Waste Not, Want Not: Food Preservation from Early Times to the Present Day
, edited by C. Anne Wilson. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.)
Those who have grown bored and fretful at this stream of reviews will be pleased to know that this volume, papers from the Fourth Leeds Symposium on Food History and Traditions, is the last in my possession. This volume is of particular interest because most modern Americans have little idea of the preservation techniques used before the 20th, or at best the 19th, century. I certainly had only a hazy idea of drying, pickling, and the 19th century innovation of canning.
Table of Contents:
- Introduction, C. Anne Wilson
- Preserving Food to Preserve Live: The Response to Glut and Famine from Early times to the End of the Middle Ages, C. Anne Wilson
- Pots for Potting: English Pottery and its Role in Food Preservation in the Post-mediaeval Period, Peter Brears
- Necessities and Luxuries: Food Preservation from the Elizabethan to the Georgian Era, Jennifer Stead
- Industrial Food Preservation in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, H.G. Muller
- Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Trends in Food Preserving: Frugality, Nutrition, or Luxury.
Wilson's work in the introduction is reassuringly solid, if dwelling a bit on the famine threat. Methods she covers include air-drying, burial (one that we usually eschew, but which did indeed work well for cereal grains under appropriate circumstances), including bog butter, salting, parching, smoking, preservation of milk and cream (we seldom think of butter and cheese as preservation methods, but they are), brine preserving, etc. There is not an in-depth description of pickling here, and lactic acid fermentation is not given much space. One thing she does highlight is that the changes wrought by 'decay,' such as lactic acid fermentation in bog butter, could turn something into what was considered a delicacy. She also points out that medieval dried fruits were considerably drier and harder than our modern jarred or plastic-containered versions and therefore could be stored in a moister environment. Wilson also places food preservation in the seasonal cycle of foods, both for peasants and the well-off.
At first glance, Brear's "Pots for Potting" sounds rather narrow in scope, but the light he sheds on potting or preserving fruits, pickled meats, fish, lard, vegetables and even grains is invaluable. It's hard for me to remember that preserves, i.e. jams, are uncommon in the medieval and Renaissance record, still more to realize that the 'more period' stoneware crock (compared to the glass jar) is not necessarily as time-honored a tradition as we may think. Brears traces the use of pots for 'potting' things back to the covered coffyns or pies of the middle ages, which were often topped up with fat after baking and used as preservation media for the fish, meat or other items inside. (I've even found references to baking herbs in a dough coffin for preservation). Admittedly, this Pots article is focusing more on the post 1600 than the pre-1600 era, but knowing what developed after
our time period, at least in England, is a useful mark. Furthermore, what foodie could resist hearing about the orgins of meat- and fish-paste and their pots, or the nineteenth-century bread-storage pot?
This volume catapults Jennifer Stead firmly into the company of Wilson and Brears as food history writers for me. The only weakness in her essay is a tendency to confuse the reader as to which period is under discussion, but a reference to her footnotes, which generally are to primary sources, is all that is needed to set one straight. Again, the primary period under discussion is post-1600. Here, not only the discussions of the introduction of techniques but the scientific background and results of those techniques (such as the widespreadness of rancid butter in the 18th c.) are invaluable. In particular, I have always wondered about 15th-16th century references to gunpowder being rubbed on meat. Stead's explanation of the use of saltpetre (and its connection to nitre), salprunella and even gunpowder clears this up. She also traces the precursors to airtight 'bottling' (ie canning) of fruit from recipes in the 1600s onward.
The last two articles are definitely out of our period, but are fascinating as they remind us about the changes in the nature of food preservation even in the last century and a half. That a cake of portable soup (boiled-down broth, the precursor to the boullion cube) made in 1771 remained substantially unchanged in 1938 is one of Muller's fascinating tid-bits, as is an explanation of the spray-drying process used for dry milk and instant coffee. Hunter's article is rather harder going, especially for the reader who knows something of American cookbook/cooking history or who has wandered the pages of Cornell's HEARTH collection (http://hearth.library.cornell.edu/
) The history of preserving information in Britain is much different than America's! But Hunter's analysis of when and to what class home preserving methods were advocated is enlightening for the Britophile.
All in all, perusing this collection left me with a much improved understanding of the diversity and development of food preservation. Today, in the days of the sealed can, the deep freeze, and the refrigerator, older techniques have been left behind, only revived in Camping Without a Cooler. For Food service purposes, we are wise to adhere to the 4 hours between 40 and 140 degrees rule. But it is worth knowing how those who literally could not achieve such a standard worked to preserve their food and protect it from spoilage.