Humans are not the only species that saves food for leaner times. Some animals simply build up their fat reserves. Some hide their surplus food in places where they can access them later. Only a small number of species alter their food in some way to prevent spoilage. Bees, the prime example, partially dehydrate the nectar of flowers, then “can” it by sealing it in wax. We may not be the only food-preserving species, but we certainly put up more food, in more different ways, than any other.
We have always faced the alternating problems of food scarcity and seasonal over-abundance. Our hunter-gatherer forebears followed their foods, collected whatever was available there, then moved on to the next. They collected wild grass seeds (the ancestors of our corn, wheat, barley, and rice), or annual runs of shad or salmon, or a huge variety of fruits, berries, and roots.
Everything they ate was in-season and locally-grown. Most was consumed on the spot, because — other than easily-dried grains and legumes — their foods were perishable. Even if they had storable food, carrying it on their nomadic forays was inconvenient. Later, when agriculture and the domestication of food plants and animals made surpluses possible, civilization — large groups of people living together in something like cities — food storage became a necessity.
Today, many of us eschew food that is neither fresh nor local. We imagine that such foods have diminished nutrition and taste, and waste energy in processing and transportation. Today we have refrigeration, freezing and freeze-drying, radiation, pasteurization, chemical preservatives, vacuum-packing, and a host of other methods never imagined by our ancestors. These modern technologies aim to preserve the nutrition, and — as closely as possible — the original flavours and textures of the foods being stored, to maintain (or at least mimic) the qualities of fresh foods. These artificially-fresh foods were impossible with the methods of the past.
Early attempts to pit the problem of seasonal abundance against seasonal scarcity led to the development of ingenious methods, often based on techniques that involved drying, smoking, and salting — sometimes alone, sometimes in combination. Their most clever technique was the intentional use of fermentation, which is a form of desirable decay.
Our ancestors didn’t understand chemistry, physics, or biology, but their methods did more than save perishable foods; they created a multitude of new foods. The preservation process fundamentally altered the foods, creating new and different flavours and textures.
Only a fool would describe wine as elderly grape juice. Cheese — “milk’s leap toward immortality,” as Clifton Fadiman quipped — is nothing like modern canned or dehydrated milk. Turning cabbage into sauerkraut or kimchee preserves the vegetable, but also creates new flavours and textures. Ancient Romans converted fish scraps and offal into liquamen, just as Southeast Asians make nuoc mam, or Italians ferment colatura today. Chinese Hot and Sour Soup gets its tang in part from vinegar, but also from “golden needles,” the buds of a type of daylily. These buds have very little taste when fresh; their distinctive flavour is only developed, through bacterial fermentation, as they dry.
One particular flavour, umami (the so-called “fifth taste”) is often enhanced or created by fermentation. When certain amino acids are broken into their component glutamates, a savoury new taste emerges. That jolt of umami distinguishes many preserved foods from around the world (and why we squirt catsup, soy sauce, or Worcestershire on our foods to make them taste better).
The preservation of foods — born out of need, and often transforming them — has transformed the diets of people around the world, sometimes unifying, but more often contributing to the diversity of cuisines around the world. When we look closely at our preserved foods, we see our cultural fingerprints all over it.
This is not the bad thing Julia Child was bemoaning with her remark about fancy restaurant food (“It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate — you know someone’s fingers have been all over it”), but more like what Rachel Laudan meant when she said, “…we hinder our understanding of food if we don’t understand that all our food, with the exception of a few fruits, has been transformed, that is, processed, before we eat it.”
Ancient processes didn’t just preserve the nutrients of the original foodstuffs, they created flavours that are inseparable from, and may even be said to define, the cuisines and cultures of the cooks who have been making them for centuries. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that we use the word “culture” not only for the characteristics that distinguish one social group from another, but for how they modify their foods.
This article is adapted from Can It! The Perils and Pleasures of Preserving Food (Reaktion 2016). Despite the title, it’s not only a canning book — it covers all aspects of food preservation: historic, culinary, cultural, and scientific (including all the scary parts). However, since canning season is upon us, here are a couple of recipes from the book.
Important: After processing these recipes, allow the jars to cool, and check to see that the jars’ seals are sound (the domed lids should have popped down). If the seals aren’t perfect, reprocess or store in the refrigerator.
Mild Tomato Chipotle Salsa
For a spicier salsa, just increase the amount of chipotles
Makes 6 pints
9 cups tomatoes, peeled, chopped and seeded
6 cups green peppers, chopped and seeded
1 can (7.5 oz) chipotles in adobo, puréed
3 cloves garlic, roasted and crushed to a paste
1 Tbsp. piloncillo, or brown sugar
1 cup red wine vinegar
salt to taste
• Place the tomatoes and green peppers in a sieve over a bowl, allowing excess liquid to drain.
• In a large non-reactive saucepan, combine chipotle, garlic, sugar and vinegar. Add the tomatoes and peppers to the pot and mix well. Stirring frequently, bring to a full rolling boil.
• Adjust seasoning, adding salt as needed (keep in mind that the salsa will probably be served with salted tortilla chips).
• Pack into hot sterilized jars, leaving half an inch of headspace.
• Process in a hot water bath for ten minutes.
Chow-chow was almost always on my grandmother’s table in Texas – although this version is adapted from a recipe in Kendra Bailey Morris’s book, White Trash Gatherings: From-scratch Cooking for Down-home Entertaining.
Makes approx. 8 pints
Ingredients for the vegetables
4 cups white cabbage, cored
4 cups mixed red and green bell peppers
2 cups Vidalia (or other sweet) onions
3 jalapeño chillies
5 cucumbers, peeled and seeded
4 cups green tomatoes, cored
3 Tbsp. sea (or kosher) salt
Ingredients for the pickle
2 cups vinegar
1 cup sugar
4 Tbsp. mustard seed
2 Tbsp celery seed
• Dice the vegetables, place them in a large non-reactive bowl, add salt, mix thoroughly, then place in the refrigerator for eight to twelve hours, tightly covered with plastic wrap.
• Rinse the vegetables and allow them to drain. Combine the pickling ingredients in a large pot, and boil until the sugar is completely dissolved.
• Add the vegetables and cook for about ten minutes.
• Pack into sterilized canning jars, seal and process in a water-bath for ten minutes.
Green Tomato Chutney
This recipe, adapted from one in the 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking, is deep-brown, thick, fragrant and luscious. It is warm with spices, yet not hot. It is tangy from the unripe tomatoes, lime and vinegar, but not exactly sour – as the fruit, molasses and sugar cut the acidic bite. High acidity and sugar content make this a pretty safe item for beginners.
Makes 3 pints
2 lbs. green tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 lime, chopped
2 cups raisins
1 1/2 lbs. sugar
1/3 cup molasses
2 1/2 oz. fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tsp. Laos (powdered galangal)
1/2 Tbsp. sea (kosher) salt (definitely not iodized)
12 fl. oz cider vinegar
1 oz. brown mustard seed
2 fresh jalapeño chillies, seeded and chopped
• Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive pot, large enough to permit stirring. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer for about two hours. Stir frequently to prevent burning at the bottom.
• It is done when the mixture has thickened and reduced to 6 cups. The chutney will continue to thicken as it cools, so don’t judge its viscosity while it is hot. If you find the chutney too thick when you open a jar, you can always adjust the consistency with a little water.
• Pack into hot, sterilized jars and seal, then process for fifteen minutes in boiling water to cover.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us