sugar, which was expensive, and as Boyle himself noted, too much sugar "clogs most men's stomachs."

Over half a century earlier, Sir Hugh Plat had tried unsuccessfully to interest the Admiralty in his many revolutionary preserving ideas, knowing that a contract would bring him considerable reward: "But if I may bee allowed to carrie either roasted or sodden flesh to sea, then I dare adventure my poore credit therein to preserve for sixe whole monethes together; either Beefe, Mutton, Capons, Rabbits, etc. both in a cheape manner, and also as fresh as we doe now usuallie eat them at our Table. And this I hold to be a most singular and necessarie secret for all our English Navie; which at all times upon reasonable tearmes I will be readie to disclose for the good of my country." Boyle, too, was keenly aware of the importance of his work to seamen. He wrote, "tis sufficiently known to Navigators, how frequently, in long Voyages, the Scurvy, and other diseases, are contracted by the want of fresh Meat, and the necessity of feeding constantly upon none but strongly poudred Flesh, or salted Fish; and therefore, he is much to be commended that hath first devised the way to keep Flesh sweet, without the help of those fretting Salts." Boyle conducted a number of experiments including preserving meat in alcohols, thereby keeping "an entire Puppy of pretty bigness, untainted for many weeks" and preserving other foods with mixes of chemicals such as saltpeter, lime water, and even urine. He also experimented with sealing fruit in airtight bottles without adding sugar and potting cooked meats under an airtight layer of fat, both ideas, as we have seen, that were already beginning to appear in contemporary cookery books. Boyle, however, was keen to take these processes further, in particular to find ways to preserve "raw flesh itself...with things that do not so much fret it, nor give it so corrosive a quality, when eaten, as our common Salt doth." Much of the food being sealed into containers retained some air, unwittingly sealing the problem in. Boyle tried removing all the air by creating a mechanical vacuum pump to draw out any remaining or trapped air, and he invented a manometer with which to measure air pressure. In 1667 he wrote: "I have also lately put into practice another thing, about which I must earnestly desire your secrecy....The thing I pretend to do, in short is this; to seal up glasses hermetically, when without the help of heat (for it is done by the engine) they are more exhausted of air."

Boyle still favored the exclusion of air over the use of heat. However, a number of experiments over succeeding years gave varying degrees of success, and these results clearly showed him that while air had a role in food spoilage and removing it helped the preservation, it was not the whole cause of spoilage nor the complete answer to preserving. He also experimented with using steam to create a vacuum in food containers, which often brought him close to realizing the importance of the use of heat in preserving. Boyle worked closely with Samuel Hartlib, who had been the focus of a large part of this group actively trying, among many other experimental activities, to improve food production and preservation, and with Robert Hooke and Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who both developed simple microscopes revealing minute creatures and "animalcules," blood corpuscles, and milk-fat globules. Boyle also conducted experiments with another colleague, French physicist Denys Papin, who had taken refuge in England to escape religious persecution and is still famous for his "Digester of Bones." The forerunner of the modern pressure cooker, Papin's contraption boiled bones down to a gelatin in which food could be preserved. Papin later took over many of Boyle's experiments with food and, using his "digester," began to heat food such as gooseberries in airtight containers. At last he reached the critical breakthrough that had eluded Boyle: "Heating under vacuo doth hinder them from fermenting." But the heat process Papin used was very mild; it involved putting glass containers of fruit in cold water in a bain-marie and bringing the water to the boil, a process that seemed to preserve without using sugar for some acidic fruits, but was not effective for raw meat. From this Papin did come to another important conclusion, that different foods reacted in different ways and might require different treatment or degrees of treatment for successful preserving.

Papin's huge digester could cook up to ten pounds of meat and he experimented with cooking meat jellies, which he believed could solve the pressing problem of scurvy. However, like portable soup and potted foods, meat jellies were expensive and difficult to make in any quantity, and none was ever made for use at sea. Papin continued to work closely with Boyle and members of the Royal Society, reporting back regularly on his findings, successes, and failures, which the eminent men were required to taste and possibly even to risk some upset stomachs. In 1687 Papin produced some peas that he had preserved in vacuo ten months previously; "I have put some butter, pepper and salt to season part of them, that the Royal Society may be pleased to try how they will taste." In the minutes of the meeting it was observed that the peas had "contracted something of a rancid Tast, but were otherwise well preserved," and in 1687, the society reported that Papin had succeeded in preserving "great quantities of Fruit with their Tast without any sugar or other alteration than what can be made with a little boiling."

