At this time of the year, cookbooks flow like rivers out of publishing houses. The usual stabs at global cuisine are always there, covering everything cooking-related from Vietnam to Persia to Cuba, with the usual obsequious curtsies to France and Italy. Gluten-free and farm fresh crop up, too.
But the most interesting trend in cookbook publishing in the United States right now lies in the plethora of books about preserving food. And it’s not just the US that’s going bonkers over preserving; a search on the Amazon.com UK site brought up 14 books due out next year on the subject, including one by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Steven Lamb – The River Cottage Curing and Smoking Handbook (April 14, 2015)
Why do you suppose this is the case?
Even the most ardent fresh-food enthusiast must admit that he/she cannot possibly eat all those tomatoes before they rot, that those apples will quickly shrink into themselves, covered with fuzzy molds. And that is where preserving food comes in. Of course, this trend is in no way new – just grab an old cookbook dating prior to the 1950s, perhaps Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife. Then you’ll see that authors included many, many recipes for preserving the bounty of the harvest.
My parents and my grandparents canned all sorts of food – but mostly fruit, spending days peeling, coring, boiling, and hot-bathing. Happily, they knew what they were doing, for none of us ever ended up hugging the ceramic shrine or calling for the doctor. However, one salient point: canning and preserving in the past often resulted in unsafe products. Data might be slim and few people confided in their diaries about their urgent trips to the privy. Food poisoning, called “ptomaine poisoning” in the nineteenth century, was a fact of life. How could it not have been?
Dirty hands + raw food + cooked food = gut bombs
Even today with our awareness of the causes of food-borne illness, the Center for Disease Control estimates that over 48 million people (1 in 6) a year spend some time hugging the ceramic shrine. That’s 15% of the total population.
What the so-called “industrialization of food” did was to overall make food safer – especially after the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 – and co-opt a housewifely chore, thus relieving people of what was often an annual or seasonal burden. This freed up people to pursue other tasks.* Because few younger people today grew up with seasonal food preservation, the act of canning and preserving one’s own food adds a sense of accomplishment, a way to control what goes into their bodies.
Yes, there’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction that comes from preserving food in your own kitchen. Just one thing, though: it’s a LOT of work.
And it must be done with meticulous care. Yes, you still might make your own BBQ sauce, only to gift a jar to your clueless friend, the one who plunks the raw chicken onto the grill and uses the same platter – unwashed – to serve the chicken after it’s cooked.**
The following books represent some of the preserving books published this past year in the United States:
Canning, Pickling, and Freezing with Irma Harding, by Marilyn McCray
Fermented Vegetables: Creative Recipes for Fermenting 64 Vegetables & Herbs in Krauts, Kimchis, Brined Pickles, Chutneys, Relishes & Pastes, by Kirsten and Christopher Shockey
Pickles & Preserves: a Savor the South Cookbook, by Andrea Weigl
*We won’t go into issues of “plastic” food and extruded corn chips or the like.
**This happened to me – twice! And I got reamed out for saying something about it!
© 2014 C. Bertelsen