The art of preserving freshness for our food, whether pickling, canning, making jams and jellies or curing, has definitely made a comeback. Preserving food is as old as the first time that anyone had leftovers. Fruits and vegetables are the most common to preserve, but you can also can some meats.
Some preserving methods are older, and some might surprise you with how recently they were developed. Like every other generation before us, we have added our own flair to the processes which have been around for quite some time. Even in times long past, people around the world had ways to preserve freshness in food. Examples include natural cooling and freezing, drying, curing, smoking, pickling, fermenting, and preserving in honey.
Food historians believe that the art of preserving food accidentally occurred through geography and living conditions. Foods froze in the very cold northern areas and dried out in the hot southern sun. Early cave-dwellers likely stumbled upon smoking food after hanging it in the same caves where they made fires for their warmth and light at night.
Almost everyone in ancient times made pickles of some kind, either with a brine or by fermentation. People in India were likely the first to make cucumber pickles over 3,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians pickled fish, including catfish, salmon and even pickled goose. The ancient Chinese used vinegar brine for pickling proteins, from eggs to a variety of meats, including rabbit, venison and goat.
Canning, however, didn’t come about until the early 19th century. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte created a cash-prize challenge for whomever could create a method to preserve food to keep his armies fed. French confectioner Nicholas Appert, known as the “father of canning” won the prize money. He was the one who developed canning, using the same process that continues today to preserve seafood, fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats. These processes include heating, boiling and sealing food in sanitized glass jars.
Even though we feel a connection to our mothers, aunts and grandmothers through preserving freshness in food, some things weren’t done as often as most of us would like to believe. Much of what we feel nostalgic about when we first try our own preserving isn’t as old as we might think.
Depending on the climate, the needs for preservation are different. The south has a pretty short winter and therefor the growing and harvesting times are longer. In the northern climates, there is more pressure to preserve. Not only was there not as much need for preserving freshness in foods in the south, not everyone had the resources to do it. Apples stored very well in root cellars through winter, and along with other types of fruit they were used to make cider and brandy. Not a bad way to enjoy the preserves! Sugar, on the other hand, was scarce. People ate fresh fruit when they had a sweet tooth. Making the fruit preserves, jams, and jellies wasn’t common until after the Revolutionary War.
Despite the differences in climates, many of the food preservation techniques from Europe, Africa, and other parts of the world eventually found a home here. Sometimes we have added new twists. The sweet-and-sour flavors in chow-chow, piccalilli, chutneys, fruit relishes and spiced fruits find their roots from Malaysia. Other types of pickling traditions came from Germany. Pickled eggs and pigs’ feet were often offered as free bar snacks.
Do you like your biscuits and gravy? Those came from the method of preserving ground meat cooked into patties, and then stored in crocks and layered with rendered lard. They would scoop out the meat patties with fat, and use them to make sausage gravy. The additional lard provided the fat for baking the biscuits.
After the Civil War, poverty hit everyone in the south. Food preservation then became even more important. If you owned any land, you grew food. Then of course, what you didn’t eat, you preserved! A way that we still see today within the Mennonite culture is souse (head cheese). This is a way to preserve all the extra bits of a pig.
The World Wars also changed things. It became every American’s patriotic duty to grow a victory garden. Everyone wanted to preserve and can food, to support the troops, to supplement rations and help families survive.
During the Great Depression, the Ball Brothers Company, which made jars for canning, developed a canning unit. The federal government used the canning unit to create canning centers around the country. This assisted with helping families manage the cost and work of canning food. More canning centers opened during World War II, until over 3,600 centers were open around the country. Most of these centers were in the South and not only helped people eat, but also gave people (especially women), jobs.
Canning jars didn’t come on the scene until 1885 – and even then, not many could afford to buy them. Think of all the places that you can buy jars these days. Grocery stores, department stores, hardware stores and even the second hand stores often will sell used glass jars.
The necessity, along with the varied flavours and seasonal abundance is what made canning and preserving a very unique technique. Now we are going back to the basics more so, therefore we are taking those old preservation techniques to preserve our fresh fruits and vegetables. Sometimes we even come up with a new canning creation. We can develop skills that we haven’t used before, through watching YouTube videos on how to cure bacon at home, make freezer jam, process canned sausage or even make our own salsa recipe. There are more options available as well for participating in canning classes and clubs. We are able to preserve foods and flavors that weren’t widely available before.
Think about the legacy that you have inherited and are also creating for future generations the next time you can a jar of homemade salsa. Much like the process itself, our love for preserved foods has been around for a long time, waiting patiently to be remembered and re-opened.
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