The Way is this; he shuts up the Fruits in Glass Vessels exhausted of the Air, and then puts the Vessel thus exhausted in hot Water, and lets it stand there for some while; and that is enough to keep the Fruit from the Fermentation, which would otherwise undoubtedly happen.

This description, which involved heating food in sealed containers, might sound familiar to anyone used to bottling fruit or vegetables. In fact, it came tantalizingly close to the method finally developed for canning one hundred years later.

In 1691 Robert Boyle died, Denys Papin had moved abroad, and Thomas Porter and John White were granted a patent for "Preserving all Kinds of Foods." Neither man was a member of the Royal Society, and there is no record of their preserving method, but it was significantly the first commercial patent for food preserving and shows that there was by then considerable interest in developing and marketing new kinds of processed foods for sale. By now both the French and British navies had been receiving a steady stream of submissions for new food-preserving processes from enthusiastic inventors. They were sent a strange assortment of pots of meat, dried cakes of soup, purées and concentrates, dried vegetables and pastes, and new types of biscuit. Only a few of the ideas proffered were given sea trials. None, so far, was considered better or cheaper than salt meat and hardtack.

But then, in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, the French government offered a reward to anyone who could develop a new method of preserving food. The stipulation was that the end product should be easily transportable, economic to produce, and provide a better diet than salt meat. It was this French initiative that found the man who produced the solution.

Copyright © 2000 by Sue Shephard

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Introduction

Introduction: Shelf Life

Food preserving helped make it possible for our nomadic ancestors to settle down in one place and build agrarian communities where they could live in reasonable confidence that they would not go hungry through the variable seasons and the many other difficulties that nature might throw at them. Food preserving also made it possible for some of our ancestors to travel, taking their food with them as they journeyed over long distances to explore unknown places, confident, if they could find no fresh food, that their portable provisions meant they would not starve.

Preserved foods have played a significant role in our social and cultural history, and it is arguable that without the ability to preserve food, man might have been forced to continue his wanderings as a hunter-gatherer, following migrating herds and foraging for seasonal foods. A preserved harvest to feed people through the winter also allowed the slow evolution of the social and cultural complexities that owning and storing secure stocks of food and having long periods of seasonal leisure brought in their train. It encouraged the growth not only of arts and technologies, but also of social stratification, slavery, and endemic warfare. Without preserved food man might not have been able to send out large armies and naval ships to explore new lands and seas and conquer new territories. There might have been no great expeditions into the unknown, no great discoveries of navigation and science by men such as Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Drake, and Livingstone. There might have been no creation of the trade routes along which knowledge and culture were exchanged. The Poles might have remained unreached, rivers uncharted, mountains unscaled, and the moon unvisited. None of the greatest achievements in travel, exploration, and survival could have been possible without the increasing ability to preserve and carry food into places where none was available. Even now, men and women still take up impossible-sounding challenges to cross oceans, deserts, and ice, and still plan to live on preserved provisions, albeit using the latest in science, technology, and nutritional knowledge.

Few people in the developed world have to worry about hunger anymore. Yet the first thing everyone does when a crisis looms is to rush out and panic buy, stockpiling great quantities of preserved foods. It is this same instinct that drove our ancestors to find ways to keep supplies of food ready for all eventualities throughout the year. But then, unlike in modern society, they spent a great deal of their time worrying about where the next meal was coming from and most of their energies in producing, storing, preserving, and cooking their food. Abundant autumn crops of fruits and nuts and great quantities of fresh young summer vegetables all seem to come at once, for this is nature's way of ensuring the successful reproduction of each species. Short of stuffing themselves in the summer and autumn and starving for the rest of the year, ancient peoples had to find some way of cheating nature and turning these gluts of good things into food that would be available for eating all the year round.

Though the severity of the climate might vary, at least the rhythm of the seasons was predictable. Our forebears also had to find ways to provide against less predictable disasters such as diseases that ravaged them, their crops, and their livestock. In some parts of the world they also had to suffer long periods of drought, flooding, freezing, or tropical heat and invasions from aggressors and scarcity of food during the long, dark years of war. For many people the threat of famine from any of these causes remains a grim reality.

