- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

Pickled, Potted and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World
By Sue Shephard
Simon and Schuster, $26, 366 pages, illus.

At the bottom of the stairs in my grandmother's basement, a nondescript door leads to two dimly lit rooms.
One, a fruit and vegetable cellar, is stocked every summer with the bounty of a modest retirement acreage my grandfather purchased in north-central Iowa in the 1970s. The cellar's wide, wood shelves are typically lined with jars of sweet carrots, plump red tomatoes, crisp string beans, bread-and-butter pickles, and pure plum jellies. In the adjacent room stand two long freezers brimming with chickens, pork chops, beef roasts, and a goodly selection of rhubarb, raspberries, and unbaked pies made from scratch.
My grandmother's basement recalls a rural way of life about which my generation knows little. It is a way of life once typified by hard-working, first-generation immigrants like my grandfather, who tilled rich soil and raised fine livestock not only to secure an income but also to safeguard his family with a seasonal supply of fresh and preserved foods. This scene in middle America captures for me what Sue Shephard means when she writes that "food preserving is part of our culture, cuisine, and memory."
In "Pickled, Potted, and Canned," her second book, the author takes on a yeoman task in trying to convey how the ordinary craft of food preservation has helped men and women ensure their survival, build homes and communities, conquer and defend nations, realize dreams of exploration, satisfy appetites for invention and innovation, and secure great fortunes. In chapters on drying, salting, pickling, fermenting, refrigeration and other methods of preserving food, she leads readers through thousands of years of human history in a narrative that is sometimes rushed and short on analysis, but always intriguing and entertaining.
Drying, a common method of food preservation, concentrates a food's nutrients and flavors and makes it "portable and lasting." It is, according to the writer, "probably the earliest and simplest way to preserve food, and it is possible that man was drying food even before he cooked it." Salting, another popular method, is of two sorts. Rubbing fresh foods with salt speeds the drying process by extracting water. Soaking foods in brine, a salt-water solution, retains the water but stifles the growth of bacteria. Whatever the process, salt was once king.
Consider, for example, that the word "salary" is derived from salarum, a Latin reference to the salt allowance the Romans paid their soldiers. Similarly, the French (no surprise here) valued salt so highly that they taxed it until 1790. In fact, salt taxation became such a contentious issue in France that it apparently "contributed to a number of bloody revolts and caused one of the grievances that led to the French Revolution."
Throughout the book, the author caters to the reader's appetite for unusual morsels. She shares a recipe for cured ham that was a favorite of Cato the Elder, the Roman statesman and moralist. She also presents an early Scottish technique for making butter at social gatherings that required guests to "put cream in the skin of a lamb or the skin of a sheep and [throw] it from one to the other… . By the time it had gone fourteen or fifteen times round the company, you had butter."
The most intriguing recipe by far, though, is Attila the Hun's "gallop-cured meat." Attila and his fierce men would put fresh pieces of meat under their saddles and, "as they galloped along, the salt from the horses' sweat accumulated under the saddle around the meat… [T]he action of the riders bumping up and down on both the saddle and the meat served to press out the liquids and very little air could reach the meat pressed tightly between flank and saddle." No doubt, the flavor was unique.
Although these tales and tidbits certainly amuse and inform, they are so abundant that they sometimes obscure the writer's aim, which is to make the reader appreciate how something as mundane as food preservation contributed to historic developments in commerce, science, and exploration. Only in the last third of the book does this become perfectly clear, when the focus is on celebrated figures like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose portable soups, salt pork, dried apples and other preserved foods were sometimes "the only food available for months or even years." Provisions like these made great expeditions possible, including Lewis' and Clark's exploration of the American Northwest.
Likewise, we learn that the organic mysteries of food preservation intrigued great scientists such as Robert Boyle. The "father of chemistry," Boyle had a preoccupation with gas and air that led him to experiment with "preserving meat in alcohols", "sealing fruit in airtight bottles", and "potting meats under an airtight layer of fat." Boyle eventually joined forces with Denys Papin, a French physicist, and together they experimented with heating food in airtight containers. They reported regularly to their fellow members of the Royal Society, noting "findings, successes, and failures, which the eminent men were required to taste and possibly even to risk some upset stomachs."
In 1691, the year Boyle died, Thomas Porter and John White, two obscure men, received the first commercial patent for food preservation. It was, the author submits, a signal "that there was by then considerable interest in developing and marketing new kinds of processed foods for sale." In time, men made great fortunes selling their canned goods to European navies, revolutionizing the transport of fresh foods using ice, and setting up frozen food displays in local markets. To some, in fact, inventions like Clarence Birdseye's "frosted foods" freezer cabinet were nothing less than modern miracles. In the early 1930s, Birdseye sold General Foods the rights to his life's work for $22 million.
By the end of the book, Sue Shephard has managed to remind us of our mortality. To roam the earth as God intended, we must have air, food, and water. Extreme want for any one of these will strike us down, in spite of our wealth and power. And, so, modern culinary atrocities like canned cheese food and frozen TV dinners aside, these pages rightly demand our respect for the cooks, scientists and inventors who have spent lifetimes perfecting the food preservation techniques that allow us to keep our bellies full and achieve extraordinary things.

Amanda Watson Schnetzer is a writer in New York.

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