Waste Not, Want Not: Kelp, Cans and MAP: Packaging as Food Preservation

By Anne Murcott

Starting work on a history of food packaging some years ago, rapidly led to the realisation that it is also a history of a very long list of other things, including food preservation.  But preparing a contribution for a conference called ‘Waste Not Want Not’ prompted looking at both the preservation and packaging of food from a slightly different angle.  The two are intimately linked in a way that other relevant histories – such as of transport or the cold chain, the invention of plastic films or the very idea of convenience – associated with the development of food packaging are less so.  For most food preservation techniques involve a wrapping, receptacle or package for storage – exceptions include meats or fruits that are dried solid, biltong or jerky, apple or pear.    

Here are three illustrations which all happen to exploit the significance of oxygen when preserving foodstuffs.  The first two involve drastically reducing atmospheric oxygen pretty much to create a vacuum.  The third entails changing the proportion of oxygen in relation to the other main gases in the air we all breathe, modifying the atmosphere in the package. 

The first example dates from prehistoric New Zealand.  It is a Māori technique for preserving tītī commonly known in English as mutton bird – a fish-eating sooty sheerwater found in Australasia.  A bag, pōhā, is made of split bull kelp which is then inflated then filled with cooked birds sealed with their own fat.  Bags are then placed in woven flax baskets and can be secured with strips of bark for safe handling and transport.

Nereocystis or ‘bull kelp’. A prehistoric algae used by The Māori to preserve tītī (mutton bird). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Next is the history of the ubiquitous tin can.  Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner (1749-1841) is often called the ‘father of canning’.  He published details of his invention – translated as a way ‘of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers’ in 1810.  Within a few months, an Englishman, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by George III that is virtually identical to Appert’s method.   Duran sold the patent to Bryan Donkin, an engineer who already owned the Dartford Iron Works near London and who in 1813 opened a ‘preservatory’ i.e. canning factory in Blue Anchor Road, Bermondsey, London.  The ‘great man’ solo inventor version of the history does not seem to be disturbed by the fact that only a few months separate Appert’s treatise being published in French in France and Durand’s being granted the patent published in English in England.  It is important to remember, this is a time when confectioners, merchants and engineers may not have spoken a second language and a period when both countries were politically extremely wary of one another, if not actually at war. 

 One interpretation depends on suggestions of industrial espionage – casting Donkin as a spy.  Not so well known, however, is a 1994 PhD by Norman Cowell, a retired food scientist who has worked through the archives of the Royal Society and the National Archives.  He has identified a second Frenchman, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent what was apparently his own idea.  Cowell finds strong circumstantial evidence that Appert and Girard were in contact.  Thus he is led to propose that Durand can no longer ‘be seen as a naked opportunist pirating Appert’s invention: instead he appears as a London agent facilitating the exploitation by Girard (and probably Appert) of their inventions in the more technologically advanced world of British industry.’

Portrait of Nicolas Appert, inventor of food canning in 1795, tiré de Les Artisans illustres de Foucaud, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Where the first two examples involved eliminating oxygen, the third postpones the food’s spoiling, by altering the percentage of this gas relative to carbon dioxide and nitrogen surrounding the foodstuff in proportions that differ from the air everyone breathes. One history identifies a turning point in the spread of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology when, in 1981 Marks and Spencer (in the UK) introduced a wide range of fresh meat products packaged under a modified atmosphere.  The use in the UK of MAP is labelled on the pack.  But the wording avoids the word modified, using ‘Packaged in a protective atmosphere’ instead. 

These three examples illustrate the following among other features.  While it is very well known that food preservation is found worldwide and is very old indeed, so too can be what nowadays is called packaging.  The second example illustrates how a history of an invention is not necessarily best written as solely springing from the efforts of a ‘great man’ and the socio-political context should not, of course, be ignored.  And the third once again demonstrates that there are some food preservation technologies that cannot work without a package. 