In the small, isolated, self-sufficient communities around the ancient world, people began searching for ways to preserve life by preserving food. What they found, with their extraordinary ingenuity and powers of observation, was a variety of ways in which they could harness the elements and use the natural chemicals around them to halt the inevitable processes of food decay, even though they had no scientific way of explaining how or why something worked. They developed different methods by combining drying, salting, smoking, and fermenting. Each community evolved techniques best suited to their climate, their food supplies, and their particular needs and culture. In the northern regions, for example, where the harsh winters made it almost impossible to find fresh foods, the people dried their food in the cold arctic air, cured their bacons and hams in the smoke hole over the hearth, and, when they discovered salt, they pickled and fermented fish, meat, and vegetables. The nomads of North Africa and the Slavic regions, who had no place to store food but plenty of daily milk supplies from their traveling herds, found ways to keep it by drying it or fermenting it into yogurts and cheeses carried in bags slung from their saddles. In the Middle East, surplus catches of fish, meat, and fruits were laid out in the sands or on their rooftops to dry in the baking sun to keep for many months. The gradual discovery of the preserving powers of heat and cold, salts, sugar and spices, vinegars and alcohols, and, later, airtight seals and containers slowly transformed the way people ate and influenced their developing cultures and lifestyles.

Food preserving did not simply keep food safe for eating, it also changed the texture and taste of foods, sometimes in a way that seemed revolting to people not accustomed to it. In some African and South Pacific countries, the powerful high flavor of rotted, fermented foods was much appreciated. The use of different food-preserving techniques around the world helped form national cuisines and taste preferences. Scandinavian and Russian people love sour tastes, while in eastern Europe sharp vinegary tastes became popular. All over the world, poor people subsisting on dull, monotonous, cereal-based diets were able to make highly flavored preserved sauces, pickles, and relishes to pep up their meals. Preserving also rendered some foods more palatable and processed some inedible, even poisonous, plants into safe and digestible nourishment.

Preserving methods created interesting new kinds of foods that entered the traditional meals of different cultures: succulent smoked hams, spicy dried sausages, and sweet cured bacon; chewy dried fruit that seem to taste of sunshine; jams and marmalade and rich, sugared fruits and nuts. Milk was transformed into thick salted butter and hundreds of kinds of matured cheeses. Varieties of strong dry breads and biscuits were developed to eat with cheese and potted meats. Delicate gravlax, pink smoked salmon, and salt cod became ingredients for classic national dishes. The need to preserve food to survive may not now be so important, but the desire to eat the foods and enjoy the unique tastes that preserving has given us is as great as ever. As Alan Davidson wrote in his book Mediterranean Seafood, "Tastes once acquired are often retained when the reason for acquiring them has disappeared."

We know a lot about how people lived and ate and about their food-preserving traditions around the world from the many travelers who, over the years, were useful observers as well as themselves being consumers of preserved food — men such as Herodotus, the Greek geographer and historian who in 460 B.C. journeyed throughout Turkey, the Aegean, Egypt, and Persia, "never tiring of his interest in other men's customs, religions and techniques," including food preserving. The eighteenth-century Chinese magistrate Li Hua-nan traveled all over China talking to the local people about their food and cooking. He was especially interested in food-preserving methods and how they helped ward off starvation. The merchant Marco Polo traveled from Venice to the Chinese court of Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century, marveling at the strange new foods and exotic cuisine. Later came those with a more political agenda such as William Cobbett and Daniel Defoe. Men were not, of course, the only travelers. There were many women, equally famous for their wanderlust and derring-do, who traveled alone in far-flung places. The first known woman traveler to record her journey was Egeria, a devout Christian from Rome who traveled to the Holy Land in A.D. 383. Many others followed, though the majority of those now famous were Victorian women — Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Mary Kingsley, Marianne North, and Isabella Bird.

For travelers, food had to be light, compact, long lasting, and nutritious. Different cultures from all over the world have nourished their traveling compatriots with varieties of dried meat, dried bread or biscuit, dried fruits, and fermented dairy products. Sea travel presented much greater problems for people sailing out of sight of land with no possibility of replenishing provisions for many months. Storage space on wooden ships was limited and the conditions were often quite unsuitable for keeping foods.

