Waste Not, Want Not: Food Preservation from Early Times to the Present Day
C. Anne Wilson, Editor
Edinburgh University Press, 1992
Humanity’s relationship with nature has always been challenging. Harsh weather, pests, plagues and a plethora of other pitfalls have propelled humanity to develop all sorts of skills and systems to corral, cope with and otherwise contend with nature’s extremes. This struggle has been especially evident in the ways people have creatively responded to the deficits and dividends of nature’s yearly cast of the dice throughout the ages.
Waste Not, Want Not explores this complex topic via a series of six essays that trace western European approaches to coping with feast, famine and food preservation. The book is semi-chronological in nature, first presenting techniques widely used as far back as ancient Rome and even earlier. This collection presents a wide array of historical dishes and methods developed to help preserve various foodstuffs, as well an illuminating discourse on how these methods were altered or displaced by economic circumstances and other trends over time.
The methods of food preservation covered range from exquisite to entertaining: lacto-fermented hundred-year-old Irish bog butter; salted and soaked meats; potted grains and meats; sun-dried brick fish; cheeses; sousing. The first four essays feature a variety of creative and nutrient dense preservation techniques, with foods from the sea, pastured animals and wild game figuring prominently. Items such as fall hams—salted, smoked, and then hung in chimneys or bundled up in burlap sacks and placed in trees to age and cure—provided much needed meat and fat through the long, lean winter. A medieval dish, the cold pie, required a WAPF favorite ingredient: butter from pastured animals, clarified and used as a preservative. A heavy pie crust was filled with “well-regarded fish, well seasoned and baked,” cooked, emptied of any liquid that baked out, then filled with melted, clarified butter to cover the contents. These pies would last many weeks and could be sent over long distances, especially in the winter. Traditional food preservation techniques show a wonderful mix of context and creativity, of culture and craftsmanship, while also often preserving or enhancing the nutrient value of the foods so prepared.
These sensible and safe methods of food preservation were displaced over time by more devious and deleterious approaches (essays four and five). The sugar trade created the need for this excessively abundant, cheap new food. Poor quality preserved foods, especially jams and jellies, were the answer. Next huge factories, using high pressure and heat, created canned foods that could then be moved the world over to feed the growing urban populations, primarily in Europe and America, and sadly, could be provided more cheaply than the locally grown foodstuffs, damaging small local economies and farms.
Chemicals and radiation came next. The artisanal and home-friendly tools that allowed generations to survive and even thrive were replaced by tools controlled by mega-corporations and dependent upon fossil-fuel-guzzling machines, multi-syllabic chemical cocktails, long distance cold chains and nuclear waste products. While these methods have certainly (for some, at least) nearly eliminated the “want” side of the food question as far as simple abundance is concerned, their deleterious effects on people and planet are only too well known and documented. These modern methods have created a global famine: the paradox of stuffed First World inhabitants who are actually starving for real food, alongside truly starving Third World inhabitants whose land is unjustly used to “feed” these hapless First Worlders.
Thus, the history of food preservation also shows the many harmful effects of industrialization, imperialism and taxation, especially on the working class. The high taxes levied on salt (with the revenue used to wage needless war or otherwise enrich the elite) meant that many farmers had to sell off their own hams to afford the salt to preserve them—how little has changed in a millennium for our farmers!
Global European expansion, with the rise of the sugar and slave trades, helped propel the creation of the “displacing foods of modern commerce” that Dr. Price warned of and that are recorded in the middle essays of the work—jams and jellies, pastries and more. “It was then the massive imports of sugar from the West Indies that necessitated a huge industry to use it up, and this was found in the making of cheap jam, which from 1870 was to replace vitamin-rich butter on the subsistence bread of factory workers.” (Emphasis mine.) Now here is a scholar with knowledge both of the dark side of food history and of good basic nutrition! Gone was the substantial and nourishing breakfast of centuries before, displaced by white bread, sugar-laden jams and jellies, juices, and other foods high in calories, but low in nutrition.
There is much to learn from works on the history of food such as this one. First, Waste Not, Want Not reminds us of the enduring value of traditional food preservation methods and their ubiquity and importance for our ancestors, while also equipping us to better understand, implement and experiment with these methods ourselves today. Food preservation is both art and science, and we should learn from our ancestors but also feel free to adapt and experiment with these tools and methodologies.
For broad utility and adaptability, for instance, the importance of lacto-fermentation and salt-based preservation methods cannot be overstated. Also, we see that our ancestors were neither fat phobic nor salt phobic, but instead used both foods freely. They in fact specially selected and bred livestock to provide high-quality fat which was not only a much needed nutrient, but also a valuable natural preservative. There are other preservation methods presented in the text that, while perhaps unfamiliar to many WAPF aficionados, might nevertheless inspire a few to attempt some interesting home experiments.
Waste Not, Want Not indirectly reminds modern people that, while often used excessively and incorrectly, modern technology has made some contributions that do improve our overall safety and well-being. And contrary to overly idealized notions, the lives of those in the past were certainly not always easy or ever-supplied with nourishing foods.
Unfortunately, most of these modern useful technologies fail to appear in the book’s exploration of modern food preservation methods, such as cold frames and high tunnels for produce and animals; deep winter bedding for chickens to provide food and warmth and sustain year round production; natural heat-generating manure composts for greenhouses; vermiculture; root cellars. These and other low tech tools that allow individuals and communities to expand the growing season or otherwise keep food available longer are also a far more sensible approach to technological innovation, working with nature rather than against, and creating and enhancing food rather than denaturing and destroying it. Hence the important balance WAPF seeks to strike with the dictum, “Technology as servant, science as counselor, knowledge as guide.”
For people to enjoy radiant and vibrant health generation after generation, all three disciplines are necessary to meet the inevitable swings from feast to famine in nature’s eternal course. Waste Not, Want Not is another book that can help us wisely integrate all three. (Note that the book is very expensive to purchase but can be procured through interlibrary loan at your local public library.)
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2010.