Category Archives: Food Preservation

“When Grandma Was Ready for Winter”: 45 forms of domestic knowledge, in verse

The Pioneer Cook Book, Lessons for November, compiled by Kate B. Carter (Salt Lake City, UT: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1961).

In 1961, a poem by Congregationalist minister Eunice Belle Trumbo was published in The Pioneer Cook Book, which doubled as the November curriculum of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP). A lineage association modeled on the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DUP remembers settler colonists who traveled to or through Utah Territory between 1847 and 1869, before the transcontinental railroad was completed. The November 1961 lesson would have reached many of the seventeen- to eighteen-thousand women then organized into 111 DUP “companies” and 900 “camps” in nineteen states.[1]

The poem’s author had no connections to Utah. Born in Allen County, Ohio, in 1876, Eunice Trumbo was associated with Firman House, a Congregational settlement school supported by the Chicago Missionary Society. Some forty-five years before her poem was featured in The Pioneer Cook Book, Trumbo attended a meeting of those concerned with the “Education and the Naturalization of Adult Foreigners in Chicago”; at the start of the next year, in 1917, her article “The Immigrant Child at Firman House” described how Americanization was accomplished through gymnastics, sewing, storytelling, the Abraham Lincoln Club, and Sunday School.[2]

“Adults and a child wearing traditional ethnic clothing,” c. 1920, HBHR_0006_0053_830, Seven Settlement Houses-Database of Photos, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections and University Archives.

However, the Trumbo poem sent out for study by the DUP sought to teach history and values not by pointing to illustrious national leaders and dominant cultural touchstones, but by chronicling the daily labor of female forebears. “When Grandma Was Ready for Winter” catalogs the range of skills needed to produce, prepare, and preserve household necessities: 

E. Henderson, Waste Not, Want Not: Prepare for Winter. Ottawa: Canada Food Board, c. 1917. Poster, 63 x 47 cm. McGill University Library Rare Books and Special Collections.

When the last green tomato was pickled,
And the last blushing peach had been peeled;
When the last luscious pears had been quartered,
And the last can of plums had been sealed;
When the last yellow quince had been honeyed,
And the last drop of chili sauce jugged;
When the last stalk of cane had been sorghumed,
And the last barrel of vinegar plugged;
When the grape juice was all corked and bottled,
Corn made into salad, or dried;
When the beets and the apples were buried,
And the side-meat and sausages fried;
When the catsup was made and the sauerkraut,
and potatoes were stored in the bin;
When the peppers were stuffed full of cabbage,
And the pumpkins were all carried in;
When the flowers seeds [sic] were gathered and packaged,
And the house-plants were potted and in;
When the fruit cakes were baked for Thanksgiving,
And the mincemeat was canned up in tin,
The celery blanched and nuts gathered, 
And the beans had been shelled out and hulled;
Sweet potatoes dry-kilned in the oven,
And the onions were pulled up and culled;
When the honey had all been extracted,
Comb melted and beeswax in molds;
When the jellies were all glassed and labeled,
And the horehound juice syruped for colds;
When the tallow was made into candles,
And the ashes were leached into lye;
When the rushes were bundled for scouring,
And the walnut hulls gathered for dye;
When the cheeses were unhooped and ripened,
Beef corned in the brine to be dried;
Hams and shoulders well browned in the smoke-house,
Lard rendered from cracklings and tried;
When the popcorn was tied to the rafters,
And the wood was piled high in the shed;
When the feathers from goose and from gander
Were picked for the warm feather bed;
Women folks were most ready for winter, 
To rest as they knitted and sewed,
Spun flax, carded wool, and pieced quilt blocks;
Is it strange grandma’s shoulders are bowed?

The poem references a staggering range of objects, labor, and knowledge. Specialized containers (cans, jugs, barrels, bottles, jelly glasses) are linked to specific preservation processes, including pickling, sealing, corking, soldering [“canning in tin”], drying, burying, brining, smoking, and rendering. Then there is the work of growing and harvesting foods, as well as the preparatory labor of making molasses and sauces, stuffing bell peppers with vegetables and spices before pickling them as “mangoes,” fermenting cabbage for sauerkraut, frying up meat before potting it in its own fat. (Trumbo uses at least forty-three different verbs to describe food processing, in addition to the more generic “made.”) With its honeyed quinces and ripe cheeses, hot cracklings and cured sweet potatoes, this tribute to “women folks” sounds both delicious and exhausting.