Preserving large amounts of food quickly before it spoiled required the help and cooperation of everyone in the community. Until the eighteenth century, few households in northern countries had enough land to grow hay for winter fodder, and by November the farmers had traditionally slaughtered all but the best of their livestock, which they kept back for breeding in the following year. The butchered meat was salted into barrels, laid out to dry or hung up above the hearth to smoke. Neighbors visited each other to assist with the salting, the sausage making, with cutting the cabbage for sauerkraut, preparing the apples for cider making and with fruit drying, butter churning, and cheese making. In many cases, they pooled their produce to make communal preserves, producing great barrels of wine or giant cheeses to be stored in their cellars, or bundles of sun-dried fruits, peppers, and tomatoes, which they laid out on the roofs of their houses or hung out in the dry air like washing. Cooperative food preserving helped to strengthen the sense of community, and everyone went home with a bit of fresh food to eat and some to put by, their stomachs filled from a good traditional feast to celebrate the job well done. For most ordinary people in the world, these food habits changed very little until the demise of the old traditional food preserving cultures in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet when people are uprooted and forced to move as settlers or refugees to a new land, it is their food traditions, including their preserving methods, that they cling to and continue to celebrate in their new homes. This is especially true in the United States, where the numerous "ethnic" cultural communities are turning away from their initial assimilation as Americans and rediscovering a pride in the culture and cuisine of their origins.

Life for us in recent decades has moved and changed so fast that it is difficult to appreciate how slow progress in food development has been in the past. In describing the history of food and food preserving since prehistory, it is very easy to get lost in time. Great events in history certainly affected everyone's lives — invaders, settlers, and travelers brought new kinds of food and influenced cooking and tastes, particularly among the wealthier households. But for the majority, the basic traditions of food supply and preserving did not greatly change for centuries, and so neither did their diet. Their cooking pots were filled, if they were lucky, with much the same unchanging ingredients, which varied only in type and quantity, as they struggled to survive through the unyielding seasons and natural or man-made calamities. Each family strove, in its own particular way, to preserve the products of the July orchard for the January larder. Every man's ambition was food for himself and his family; every woman's rule was "waste not, want not." For the vast majority of the population, wherever they lived, as rural peasants or urban workers, it was satisfaction enough if their bellies were filled.

Life could be greatly improved, however, if they managed to preserve for more than their own future needs. A surplus of preserved food could be kept by until there was enough to be taken to market to be sold or bartered for tools, pots, vital salt supplies, and other necessities. As populations increased and moved from the country to work in the towns and cities far from the main sources of fresh foods, the need to find foods that were cheap and plentiful and could travel well became even more pressing. Religious dietary laws in Europe forbidding the eating of meat on certain days resulted in a huge demand for fish in the towns and cities inland. Fish was very perishable and had to be preserved quickly. This led to a burgeoning trade in salted and pickled fish, which encouraged authorities to increase already crippling taxes on salt and sugar. Meat was often moved "on the hoof." But fresh meat was always very scarce and the rural poor rarely saw any meat apart from the few animals of their own that they kept to be salted, dried, or smoked at home in the autumn and winter months.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of the food supply problems arising from the move from an agrarian to an industrial society were eased by great improvements in agriculture and food production. New fertilizers gave higher crop yields and the introduction of mechanized farming, the production of winter fodder for livestock, and the development of industrialized food processing in mills, breweries, and food factories increased the availability of affordable food. The causes of dietary diseases such as scurvy, rickets, and beriberi were not then properly understood, but their association with a diet dominated by certain preserved foods was recognized. The British navy, in particular, which had doubled in size during the Napoleonic wars, was still suffering from its inability to deal with the problem of scurvy, its ignorance of vitamins, and its inefficient victualing with so much salt food and hardtack. Armed forces throughout Europe and the colonies were desperate for a solution.

Spurred on by these demands for change, scientists and inventors began to make great strides in understanding the biological causes of food deterioration, in improving people's diets, and in the creation of new methods of food preservation. The invention of heat processing and canned foods, which could be transported everywhere, kept almost indefinitely, and could feed rich and poor alike, changed food preserving forever. Refrigeration and freezing transformed the fishing and meat industries, and the ever wider ownership of fridges and freezers since the 1950s has meant a whole new range of foods could be preserved and stored in the home. Railways and faster shipping meant that both food and people could be transported quickly and more efficiently. New preserving methods meant that food could now be imported and exported in huge quantities, and the economies of a number of countries were transformed. If food could be satisfactorily preserved for long storage and freighting, it was now valuable for international trade.

