In some ways, food preservation hasn’t changed that much in the last few centuries. After all, the concepts behind many of our modern preservation methods remain the same. Even now, it is easy to forget how much we rely on cooling and freezing – both ancient methods used by people in cold climates for millennia. However, it is undeniable that there is a growing distance between how we approach food preservation now compared to most of human history.
Modern food science has allowed us to create foodstuffs that may outlast us all. A modern urbanite can step into a supermarket and know, with relative certainty, that they will be able to find almost any food they like, free from the constraints of seasonality and geography. So why do traditional food preservation methods matter? Why are we dedicated to recording and spreading this knowledge? Why, in short, learn to can, pickle, dry, and ferment your own foods, when Tesco has everything you need?
Nutrition & Health
As of 2018, half of the food consumed in the UK was classed as “ultra-processed”. These “processes” are, fundamentally, the most modern, technologically-advanced form of food preservation available to us. However, several studies show the health dangers of a diet that relies too heavily on these methods.
It’s not necessarily the processing that is bad. Canned and frozen fruit and vegetables are just as healthy as their fresh counterparts, as long as there is no sugar, salt, or preservatives added. They are also often cheaper and more accessible, making it easier for those on low incomes to afford a balanced diet. You will notice, however, that freezing and canning are in fact ancient preservation methods – we have just learned to do it at mass scale.
Another example is meat. By now, we have all heard that processed meats can cause severe health problems, but it’s not that simple. For example, good old-fashioned salting, while leading to high levels of sodium, does not have the cancerous effects of the nitrate-heavy processes used for most cured meats. It does take longer, however, which makes it more expensive. When we let the food industry preserve our food for us, we run the risk of buying into methods that were selected to maximise profit, not nutrition and well-being.
We live in an age of mass consumption, where we are encouraged to spend and accumulate. By this point, there is no doubt that this attitude is one of the biggest drivers in climate change, leaving behind a monumental mountain of waste and greenhouse gases. At-home food preservation teaches us to be mindful about the food we buy and how we use it, and is one of the many ways that we can make our lifestyles more sustainable. The environmental impacts are wide-ranging:
- Food waste – Knowing how to preserve your own food means you can make your fresh ingredients last longer and improve your food management. On a more global scale, food preservation is being looked into as one of the ways to prevent mass food shortages in years to come.
- Plastic waste – When you use your own cans and jars, you cut down on the wasteful plastic packaging used by major supermarkets.
- Greenhouse emissions – Food preservation allows us to buy seasonal produce and enjoy it year-long, without the carbon footprint of importing it from the other side of the world.
Culture & Tradition
Finally, we believe that food preservation is important as a cultural heritage. It reflects our species’ ability to adapt and innovate, and is a fundamental part of what has allowed us to grow and thrive. It is a unifying human practice, but what is most wonderful about it is that is is also highly specific and cultural.
Civilizations across the world all developed similar preservation methods, but they did it in different ways. Different flavorings, ingredients, and processes were created, each unique to a culture’s climate, resources, and society. In a world where traditional culture is struggling to stay relevant, it would be a shame to lose the rich repository of knowledge in these recipes and methods. Learning preservation methods from around the world connects us to our shared past as humans, but it also allows us to immerse ourselves in other cultures – or even our own.
Preserving our preservation methods can seem a sentimental act of nostalgia, but it is far more than that. It is one of the many ways in which tapping into our past as a species could help us make a better future for it. It can help us change our relationship with food for the better, and pave the way towards a more thoughtful and sustainable approach to shopping. The fact you get to brag about your home-made pickles on Instagram is, of course, a bonus.