 

Mesquite Atole – Kúi Wihog

By Jacqueline Soule

Atole is a drink popular throughout Mexico, Central America, and the American Southwest. Atole is a usually a warm drink, generally based on corn, frequently sweetened somehow, and often prepared with cinnamon as well. Atole has countless various recipes for preparation, and every family has their own. Most people who grow up drinking atole consider it a breakfast drink, and/or a comfort food, and in some cases, a holiday treat. You could compare it to cocoa in the USA.  Atole is not always made from corn. It can also be made from rice, wheat, oatmeal, or mesquite pods.

Atole is a thick, carbohydrate-rich drink popular in much of Mexico.

Mesquite in the Southwest

For over 4,000 years, the peoples of the Southwest used the pods of the mesquite tree.  Mesquite is one of roughly 40 species of Prosopis, a desert legume tree. The pods are of various edibility and palatability, but all are considered “mesquite” a word that comes to us from the Náhuatl mizquitl.

Since they are legumes, and make their own fertilizer, mesquite trees can thrive in otherwise poor soil.

Most species of mesquite have sweet pods that can be eaten right off the tree, much in the manner of carob or tamarind. Mesquite pods contain seeds, but they are tiny. If eating fresh pods, the seeds can be spit out, much like watermelon seeds. 

Mesquite pods ripen in July, and thus the pods are a valuable source of food during the summer months. For farmers or hunter-gathering peoples, summer can be a lean time, before the corn is harvested, before many fruits are ripe for plucking, and long before it is time to harvest wild nuts.

The color of the pods varies from tree to tree within each species.  The redder ones are said to be sweeter.

Harvest & Preparation

Pods are plucked ripe from the tree. In the past they were laid in the sun to fully dry before grinding or storage. Modern cooks toast the pods in the oven. 

Traditional use was to enjoy the bounty of the season in the season when it occurred. Some pods were stored for fall celebrations. This was in part due to bruchid seed beetle larvae that often inhabit the seeds.

Mesquite flowers are popular with pollinators, with a mild honey-like fragrance.

Mesquite Nutrition

The pods of mesquite contain many complex carbohydrates, including soluble gums and fibers, making them a “slow release” carbohydrate source. These pods can taste quite sweet but have a very low glycemic index, making them an ideal food to help control blood sugar, and a food often possible for diabetic to safely enjoy.

Native peoples avoided eating an excess of fresh pods all at once. If overindulged in, these gums and fibers might lead to what can be politely termed “gastric distress.” Pods are also “a good source of calcium, manganese, iron, and zinc,” according to information compiled by anonymous (s.d.) in Healthy Traditions.[1]

New research shows that, for best health, pods should not be gathered off the ground. More at SavortheSW.com

Mesquite Use

The entire mesquite plant was, and still is, used in many ways, and I recall the first time I ever tasted one. My mother was a student of Edward and Rosamond Spicer, noted anthropologists. Thus in my childhood, we visited the Tohono O’odham many times and participated in an array of festivals. There were joyous processions, dancing, singing, laughing conversation. Older women clustered around small smoking fires with pots and kettles of tasty foods cooking and simmering away. The children ran and played kid games until called to order by the adults. I knew no words of O’odham, but kids don’t need words to play tag, jump rope, or take part in a popular hoop rolling game.

Every so often, one child would be called over by a grandmother, and the rest of us kids were invited too. Some tasty treat was passed around on a plate with a spoon or maybe a single tin cup for all to sip from. Lip smacking, gentle smiles, soft words, warm glances. I learned to say “kúi wihog,” the O’odham word for mesquite.

Mesquite pods are difficult to grind into meal, traditionally they were boiled to soften them.

Mesquite Atole

Basically, all you need to make mesquite atole are some mesquite pods and water. If you are wealthy, and want to honor the reason for the festival (such as a saint’s day or a memorial service), then you can add brown sugar and cinnamon. 

Whole mesquite pods are broken into small pieces and tossed in a pot of water to soak overnight. The next day, right in that same pot, heat up the water and pods. Mush the boiled pods well with a broad spoon against the side of the pot to release the sweet pod fibers to swirl in the water. Drink when pods are all mushy and have released their flavor. Some mesquite smoke from the campfire adds to the overall uniqueness of the experience.