By the 1930s food in Europe and America was becoming big business, and a vast new range of exotic, previously unknown foods began to appear in our shops. Despite the poverty and hunger of the 1930s, many people could begin to vary their diet more and to radically change their cooking and eating habits. The old traditional processes that had served so well and become part of the culture and daily life of communities all over the world gradually gave way to new industrialized food processing. This process is still continuing in many parts of the world, and irradiation and other methods of the future are still being tested and explored.

The word "preservative," along with "additive," has gotten itself a bad name in recent years. The developed world has become obsessed with healthy diets, organic foods, and the "sell-by date." Public fears of additives and preservatives, genetically modified crops and irradiation have sent many people back to so-called organically grown fresh products and to some of the old "natural" traditional methods of preserving from the past. In America, in particular, they are now adapting old ways to more convenient, modern techniques so they can enjoy the gourmet pleasures of "homemade" smoking, bottling, pickling, and jam making. This is partly out of a desire for foods with real taste and quality and partly from a wish to return to a simpler world where, despite the poverty, hardship, and simple diet, the food was at least home-produced and one knew where it came from, how it had been processed, and what was in it.

The science and technology of food production will continue to be of major concern. While science has enormously improved both the safety and quality of our food today, consumer fears about the introduction of new kinds of processing and packaging, particularly when it seems to profit the food industry rather than the consumer, continue to be voiced (though malpractice and food adulteration is an ancient problem that has worried people since classical times). But we should also always remember that throughout history food preserving has provided cheap, plentiful, and varied food supplies for a vast number of people where there had otherwise been hunger and malnutrition. We should be just as concerned about our capacity to feed every mouth in the world's continually exploding population. We are still a long way from achieving this, but food preserving will certainly continue to play a vital part.

Each climate needs what other climes produce,
And offers something to the general use;
No land but listens to the common call,
And in return receives supplies from all.
The general intercourse, and mutual aid,
Cheer what were else a universal shade.
— WILLIAM COWPER (1731-1800)

Nearly everything we eat today has been treated in some way or another in order to prolong its life as a safe, transportable, salable, and storable food. On returning from our local stores or supermarkets laden with our week's food supplies, we start by unpacking quantities of food that we have selected from the freezer cabinets. We will also put away tins of cooked vegetables, meat, tuna and sardines in oil, fruits in syrup, and concentrated soups. We might also have bought bottles of vegetables pickled in brine or vinegar, olives and sun-dried tomatoes in oil, sauces, and mayonnaise. We will "put up" on the shelves jars of chutney, jam, and marmalade, and into the store cupboard will go packets of dehydrated, extruded, or freeze-dried products such as soups, milk, vegetables, coffee, cocoa, tea, sauces, custards, and gravy, as well as cubes of concentrated stock and tomato paste in tubes. We will have stocked up with packets of dried pasta, rice, pulses, nuts, and dried fruits such as apricots, prunes, and raisins. We may even have bought fresh products such as meat, bread, milk, and butter that we will "preserve" for later consumption in our own fast freezers at home.

If we are fortunate we may also have visited a local delicatessen stocked with delicacies and specialties from many different countries that have been preserved in the old traditional ways, which offer real flavor and quality over the often rather bland and packaged convenience foods that we have put away in our freezers and cupboards. We can choose succulent and tasty luxuries such as Scottish smoked salmon, Italian dried salami, German smoked sausages, bloaters and kippers from Yarmouth, hams and olives from Spain, salted Baltic herrings, and English sweet cured bacon, French potted pâtés, and the best matured cheeses of England, France, and elsewhere. A cornucopia of delicious, exotic-sounding foods, beautifully preserved using modern methods to produce improved versions of the ancient flavors that were once the food of the poor rural peasant. Few people today really know what these old preserving traditions were, who practiced them, and how they worked. It seems a great shame, because the facts and the stories surrounding them are so fascinating:

An understanding of what food is and how cooking works does no violence to the art of cuisine, destroys no delightful mystery. Instead, the mystery expands from matters of expertise and taste to encompass the hidden patterns and wonderful coincidences of nature. How remarkable it is, when you come to think in such terms, that heat has such fortunate effects on the flavor and digestibility of plant and animal tissues, that roast and meringue are two different outcomes of the same process, that wheat proteins have just the right balance of properties to make raised bread possible, that bread, cheese and yogurt, beer and wine are all the result of controlled spoilage! Science can enrich our culinary experience by deepening its significance, by disclosing its connections with the rest of the world.
— Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (1991)

Everything we eat has itself lived as some form of either plant or animal life. As soon as it has been slaughtered or plucked from the stalk, branch, or soil, our food starts to deteriorate. Although not necessarily immediately harmful to us, this seriously affects its value as a nutritional or edible food. The food chain is competitive, and if we don't quickly take advantage of a food, something else will. Foods that benefit us are also very attractive to many of the millions of minute microorganisms that proliferate in water, air, and soil. Their significance was not properly understood until late in the nineteenth century when Louis Pasteur published his 1861 paper showing that microorganisms were everywhere in the air. He had drawn some air, taken from different places, through very fine guncotton filters. When the filters were later dissolved in a mixture of ether and alcohol, tiny spores were found. Pasteur then drew air through a guncotton plug into a flask containing a sterile infusion. When the plug, which was now full of the airborne spores, fell into the flask, the infusion rapidly became putrid. Pasteur had finally shown that putrefaction is caused by airborne microorganisms.

Until then, people had believed that decomposition was a spontaneous event caused, in some unexplained way, by exposure to air. This crucial mistake was to hamper the development of food-preserving techniques right up until the time of Pasteur's discovery. Microorganisms had in fact been seen but not understood much earlier. A Dutch optician Antonie van Leeuwenhoek saw what he described as "living animalcules" through his homemade microscope in 1665. In 1774, an Italian priest Lazza Spallanzani had tried to disprove the theory of spontaneous degeneration by destroying bacteria on foods by heating them in a sealed flask. But, in a pattern repeated throughout the history of food preservation, no one was really listening enough to make the right connections, and people continued successfully to preserve their food from decomposition using empirical and, on the whole, scientifically correct methods without feeling the need to understand why they worked.

Despite their inability to see or know about microorganisms, people had, since the earliest times, observed the results of their activity. They would have seen food rot, and they began to practice a variety of effective methods of cheating these unknown creatures of their feast, developing techniques best suited to their own particular environment, using the elements and natural chemicals available. Amazingly, they also discovered how to create favorable conditions for some microorganisms so that they were actually beneficial in preserving certain foodstuffs — bacteria for yogurt (lactobacilli naturally present in milk) and yeasts (from the bloom of the grape) for bread, beer, and wine — in a process broadly known as fermenting.

There are different kinds of microorganisms that decompose food but most need certain common conditions in which to grow successfully, namely a warm, moist environment held on the slightly acid side of neutral and a supply of oxygen. (There is, however, a class of bacteria called anaerobes, which grow in the absence of oxygen, and in food preserving these must be destroyed at all costs. Clostridium botulinum, the cause of botulism, is the best known of these and the most dangerous.) The aim of most preserving methods is to remove these conditions in order to either destroy or inhibit the offending microorganisms already in the food. It is also very important that microorganisms should be prevented from reentering the food after it has been processed. Effective packaging and storing of preserved foods is therefore also important.

A wide variety of techniques were developed to create an alien environment for harmful bacteria. Since there are few processes that can achieve the removal of all the bacteria-friendly conditions, people soon began combining the different methods, using a selection of natural elements and conserving media. Whatever people had was put to use, whether it be the heat of the sun, hot and cold winds, hot sands, cooling coils, fire and smoke, salts, sugars, spices, herbs, acids, oils, airtight containers, or beneficial yeasts.

The development of the art of preserving was most likely a long and slow journey of trial and error, and also of taste. The idea of using combinations of different processes such as drying, airtight packaging, and low temperature would have been adopted to produce a food that would survive better than that produced by just one method. The fact that they were often complementary or that one ingredient helped to counter the negative effects of another was perhaps also a lucky accident. Nevertheless, the ability of our ancestors to observe, adapt, and "cheat" nature never ceases to astonish.

Copyright © 2000 by Sue Shephard

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