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The Art of Preserving: How Cooks in Colonial Virginia Imitated Nature to Control It
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Eighteenth-Century Life 23.2 (1999) 13-23

When considering food preservation, historians of the early modern English realm have commonly assumed that premodern people practiced preservation techniques to gain some control over excesses of nature -- such as droughts, deluges, and swarms of insects -- which could eliminate all food supplies for the upcoming year. In "Preserving Food to Preserve Life," C. Anne Wilson starts with the premise that premodern people preserved food to prepare for times of dearth. Jennifer Stead credits the "spectacular increase" in food preservation in the sixteenth century to the needs of sailors making considerably longer journeys and to the arrival in Europe of new foods, especially sugar. Similarly, Karen Hess, in her annotation of Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery, assumes that colonial inhabitants had to resort to preserved foods because they lacked more modern preservation technologies. She states that "lacking refrigeration," most people who kept animals for milk had to consume the milk in the form of curds.

However, all three historians indicate that preserved foods possessed other functions and meanings within society. Wilson gives several examples of the delicacy status of preserved foods that were often reserved for holidays and special occasions (pp. 12, 21, 26-27). Stead points out that the provisions of seamen did not improve over time, and that primarily the wealthy benefited from the expanded cookery practices (pp. 66-67). Like Wilson, Stead emphasizes the high quality of these preserved foods, predominantly meat and fish, and their use in festive occasions (p. 67). She does hint that some of them, especially pickles, had gastronomical and nutritional importance (p. 83). Hess contradicts her assumption about the lack of refrigeration when she explains that the English believed curds were healthier than fresh milk because they didn't curdle in the stomach (p. 146). In another reference to preserving in general, she writes that although we no longer have a "compelling need to do so," we still prepare foods using such "storage methods" (pp. 162-63) because some of our most interesting foods result from them, which suggests that preserved foods may have had a deeper cultural meaning.

The conflicting comments of these historians raise important questions about the underlying rationale for food preservation and about the meaning of preserved foods within the material culture of any society. This essay will show that protection against devastation was not the only reason early modern Anglo-Americans living in Virginia preserved certain foods. A study of two manuscript cookery books from colonial Virginia reveals that certain preserving techniques mimicked the physiological process of digestion outside the body. Other preservation methods did not duplicate digestion, but did employ products believed capable of assisting it. Because early modern English people gave priority to digestion as the key to good health, the parallel between cookery techniques and the digestive process suggests that Anglo-Americans believed preserved foods facilitated digestion and promoted good health in a way that fresh foods did not.

The "art" of preservation pertains to the "human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature." The term applies to colonial cookery practices in two ways. First, some preservation techniques either duplicated or supplemented the work of nature. Fermentation, which produced wine, beer, bread, cheese, and vinegar, imitated the perceived natural process of digestion to refine foods. Other techniques, such as potting and the many forms of preserving with sugar, supplemented digestion by treating foods difficult to digest with easily assimilable, corruption-resistant substances.

Second, the promotion of excellent digestion counteracted decay. The English witnessed corruption in the organic, natural world around them and inside of them, for they equated it with disease and death. Although corruption was the ultimate fate of all human beings, they believed they could delay the inevitable by following certain preventive health measures. Because they also thought that most diseases arose from food, a large number of their preventive measures controlled its preparation and consumption. To the English, foods that resisted decay outside of the human body would do so upon ingestion. It is no wonder, then, that their cookery practices parallel their perceptions of themselves. One historian, Elizabeth O'Hara-May, suggested as much in her study of...

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