Jorena Pettway’s larder—filled with dried, smoked, canned, and bottled goods—demonstrates a wealth of skill and knowledge. “Jorena Pettway sorting peas inside her smokehouse. She still has many fruits and vegetables which she canned last year. Gee’s Bend, Alabama.” Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, May 1939. FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. LC-USF34- 051542-D 
1967 U.S. postage stamp honoring the Grange, an agricultural society

The poem has also been popular. Several years before being included as part of the official Daughters of Utah Pioneers curriculum, Trumbo’s paean to foresight and self-sufficiency was already circulating among the organization’s membership. During a November 1953 chapter meeting of Camp Fort Utah (in the university town of Provo), Mellie Cook read the poem aloud as part of a program at the home of La Prele Searl that included a performance of “Scottish Highland Fling” and “Ghosts” on the piano. Other clubwomen were circulating it, too. In 1954, Willowdale Grange of Fairdale, Illinois, hosted an “At Home” night that brought together seven chapters of The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. During an eventful meeting that ended with the untimely though natural death of one participant, members of the co-ed agricultural fraternity heard a recitation of “When Grandma Was Ready for Winter.”[3]

Trumbo’s printed litany stands in marked contrast to many (or missing) accounts of women’s labor—a fact that perhaps explains its circulation among rural or socially conservative women in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when unpaid domestic work was becoming more publicly visible and its value increasingly contested. But the poem represents a counter-narrative in another sense, as well. Its high specificity and recognition of the tolls such labor extracted keeps it from being simply celebratory.

Eunice B. Trumbo, “The Teacher,” Railway Carmen’s Journal 17 (September 1912), 558.

“When Grandma Was Ready for Winter” echoes a 1912 piece Trumbo published in Life and Labor, one that similarly emphasized the breadth and trials of women’s work. Originally written for Ohio Educational Monthly, “The Teacher” surveyed the physical, emotional, and intellectual labor that primary school instructors undertook for little reward: each stanza ends with the refrain “and all for forty dollars.” (That fall, editors of Railway Carmen’s Journal reprinted the poem, but added a playful verse that advised these long-suffering teachers to unionize for better pay.)[4]

In fact, Trumbo considered herself a Progressive. By 1914 she was a suffragist, a girls’ club organizer, member of numerous women’s clubs, and had served two years as secretary for the Farmers’ Institute, a precursor to USDA Cooperative Extension organizations.[5]

“When Grandma was Ready for Winter” still circulates today, though perhaps primarily as a touchstone for nostalgia. A number of grammatical changes and spelling errors in one 2012 online posting suggest that some knowledge about these foods and processes has been lost. The participles “sorghumed” and “dry-kilned” are gone, replaced by “had become sorghum” and “dried in the oven”; the quartered pear has become an unlikely quartered pea; the “smokehouse,” “smoke-hours”; the noun “cracklings” (bits of crispy meat and skin left after rendering lard) is now the adjective “crackling,” and in this version cheeses have been “unhopped” rather than “unhooped” from the molds that give them shape. [6]

Nevertheless, Trumbo’s poem reminds us to pay attention to varied preservation knowledges, and it acknowledges that multiple strategies coexisted in everyday food production more than a century after Nicolas Appert published Le livre de tous les ménages ou l’art de conserver, pendant plusieurs années, toutes les substances animales et végétales (The book for all households or the art of preserving, for several years, all animal and vegetal substances, 1810).

This image shows food dried, fermented in crocks, and kept in cold storage, as well as that bottled using a pressure canner. “1931 Canned 857 quarts. Fruits, vegetables, jellies, pickles, and meats.” USDA Extension Service, Miscellaneous American rural scenes, 1925-30, LOT 4777, Box 1 of 3. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, S-15561C (7761).

Appert’s book described a method very similar to today’s waterbath canning, one that would potentially allow every type of food to be preserved in the same “nearly fresh” way. This uniform process was quickly adapted by commercial food producers, formed the basis for industrial canning, and dominates histories of food preservation.

