Food preservation: How it started and how it became Southern
The art of preserving foods, whether pickling, canning, making jams and jellies or curing, has made a comeback. 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.”
Preserving food is as old as the first time anyone had leftovers. Some of our favorite things to eat are products of both simple and creative ways to use preserved foods (Biscuits and gravy, anyone? More on that later…) You might’ve also noticed that the popularity of food preservation, from the return of frozen foods to people becoming canned foodies, has surged since the 2007 recession.
Some of these methods are older, and some might surprise you with how recently they were developed. But like every generation before us, we in the 21st century have added our own flairs to processes that have been around in the South and beyond for quite some time.
Even in times long past, people around the world had ways to preserve food: natural cooling and freezing, drying, curing, smoking, pickling, fermenting, and preserving in honey.
Food historians believe pre-historic 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 cure foods. In ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq), 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.
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. Those veggie-stuffed dolmas you get with your salad platter at Greek restaurants? In ancient times, people were picking, rolling and picking those grape leaves in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. And 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 whomever 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 — heating, boiling and sealing food in glass jars.
Preservation in the American South
Even though we Southerners feel a connection to our aunts and grannies through preserving 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 put-ups isn’t as old as we might think, and 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, PhD, 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. She said Southerners didn’t have the same need as people in the north to preserve food.
“The South has a pretty short winter, so the needs for preservation are different. In Maine or Pennsylvania, you’re looking at needing food all of October all the way through March. In Northern climates, you had more pressure to preserve. 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 (which as we know, Southerners enjoy). 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 currently 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. 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 which 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. Chowchow is another way to preserve the last vegetables of the harvest.
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, often with new twists. Some of the sweet-and-sour flavors in chowchow, 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.
The World Wars also changed things. It became every American’s patriotic duty to grow a victory garden, and to preserve and can food, to support troops, supplement rations and help 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 canning unit to create canning centers around the country, 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. The majority of them closed after the war, except some that received continued support from local governments and schools.
This necessity, along with the unique flavors, ingredients, and seasonal abundance, is what made canning and preserving unique in the South. From pickled pigs’ feet to chowchow, 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, according to experts like Sorensen, has people reconnecting with millennia-old preservation techniques and is also leading to new creations.
Jerkies made from different types of dried meats are popular, thanks in part to the Paleo diet, and are now infused with flavors. As people develop skills they haven’t used before, through watching YouTube videos on how to cure bacon at home, making freezer jam, or participating in canning classes and clubs, they are preserving foods and flavors that weren’t widely available before.
Think about the legacy you’ve inherited and also creating for future generations the next time you can a jar of homemade pineapple salsa. Much like the process itself, our love for preserved foods has been around for a long time, waiting patiently to be remembered and reopened. It’s always been prepared for someone with a taste for history to reach behind everything on our proverbial shelves and quite literally open up a can of wonder, through recipes, flavors and techniques of those who were thinking far enough ahead to preserve the good of yesterday for the good of tomorrow. You could even say it was simply put up.