Friday, March 09, 2007

Food storage of the past

Thinking about food storage lately, I want to write what I know about how people did things before refridgeration:

Fermentation. Fermentation produces acids and alchohols that inhibit spoilage, thereby increasing the useful life of food. The classic example is sauerkraut (and cousins such as kim-chee) which, if made in the late fall, can keep all winter long, supplying the dinner table with tasty vegetables. It's not just about veggies - salamis and cheeses have been a big part of the European diet for a long time.

The cellar (and related spaces - stored winter ice, cool stream houses, etc.). The cool food cellar was important in the summer, when everywhere else was warm. But even in the winter, they allowed produce to keep longer in closer to ideal conditions.

Heartier crops. The fruits and vegetables we eat today are not the same strains that people ate a century ago. With the commercialization of the food supply, it made economic sense to pick foods for their shelf lives, durability, and appearance, vs. flavor and nutrition. One obvious example comes from apples:
in the 1970s, you could either get red "delicious" or golden "delicious". The "delicious" brand apples were chosen (and subsequently bred) not for their flavor, but for their color and their ability to last in cold storage until the next fall, providing "fresh" apples all year round.
When I switched to organic produce a few years ago I noticed a similar change - the food didn't look as smooth, uniform, shiny, and perfect, but it tasted so much better.

While the "delicious" strains had a long shelf life in cold storage, we also see that today's fresh produce doesn't last as long because of our farming practices. Healthy crops grown in rich soil are able to resist spoilage longer. I keep thinking of a blue-water sailing book from the 1970's, where the author suggested carrying produce on board in well-ventilated space, because it would last for months. That's unusual today.

On the shelf. I've seen a couple historical examples of keeping foods right on the shelf at room temperature, instead of refridgerating. One comes from the movie Big Night - in the last scene, Secundo picks up a bowl of eggs that were just sitting out, and makes breakfast. Another comes from the Aubrey/Maturin novels I've been reading, where a character will often pick up a peice of meat that sat out all night (or longer), put it in his pocket, go for a long hike, and eat the meat for lunch.

I'm not sure what to make of these examples, other than a suspicion that our ideas about what is required for safe food storage may be a bit overzealous.

Dump the fridge? I've been looking at listings for houses built in the 1920's and before. I find them beautiful. I also see that the fridge never fits. It sticks out in to the middle of the kitchen, or it's in the next room. I think it would be interesting to move towards fridgelessness one day. For the meantime, I'll try to take comfort in the thought that I only need 1/5th of a fridge, since I share mine with 4 others.


Sandy said...

instead of getting rid of the fridge altogether, have you considered downsizing to a mini fridge? You can wrap it in a blanket for better insulation. Because of its size it leaves a smaller footprint.

Jay Bazuzi said...

That's a fine idea, Sandy.

Sandorkraut lives in a rural homesteading community in Tennesee. They don't have power lines coming in. There's a single fridge (propane powered) that mostly holds the milk from their 5 goats.

I could see us having goats moving to that model one day. On a boat.

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