“When Grandma Was Ready for Winter” thus also offers a welcome complement to accounts that concentrate on food’s mass production. Historically, home-based foodways have been contextually variable, existing largely in a realm of situated demonstration and practice. As a result, they are perhaps less broadly accessible; certainly, they are narratively unwieldy. Yet like an efficient storehouse, Trumbo’s poem packs a wealth of skill, strategy, and effort into just 44 lines.

Works cited

[1] Eunice B. Trumbo, “When Grandma Was Ready For Winter,” in The Pioneer Cook Book, Lessons for November, compiled by Kate B. Carter (Salt Lake City, UT: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1961), 127; email from Constance Huntsman, International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers Historian, September 30, 2019.

[2] “History,” Firman Community Services (2019),; “Cooperating Civic Bodies Confer over Problem of Teaching English to Adult Foreigners and Making Citizens,” Chicago Commerce 12 (October 6, 1916), 9; Eunice B. Trumbo, “The Immigrant Child at Firman House,” The American Missionary 71 (Jan. 1917), 540-42.

[3] The Sunday Herald, Provo, UT (November 15, 1953), 18; The Daily Chronicle, De Kalb, Illinois, (October 16, 1954), 5.

[4] Eunice B. Trumbo, “The Teacher,” Life and Labor 2, no. 6 (June 1912), 187; Railway Carmen’s Journal 17 (September 1912), 558.

[5] Women’s Who’s Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915, ed. John William Leonard (New York: The American Commonwealth Co., 1914), 825; Jeffrey W. Moss and Cynthia B. Lass, “A History of Farmers’ Institutes,” Agricultural History 62, no. 2 (1988): 150–63.

[6] For example, in November 2012, tricia47 posted the poem on the UK arm of, noting that she’d downloaded it from the internet in 1999.

Celebrating Midwinter: Holiday Foods in the United States

Now in the height of winter, many of us are spending more time in the kitchen, preparing the foods of the season. But why these particular foods, at this particular time?

To explore these questions, I took a look at the Food Timeline, a quirky, beloved, and detailed food history resource started by librarian Lynne Olver in 1999. After Olver’s death in 2015, the site sat dormant until Virginia Tech began managing it in 2021. Turns out The Food Timeline is strong on Christmas and Yule traditions, but could use more entries about other celebrations. So I’ve gathered a range of foodways common in my part of the world during December and January. (Look for recipes and more information at the links.)

“2011-12-24_Christmas-Cookies” by Tavallai is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

In the Northern Hemisphere, special midwinter foodways often share a focus on light. Scored rounds of Scottish shortbread evolved from sun-shaped cakes baked for solstice celebrations; sugar cookies are cut to resemble the Star of Bethlehem. And it’s no accident that light-centered celebrations include foods fried in oil. Shredded potato latkes and jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot are Hanukkah standards; Sephardic Jews and others influenced by the traditions of Spanish Moriscos also eat sweet yeasted balls of fried dough called buñuelos.

In Mexican tradition, buñuelos are crispy discs sometimes spiced with anise or orange and served with sugar or syrups; they are eaten after reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter during processional celebrations called Las Posadas, lit up by candles and sparklers.

“Latkes (Potato Pancakes)” by lynn.gardner is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the short, cold days of winter, warmth matters, too. The West Indian curries and African stews often eaten during Kwanzaa, for example, combine soothing temperatures with spices that bring a different kind of heat. Other midwinter celebratory foods incorporate the warmth of alcohol.

Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is also a time of limited food resources, so holiday foods are built on non-perishable seasonal foods like dried fruits, squashes, or root vegetables. Food that can be made ahead—fruitcakes drenched in liquor, cookies whose shelf life is prolonged by ginger—save precious time.

“Prepping for Stew” by QuintanaRoo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Even as they maximize scarce resources, midwinter holiday foods in the United States also emphasize luxury. Everyday breads get replaced by enriched versions heavy on oil or butter, eggs, and sugar or honey: think Lussekater (St. Lucia cats), Stollen, panettone. Because fat is a preservative, enriched bread stays fresh longer than regular loaves. One 1874 recipe for a brioche pastry called Twelfth Night or King Cake noted that it tasted best after four months—so Christian celebrants could bake it in the early winter and eat it on Epiphany (January 6, Three Kings Day) or make it last until Lent. Like steamed Christmas puddings, Twelfth Cakes are baked with inedible charms inside (dried beans, coins, figurines, etc.), illustrating how holiday foods can be linked to play and good fortune.