Mesquite atole was consumed warm in the cooler months of winter. In summer, it was allowed to cool overnight and drunk as a nutritious morning breakfast drink. To this day, I make some for myself every so often.  I “cheat” and use ground mesquite meal, roughly 2 tablespoons per cup of boiling water.

Buena Salud!


Selected Bibliography

Anonymous  (s.d.).  Healthy Traditions: A Cookbook for Native Americans.  Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, AZ.

Dahl, K. A.  1995.  Wild Foods of the Sonoran Desert.  Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Publications, Tucson, AZ.

Ebling, W.  1986.  Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America.  University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Hodgson, W. C.  2001.  Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert.   University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.

Nagel, C.  (s. d.).  Mesquite Recipes.  Friends of Pronatura, Tucson, AZ.

Soule, J. A. (2011) Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today.  Tierra del Sol Institute Press, Tucson AZ.

Tohono O’odham Nation  (s.d.).  When Everything Was Real: An Introduction to Papago Desert Foods.  Tohono O’odham Nation, Sells, AZ.

Exhibition Review: “Food: Bigger than the Plate”

By Catherine Price

Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 1. Wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit. Image Credit: Catherine Price.

The Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition is taking place at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from May until October 2019. The exhibition takes you on a journey through the four zones of Composting; Farming; Trading; and Eating. Here, I highlight what I feel are the most thought-provoking exhibits.

The aim in the “Composting” zone is to encourage you to reimagine waste. Instead of considering waste as disposable and to be forgotten about, either in landfill or oceans, the aim is to think about waste as valuable and beautiful. By doing this, humans become reconnected to ecosystems.

Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 2. Oyster mushrooms growing in a bed containing used coffee grounds. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Used coffee grounds from the Victoria and Albert Museum café are used in a bed to grow oyster mushrooms. These mushrooms are used as ingredients in the café, reducing waste and illustrating how food can be grown in the city.

Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 3. Totomoxtle created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The exhibit also showcases composting efforts from around the world, beyond the walls of the V&A. For example, Mexico has over sixty varieties of native corn. The show exhibits Totomoxtle, a veneer material created from the discarded husks of heirloom corn varieties. It was designed in response to the loss of native varieties of corn following the implementation of industrialized agriculture in the country. This supports the villagers of Tonahuixtla who are replanting heirloom corn varieties by providing them with a second income.

Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 4. Different varieties of heirloom corn. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The next section of the exhibition concerns “Farming.” Hedge H.U.G.  (Horticultural Urban Growth) encourages you to reimagine a city that is concentrated around the edges of farmland. Instead of having hedges separating fields, buildings are built in their place. People living in cities are fed directly from the land.

Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 5. Hedge H.U.G. (Horticultural Urban Growth) exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

 

Human-animal relationships are explored in the exhibit of ‘This Little Piggy.’ Elaine Tin Nyo followed the life of a piglet named Zelai from birth to death, including the final production into ham. She filmed his journey, and this video is actually very difficult to watch. Zelai’s hams will age two years, which is twice his actual lifespan. The rest of his flesh is preserved in 182 cans, which are on display and contain sausages, meat, and pâté.

Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 6. Some of the 182 cans containing sausages, meat and pâté in the ‘This Little Piggy’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The “Trading” zone encourages you to consider how food is transported, traded, and packaged. Uli Westphal created three landscapes designed to be both perfect and unsettling. They are intended to show how food marketing is designed to appeal to our desires to purchase food that is healthy and wholesome. As people are now so detached from agriculture and food production, we have to rely on the information provided to us by the food industry.

Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 7. Three landscapes created by Uli Westphal. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Björn Steinar Blumenstein and Johanna Seeleman’s ‘Banana Story’ is an exhibit which tells the story of a banana on its journey from a tree branch in Ecuador to a supermarket in Iceland. The banana was given a passport and an extended label to show its amazing journey. It travelled 8,800km, crossed multiple national borders, and passed through 33 pairs of hands. The accompanying video illustrates how important global shipping has become and how deeply we rely on it for the food we eat.

Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 8. The ‘Banana Story’ exhibit. Image credit: Catherine Price.

“Eating” is the final zone in the food story journey. It features three photos of women eating items that make them feel good, as part of a series taken by Sana Badri. They are an act of defiance against a food press that can be elitist, judgmental, and fat phobic, encouraging agency over pleasurable food choices.

Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 10. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Image credit: Catherine Price.

This section also features the 1861 publication, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This book was aimed at the rapidly expanding Victorian middle classes, and includes recipes, advice on childcare, etiquette, entertaining, and how to manage household servants. Curators included it in the exhibition to demonstrate both household management and curating food for a reading public. The curators describe how ‘instructions on how to boil a cabbage rub shoulders with plans for seating guests at the dinner table. The positioning of the book in the exhibition is also interesting as it sits alongside cookbooks which are collections of handwritten or newspaper clippings of recipes accumulated over time.

Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 11. Instagram images of food. Image credit: Catherine Price.

Juxtaposed with the historical are images from the contemporary in the form of Instagram posts. Instagram enables us to see into the culinary lives of others, as well as celebrating everyday creativity for cooking for loved ones. It also provides businesses with the opportunity to sell food products by posting mouth-watering photos.

The table laid out at the end of the exhibition is designed to provoke deeper engagement and thought about our food, our bodies, and each other. New tableware and food products can prompt us to interact with each other as we eat, sharing food, conversation, and ideas. A plate from Paul Scott‘s project Cumbrian Blues depicts the bleak realities faced by farmers in one of the worse affected areas following the UK’s Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001. Six million cattle and sheep were culled in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.

Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.
Fig. 12. A plate from the set called the Cumbrian Blues. Image credit: Catherine Price.

The highlights I describe provide just a snapshot of the exhibition. These are all designed to encourage us to question what we eat and to ask ourselves if we could eat differently. Eating is not just about health, diet, traditions, and cultures, but also land use, water consumption, energy and transport systems, and human and animal welfare. We have to determine the value we place on quality and the conditions in which our food is produced.

Stockfish and the Texture of Trust in the Early Modern Period

Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.

By Jack B. Bouchard

Stockvisch muss man bleüwen – One must beat stockfish” declared Balthasar Staindl in the first line of a lengthy entry on cooking cod in his 1544 Kochbuch.[1] Wielding a blunt instrument, the sixteenth century cook was meant to hammer away at the flesh of a desiccated, full-length codfish until it was soft enough to soak in water. For this reason many markets sold purpose-made stockfish hammers, which regularly appear in early modern household inventories and ship cargo manifests. Hammering away at the dried flesh of what was once a living, deep-sea fish broke it down the fibers and made it easier for them to absorb water. So common was the practice that in Venice imported, dried stockfish was popularly known as battuto, “beaten,” derived from the word battere, ‘to beat.’[2] Here was a food which made you grapple with texture in a direct way: to eat it you had to beat it.

Though today it is overshadowed by its salt-cured cousin bacalao, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries a kind of preserved fish called “stockfish,” literally a fish like a stock of wood, was amongst the most widely consumed proteins in northern Europe. In the widespread consumption of stockfish we can see that texture was not merely an ancillary consideration, a factor of taste, for early modern diners. Texture itself carried information about nutrition and was valued on its own terms. The dryness of stockfish conveyed that it was a manmade, preserved kind of meat, one which could be relied upon to stay edible for a long time. You could trust your battuto precisely because of its hard, unyielding texture.

