Food preservation: How it started and how pickling, canning and drying became Southern

Shaun Chavis
Southern Kitchen

Though the art of preserving food is as old as leftovers, the 2007 recession and onset of the pandemic helped spur a canning surge.

The more we learn about the history of food preservation, and how particular methods are tied to the South, the more we understand our rediscovered interest in “putting things up.”

For millennia, people around the world have found ways to preserve food.

Food historians believe prehistoric people preserved food accidentally through geography and living conditions. Things froze in icy northern areas and dried out in the hot Mediterranean sun. Early cave-dwellers likely stumbled onto smoking food after hanging it in the same caves where they made fires for warmth and light. Native Americans in ancient times sun-cured buffalo meat.

In places where people had large deposits of salt, they used it to cure foods. In ancient Mesopotamia, during the Akkadian Empire, people cured and smoked meat, dried apples, and preserved fruit in honey.

And contrary to some beliefs, people in the Middle Ages didn’t use heavy spice blends to hide rotting meat; they simply loved the taste, and there was also the tradition of showing off spices in elaborate meals to flaunt wealth.

And pickles? Most everyone in ancient times made pickles, either with a brine or by fermentation.

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People in India were likely the first to make cucumber pickles more than 3,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians pickled fish and even goose.

Those veggie-stuffed dolmas you get with your salad platter at Greek restaurants? In ancient times, people were picking, rolling and filling those grape leaves in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Ancient Chinese people used vinegar brines 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, after Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte created a cash-prize challenge for whoever could create a method to preserve food and keep his armies fed. French confectioner Nicholas Appert won the money when he developed canning, using the same process that continues today to preserve seafood, fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats by heating and sealing food in glass jars.

Preservation in the American South

As patriotic as we are, Americans can’t claim to have invented as many methods of food preservation as we might like — even those that seem like second nature to the South.

Leni Sorensen, Ph.D., is a food historian in Virginia who spent six years working to help restore the kitchen at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, in an effort to reflect on what it was like during the last two decades of his life. 

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She said Southerners, who endure a pretty short winter, don't have the same preservation needs as Northerners, who traditionally needed canned food from October through March.

"In Northern climates, you had more pressure to preserve," she said. "But here in Virginia and further South, you might have the first frost on the 19th of October, but you still had crops that are going to withstand that and continue to produce, such as collards, watercress, cabbages. You can harvest those well through November. And then, in some cases, those are going to revive if you leave them in the ground in late winter or early spring, which can be early to mid-March.”

Not only was there not as much need for preserving foods in the South, not everyone had the resources to do it. Apples stored well in root cellars through winter, and along with other types of fruit, they were used to make cider and brandy.

Sugar, however, was scarce, so people ate fresh fruit when they had a sweet tooth. And making fruit preserves, jams and jellies wasn’t common until after the Revolutionary War.

“When it comes to preservation, it had as much to do with how long you’re preserving food and what context you live in,” Sorensen explained. “Not everyone had the money to buy ingredients like salt, vinegar, barrels, jars and wood. Not everyone had the space to store everything they could preserve.”

Sorensen, who said she’s cooking her way through The Virginia Housewife (considered to be the first Southern cookbook), pointed out that canning is relatively new.

“We have this nostalgia now over canning, but jars didn’t come on the scene until 1885," she said. "And then, think about who could buy jars? It was the prosperous farmers. People in poorer groups went to extension offices.”

Some of the foods we enjoy today in the South are descendants of old preservation methods that kept food from being wasted before it could be eaten. Okra grows prolifically in the region, so pickling has always been a great way to preserve it before it went bad. The same goes for late-season green tomatoes. Chow chow is another way to preserve the last vegetables of the harvest.

Despite the differences in climates, food preservation techniques from Europe, Africa, and other parts of the world have found a home here, often with new twists. Some of the sweet-and-sour flavors in chow chow, piccalilli, chutneys and spiced fruits find their roots in Malaysia but were introduced to the South by West Africans, in whose culture drying and salting fish were also common.

Other types of pickling traditions came from Germany. Pickled eggs and pigs’ feet — offered as free bar snacks and sold at Southern gas station for generations — are examples of achieving food sustainability by preserving the entire animal.

And biscuits and gravy? Those came from the method of preserving ground meat cooked into patties, stored in crocks and layered with rendered lard. You’d scoop out patties with fat, and use them to make sausage gravy. Additional lard provided the fat for biscuits.

After the Civil War, poverty hit everyone in the South, and food preservation became more important. If you owned land, you grew food, and what you didn’t eat, you preserved. Souse, or head cheese, is a way to preserve all the extra bits of a pig. Jams from native, wild-growing fruits such as scuppernong grapes were produced after foraging.

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The World Wars also changed things. It became every American’s patriotic duty to grow a victory garden, preserve and can food, support troops, supplement rations and help other families — especially poor families — survive. 

During the Great Depression, the Ball Brothers Company, which made jars for canning, developed a canning unit. The federal government, through the Works Progress Administration (a program of the New Deal) used the unit to create canning centers around the country, helping families manage the cost and work of preserving food.

Eventually, there were more than 3,600 centers, most concentrated in the South. The majority closed after the war, except some that received continued support from local governments and schools.

But they helped create, along with seasonal abundance, an enduring tradition of canning and preserving in the South. From pickled pigs’ feet to chow chow, to biscuits with sausage gravy, Southerners have turned multi-ethnic influences and survival techniques into a distinct food tradition.

Now, our modern back-to-basics sensibility has people reconnecting with millennia-old preservation techniques. But much like the process itself, our love for preserved foods has been around for a long time, waiting patiently to be remembered and reopened. You could even say it was simply put up.