“St Lucia buns” by Akane86 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eggs and sugar (alongside liquor and spices) find their way into hot drinks, too, including boiled custard, egg nog, and the Tom and Jerry, a creamy cocktail first documented in nineteenth-century England.

Other hot holiday drinks are almost meals in themselves: wassail, which in the United States is often citrusy spiced cider or wine, has historically been more robust, incorporating (rice) custard, trifle, or blanched almonds, with roasted apples or slices of toast floating on top.

Another creamy sweet hot drink is atole (before colonization, atolli), a common accompaniment to buñuelos and tamales during Las Posadas. Atole is traditionally thickened with masa harina and flavored with sweet corn, but cinnamon, anise, almond, and citrus are popular contemporary additions. Champurrado–i.e., chocolate atole–is a favorite variation.

“Champurrado Tamales” by Jeremy Brooks is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Many foods associated with Christmas and Yule traditions in the United States have Medieval roots and owe a great debt to cultures based in the Mediterranean, the Arabian peninsula, and southern Asia. Europeans who set out to conquer Jerusalem brought back with them a taste for almonds, oranges and lemons, raisins, currants, prunes, figs, and dates, as well as spices such as ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, cardamom, and saffron. By the thirteenth century these foods and spices were being imported to Europe.

Warfare and trade introduced sugar to Europe as well (the rose water and almond confection known as Marzipan hails originally from Persia), along with knowledge of how Persian and Arab physicians used sugar medicinally. In Medieval Britain, twisted sticks of sugar flavored with essential oils were employed to fend off winter colds, a strategy that persists in today’s coughdrops, horehound and wintergreen sticks, and peppermint candy canes.

“Stick Candy.” by ohdearbarb is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Holidays (from Old English haligdæg, holy day) are times for celebration and thoughtful reflection, but also for demonstrating generosity (and wealth) and petitioning for prosperity. Delicious, extra-ordinary food helps get it all done.

“We don’t do it that way now”: Bottled Sausage

Conversations about homemade sausage make it clear that environmental and social contexts matter.

Around the world, animals raised for protein have been harvested before harsh weather begins, partly to avoid the costs of feeding and sheltering them through the winter. Since as early as 5000 BCE in Egypt and East Asia, making sausage has been one way to stretch and keep the resulting surpluses. [1] Grinding meat scraps together with fat, salt, sugar, nitrates, herbs, and spices helps to inhibit microbial growth, even as the process creates distinctive flavors. From cinnamon-infused lap ceung (臘腸) in southern China to American breakfast links flavored with fennel and sage, sausages index a range of meanings, signifying imperial power and elite access to the latest technologies, but also prudent planning and shared ethics and aesthetics.[2] In the United States, conversations recorded by oral historians make it clear that the methods used to preserve sausage are keyed to both environmental and social contexts.

Air-Dried, Smoked, and . . . Bottled?

“[Y]ou turned it [the bottle] upside down. You turn it upside down so that the sausage grease will be to the top. And then after it cools, then you can turn it back and it [the grease] will stay up there. That’s to preserve it, to keep it fresh and good.”

~Glen Vanoy, KY
Image of Morton Salt Company brochure from 1935 showing a white-haired man in overalls massaging a salt cure into a cut of pork.
Booklets like these assumed both that home-processed meats were common and that consumers were looking for “modern” ways to continue older practices. Morton Salt Company. Meat Curing Made Easy. Chicago, IL, 1935. Chef Fritz Blank Victus Populi collection (Print Collection 13), University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Sausage takes several forms, including types that need no further cooking before eating. The Romans developed a repertoire of highly spiced cured meats, relying on ingredient ratios and cool, dry air (or low, smoky heat) to create flesh that could travel. Legionaries carried garlands of preserved meats—ancestors of salami, for instance—on their exploits because it didn’t spoil in ambient temperatures and could be sliced at will. Not surprisingly, the English term sausage is derived from the Latin salsus (“salted” or “preserved meat”). Condemned by the early Christian church because of their phallic shape and popularity at pagan festivals, sausages nevertheless became local hallmarks throughout Europe, with “air-cooked” varieties especially popular in the drier areas.[3]

Historically, most sausage links have been encased in intestines that have been turned inside out, soaked in brine, and scraped clean, though in some parts of America’s Appalachian mountains corn shuck casings were prepared by washing and drying corn husks, packing them with seasoned meat, tying them with “corn fodder, bear grass, or a string,” and hanging this “shuck sausage” to cure in a smoke house.[4] Alternatively, some encased sausages, including hot dogs, bologna, and blood sausages, are heat-processed (e.g., pre-cooked in water) during initial processing.

