It is in the nature of food that it begins to spoil at the moment it is harvested. This process of decay is both the beauty and the diffculty of our daily nutrition. Nothing of what we eat will last forever. As we learned from plastic and many other man- made materials, things that last forever are usually not to celebrate. So the good thing about food is that in order to stay alive, we don’t necessarily need to leave anything behind. We could simply eat and excrete without disturbing the natural cycle of life. The other side of it is that food, our source of life, is usually not a guaranteed good.
A big part of the global food waste occurs in the production stage – especially in low-income countries –, due to crop failures and decay during storage. This combination of temporality and necessity, the fact that food is both essential and impermanent, makes it the most valuable matter we know, and it has always encouraged people to cherish it.
Since ancient times people have tried to push the boundaries of food decay by various preservation techniques. Because of food preservation, our ancestors were able to regulate periods of abundance and scarcity. e seasonal cycle is a natural rhythm with alternately great quantities of fresh summer vegetables and autumn nuts, followed by the winter months of bare lands, rest and standstill. Besides the rhythm of the seasons, our forebears also had to find ways to provide against less predictable disasters such as crop diseases, floods, droughts and wars. Also nowadays the threat of famine for any of these causes remains a grim reality for many people. Confronted with the fact that the availability of food is insecure and constantly changing, people all over the world have been looking for ways to preserve their precious harvests.
Food preservation permeated every culture at nearly every moment in time. Each culture preserved their local food sources using the same basic methods that were o en developed by coincidence and without any scientific explanation. These methods varied depending on the climate, the food supplies and the particular needs and culture of a certain place. In the northern regions for example, people dried their food in the cold arctic air, and when they discovered salt, they pickled and fermented fish, meat and vegetables. The nomads of North Africa and the Slavic regions found ways to dry and ferment their dairy milk supplies into yoghurts and cheeses, and in the Middle East surpluses of fish, meats and fruits were laid out on the oor and roof tops to be dried in the baking sun. It required a profound knowledge of the seasons and the elements, and the help and cooperation of everyone in the community.
The pantry of plenty
Nowadays we are still surrounded by the achievements of food preservation every day. We can eat peas and strawberries in winter due to freezers, we can eat dried and fresh fruits from faraway continents and in the back of our pantry cabinet there’s always a can of tomato sauce waiting to save our meal. Not to mention all the products that can only exist because of preservation techniques: coffee, cheese, beer and wine, cocoa and tea for example. Food preservation made it possible to transport unknown ingredients all over the world and enriched our sensory vocabulary with new tastes and structures. Without the history of food preservation, a long and slow journey of trial and error, we would never had surpluses of food, societies would not have been able to grow and we would have never been familiar with the abundance of food that we live with today. A quick look into an average kitchen shelf or pantry cabinet shows us the result of the art and science behind people’s aim to delay the decay.
However, the concept of pantry has taken a different meaning and a different context. In the past centuries each family strove, like Sue Shepard illustrates in her book Pickled, Potted, and Canned, ‘to preserve the products of the July orchard for the January larder.’ is awareness about the seasonal cycle, the inconstancy of nature and the efforts it takes to ensure a filled cabinet, disappeared together with the increasing wealth. Especially in those places where food preservation created abundance, or overabundance, the initial relationship between food, time and place is no longer visible. Seeing the same products in the supermarket during the whole year, and never an empty shelf, makes it hard to realize that nature by itself doesn’t provide us food on every moment in time. It transformed the pantry cabinet from a reflection of the past and insurance for the future, into a place that can be endlessly stuffed with cans and jars that will never be used until they finally reach their expiration date – sometimes three years later.
Besides fulfilling the need for food supplies, the act of preserving food can be seen as a contribution to the lives of people and communities on many other levels. Just like farming and cooking, traditional food preserving is becoming a disappearing, often underestimated craft, or on the other side a rediscovered art for those with plenty of leisure time. But is also, just like farming and cooking, a basic daily activity that connects us with nature and other living beings. By beholding the transformations that take place during processes like drying, curing and fermenting, one is beholding the transformations of nature, and the passing of time. Even though we preserve food to make it last longer, the preservation processes are showing us that all living matter is subject to change and alteration, and that everything will eventually come to an end. Being aware of this allows us moments of reflection and melancholy – concepts that could enrich today’s fast society.
By providing a context for food preservation, one that goes beyond the pleasures of self- su ciency and craft , techniques like fermenting and drying can play a different role in our daily lives. The tools that are used will become objects for contemplation and their manuals are becoming rituals. ‘A ritual is, if you are able to feel it from inside, like a time capsule,’ Pema Chödrön explains in her book The Wisdom of No Escape. For some reason, it goes beyond time and space. ‘Indigenous people have always had insight in the seasons, in sunrise and sunset and in the earth. They created rituals to celebrate that, so no one would miss out on the fact that we are mutually connected. And now, a thousand years later, we still do these rituals, and we connect with the same feeling.’
Let’s continue the journey of our ancestors, who started drying, salting, pickling, freezing and fermenting. Who saved their summer harvests for winter days and their cravings for moments of hunger. Who could read the rhythm of the seasons and play with the moods of mother nature. Who where fully aware that food is valuable and therefore not to be wasted. That food is temporary and transient and therefore to be enjoyed. Let’s not only preserve, but also celebrate all that is preserved for us. Let’s build up our stock with the intention that pantry is precious, and break it down with the intention that pantry is impermanent. It only takes this practice of preservation to have our daily intake of poetry.