Cod, which lives in the far north Atlantic from Norway to Newfoundland, was important to households and military contractors alike because its oil-free flesh was easy to dry for preservation. Stockfish was a kind of codfish which could only be made at very northern latitudes, such as Norway and Iceland, where the cold winters and windy coasts made air-drying possible. Whole fish were headed, gutted and split open before being left outside on racks. The cold winds, alternating with sunlight, effectively freeze-dried the fish. The result was a board-like fish mummy, rock-hard and tough, earning the popular nickname “buckhorne” in England for its resemblance to animal horn. Today in Nigeria stockfish is even sold as “okporoko,” so named for the sound the hard pieces of fish make as they clang against a metal pot. Freeze-dried cod were sold whole in the market, stacked like logs or hung on walls, and were instantly recognizable to early modern consumers thanks to their long, thin shape. A seventeenth-century Dutch painting shows stockfish being wielded like a club by a group of monks – like a stick of wood, it could be used as a weapon.

To sixteenth-century consumers, it was the texture of stockfish which mattered more than its taste. Stockfish meat was thought too bland to be nutritious by many experts, including Erasmus of Rotterdam, but this was compensated for by its unusual physical nature. It was from its hard, dry consistency that the food derived its most important quality, that of durability. Cod which had been transformed into stockfish resisted decay in a manner that was unusual, even unnatural, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English sources sometimes called it pessoun dure (poisson dur, hard fish), or even winterfish, so-called for its ability to last throughout the cold months when other food had spoiled.[3] Without water it could not rot, mold or putrefy. Where most fish would rot in a matter of days, stockfish could be trusted to last not merely months but years before going bad, and it could be shipped over vast distances. Though coming from Norway and Iceland it was popular as far as Budapest, Rome and Seville. In an age of food insecurity and uncertainty these qualities were much-prized and sought out by consumers, creating a pan-European culture of stockfish cookery by the early sixteenth century.

But that trust came at a cost, for processed cod like stockfish could not be consumed directly, but rather underwent a texture-reversing treatment which could border on the violent – it had to be made battuto before it was ready to be eaten. Cooks learned that beating, soaking and burning the freeze-dried cod produced a softer, moist fish which could be boiled, roasted, mashed or fried. The hard texture had to be forcibly altered through hammering and soaking. In English, the process was described as ‘weakening’ the fish, and partially soaked stockfish was known as wokedfish (i.e. weakened-fish) in fifteenth century London.[4] To speed up soaking, the German cookbook of Sabina Welseren called for adding caustic lye to the water, and in the sixteenth century Hanse merchants sold lye-soaked cod dressed with mustard on the wharves of London.[5] Too much lye could even create something entirely different from dry or soaked fish, a gelatinous and translucent lutfisk which was popular around the Baltic. But if its rigidity could be weakened, the artificial texture could not be entirely eliminated. Resuscitated stockfish would never quite be like fresh fish, and always remained firmer, more fibrous and denser than the real thing. Each bite was an inescapable reminder of a food which had been processed and remade by humans.

[1] Baltasar Staindl. Ain künstlichs und nützlichs Kochbuch. (Germany: 1547). 22.

[2] This is known from a reference made by the Venetian merchant Alessandro Magno while visiting London in 1561, “un certo pesco seco che viene dalle Indie, e chiamano stofis, che vien a dire in nostra lengua battuto, et altramente si chiamano Bacalari.”  Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a. 259. “Account of Alessandro Magno’s journeys to Cyrpus, Egypt, Spain, England, Flanders, Germany and Brescia, 1557-1565.” fol. 176.

[3] Examples can be found throughout: C.M. Woolgar. Household Accounts from Medieval England. 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[4] Laura Wright. Sources of London English: Medieval Thames Vocabulary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). 102-105.

[5] A transcription of Sabina Welserin’s book, dated to 1555, can be found at: http://www.staff.uni-giessen.de/gloning/tx/sawe.htm. For the description of Hanse merchant, see: Thomas Moffett, Healths Improvement: Or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Food Used in This Nation. (London : Thomas Newcomb, 1655). 262.

Jack Bouchard serves as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where he works with the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon-funded initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh History Department in 2018, and currently contributes to the Before Farm to Table team’s ongoing efforts to explore, through publicly-oriented research and programming, evolving food cultures and thought in early modern Europe. Dr. Bouchard’s research interests involve fish consumption and maritime food production in early modern Europe, as well as the environmental history of islands in the early Atlantic.