No Grocery Store! Now What?
There were no microwaves, refrigerators, or freezers in colonial times. Growing, harvesting, preparing, and cooking foods took place all-day long throughout the year. Colonial people were concerned with what to eat, as well as with making their foods last and keeping them from spoiling, which is also known as “preserving.” A colonial housewife would preserve enough foods during the summer and fall months to sustain her family through the winter and early spring, when the garden was not flourishing and fresh items were scarce. In eighteenth-century Maryland, food preservation methods such as drying, salting, smoking, pickling, and jellying were used to ensure that there would be enough to eat year-round.
Food Preservation Techniques:
DryingRemoving water from food helps to preserve it by preventing the growth of microorganisms (bacteria) and decay. For thousands of years, people dried food using the sun, air, and fire.
SaltingWhen salt is applied to food, it removes the moisture that causes decay and creates an environment where many microorganisms and fungi cannot survive. In colonial times, meat that was not eaten fresh or preserved by smoking was usually salted, or “cured.” Salt, brown sugar, saltpeter, and red and black pepper were common staples in dry-cure recipes.
SmokingThe tradition of smoking meats has changed little over the last several centuries. Smoke-curing techniques varied from farmer to farmer and were a matter of great personal pride. Most people used a similar process, however. Smoking meat required a lot of work, and the process often took many weeks. Typically, the first step, salting, began immediately after the annual livestock slaughter, usually in mid-winter when it was cold and the meat would not spoil. Wooden salting racks or troughs were sterilized with boiling water and set on the smokehouse floor. The hams were laid flat on the racks, with their cut sides up. They were sprinkled with salt or saltpeter and then left to absorb the salt for a day. After this initial salting, the hams were salted again. Then, depending on the weather, they were left in the salt to cure for three to five weeks. After this curing period, the hams were washed with hot water. Pepper was rubbed into the cut ends to seal them. The hams were then hung in the smokehouse for a few days to allow air to circulate around all sides of the meat. Finally, the hams were smoked for several more days using various woods, which were chosen for the flavor they imparted to the meat.
- It was also possible to smoke meats by hanging them in the fireplace chimney in the kitchen. The heat and smoke from the fire would slowly dry out the meat.
JellyingJellying is the process of preserving fruit in sugar syrup. Usually the fruit is mashed and boiled in sugar and liquid and then jarred and put away. Colonial people ate these popular jellied foods:
- Jellies: clear, sweet spreads firm enough to keep their shape when removed from their containers
- Jams: thick, sweet spreads made from fruit pulp or crushed fruit and sugar; they hold their shape, but are less firm than jelly
- Conserves: jams made from a mixture of fruits, especially citrus fruits, raisins, and nuts
- Preserves: small, whole fruits or same-size pieces of fruit in a clear, thick, slightly jellied syrup
- Marmalades: soft fruit jellies often containing citrus fruits, small pieces of fruit or peel, evenly suspended in the transparent jelly
- Colonial Williamsburg, Food Preservation Methods Fact Sheet. http://www.history.org/history/ teaching/enewsletter/volume5/images/factsheets.pdf (accessed 2006).
- Diana C. Crader. “The Zooarchaeology of the Storehouse and the Dry Well at Monticello.” American Antiquity, XLIX 1984: 542-558, 542.