Fresh forcemeats—including bratwurst, chorizo, and sausage patties—have also been important food products. In the early 1990s, small-scale farmers in Kentucky reported that their homemade sausage generally incorporated 30% fat (1 part fat to 2 parts lean) and was seasoned before being frozen. Some used the Morton Salt Sausage Cure; others made their own seasoning blend. One recipe, for instance, calls for 1 c. salt, 2/3 c. sage, 2 T. black pepper, 1 T. red pepper, and 3 T. brown sugar for every 25 pounds of meat. [5]

Jones Dairy Farm, "And as the New Year's Party Ends . . . Comes the First Breakfast of 1932," Good Housekeeping, January 1, 1932.
Some sausage marketing has relied on nostalgia and down-home tradition, while other ads have courted upscale customers. Jones Dairy Farm, “And as the New Year’s Party Ends . . . Comes the First Breakfast of 1932,Good Housekeeping, January 1, 1932.

In the United States today, blocks of ground sausage are most likely to be found in supermarket freezer sections. In 1920, Jones Dairy Farm of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, was the first company to quick-freeze sausage. The company’s founder, Milo Cornelius Jones, was an early marketer of brand-name sausage sold in 1- and 2-pound packages, rather than in bulk. In 1889 he started the company, which made sausage based on his mother Sally’s Vermont recipe, which was built around “choice cuts” of pork rather than meat trimmings. By 1903 he was advertising in national magazines, which over the years linked the sausage to high-end holiday celebrations, such as Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. [6]

Before electricity was widely available, however, uncured sausage in the United States was also preserved by potting or canning it in the fall and storing it in cold cellars or can houses through the winter. [7]

Stored in Fat: Potted Meats

In their study of food-related oral histories in Kentucky, Anne and John van Willigen suggest that the process of “canning” cooked sausage was “uncommon.” However, sausage sealed in bottles is mentioned regularly in oral histories throughout the Upland South and beyond, from Indiana to Utah, New Mexico to North Dakota.[8]

In Pennington Gap (Lee Co.), Virginia, Henrietta Lewis Logan remembered that in the 1930s, her family had a piano and many good books, but no electricity. Before they had a refrigerator or freezer, “sausage had to be ground and made ready for canning” by “the women folk” in her community. This involved partially frying sausage patties, and it was “greasy, hard work” compensated in part by the cooking sausage’s delicious aroma, in part by anticipation of future meals. When Iris Carlton-LaNey interviewed ten elderly Black women in the early 1990s, they also remembered bottled sausage as important to home economies in Duplin County, a bright-tobacco area of North Carolina’s inner coastal plain. The women on these self-sufficient farms “canned everything,” including peaches, string beans, okra, cabbage and other home-grown produce. When they killed 10 or 11 hogs each December, one woman recalled, they salted and hung the pork in the smokehouse, but “canned sausage in lard.” [9]

Illustration of canned meat in a Ball jar, 1921
Families with access to quantities of fresh meat have often preserved it at home. Section header, The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes, No. 20, edition M (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley and Sons, c1921), p. 34. Ball Corporation Collection (98.37), Box 1, Folder 10, The Minnetrista Heritage Collection, Muncie, Indiana.

How does one “can” in lard? The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes from 1921 did include recipes for processing jars of fried sausage packed in hot grease; as in its recipes for fried brains and fried kidneys and onions, the partially sealed jars of pre-cooked meat were then boiled for 90 minutes in a water bath. But the next edition (1926) recommended draining off all grease, packing the fried sausages tightly, partially sealing, then processing the jars 210 minutes in boiling water or just for an hour in a Steam Pressure Cooker at 15 lbs pressure. [10] [Note: In order to avoid the risk of botulism, food scientists today advise that meats meant to be stored at room temperature should always be pressure-canned, not boiled in a waterbath.]

It is possible, then, that when Carlton-LaNey’s North Carolina consultant recalled “canning sausage in lard,” she was talking about potting it: packing meat hot in fat-filled containers, without further processing. Potting has deep historical roots. By the late Middle Ages in Europe, thick crusts were being used to “encoffin” meat in butter-laden pies, thus keeping “air” (read: microbes) out and helping it travel without spoiling too much. By the sixteenth century, parboiled poultry could reportedly be kept for a month after it was coated in lard or clarified butter, seasoned with salt and spices, set in stone pots filled to the brim with more lard or butter, covered tightly with leather, and stored in a cool place. [11]

Edsel Little, "Maple Sausage Patties," January 2014, CC BY-SA 2.0
Traditionally, sausage has been partially fried before bottling. Edsel Little, “Maple Sausage Patties,” January 2014, CC BY-SA 2.0

This fat-saturated method of storing meat used high initial cooking temperatures, low moisture and oxygen levels, and physical barriers to reduce the growth of as-yet-unseen microorganisms, and it persisted in the United States for years. Oral histories recorded in the late twentieth century describe packing raw sausage in large dairy crocks, weighing the sausage down with a plate, and baking it; when the rendered fat cooled, it had covered the sausage. A related method involved first frying the ground sausage medium-well before placing it into crocks and covering it with hot grease. These crocks were filled in late fall or early winter (after hog harvesting) and stored in unheated outbuildings, where –crucially–they stayed cold or even frozen until spring. [12]

The advent of tempered-glass canning jars introduced a new element to potting. In central Kentucky (Casey Co.), Glen Vanoy described how people in his community fried sausage patties or balls and packed them into Mason jars, then filled the jars with hot sausage grease to within 1 inch of the top. After adding a rubber ring and a glass-lined zinc lid, “[Y]ou turned it [the bottle] upside down. You turn it upside down so that the sausage grease will be to the top. And then after it cools, then you can turn it back and it [the grease] will stay up there. That’s to preserve it, to keep it fresh and good.” These packed bottles and crocks (the latter covered with a clean white cloth that had been dipped in beeswax) were stored in cool cellars or spring houses, and their contents removed and re-fried when wanted. [13] [Note: both the cold storage and frying the sausage before eating contributed to the success of this method–botulism spores don’t like refrigeration, and botulism toxins can be denatured by high heat.]

In 1924, the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company broke ranks with the big bottle manufacturers by including a recipe for “Fried Sausage Stored in Lard” in its canning manual, alongside a newer recipe that used pressurized steam to preserve the bottled meat. Hazel-Atlas was based in West Virginia, and this addition seems to acknowledge regional culinary norms. However, the manual also notes the environmental limits of potting without further high-heat sterilization: “This method is quite satisfactory in cool climates, but products will not keep indefinitely without turning rancid in very warm climates.” [14]

It’s likely that rising global temperatures and disrupted climate patterns have contributed to the decline of sausage potting in Appalachia. Consistently cold winters, people say, are not as common as they used to be. As 95-year-old Pleasants County, WV, native Grace Hashman observed in a 2012 interview, “But we don’t do it that way now. You put it in the freezer. It ain’t good [tasty] like it was when we [potted our own sausage], but you don’t have winters that will keep it now. Sometimes you go to store it and it gets too warm.” [15] Today’s procedures for safely canning sausage always include a pressure canner.

Cooking up Social Capital: Shared Work

Before freezers were widely available, home-canned sausage was common throughout the United States. Today, sausage can still be safely canned by using a pressure canner. Russell Lee, “Mrs. George Hutton dishes up sausage made from her own hogs and canned last winter. Pie Town, New Mexico,” June 1940. FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress. LC-USF34-036599-D

Home-bottled sausage has economic benefits, but it has social ones as well, solidifying shared values and aesthetic preferences as it is produced and consumed. Knowing how to raise hogs, butcher them skillfully, and preserve the meat successfully are forms of social and cultural capital that establish personal reputations and networks of shared pleasure and obligation.[16]

Complicated tasks that require group labor become shaped into expressive behavior that enacts deeply held values of hard work, mutual obligation, and assistance.[17] Jenette Chapman remembered that in Dungannon (Scott Co.), Virginia, in the 1940s and ’50s, “Hog killing was a ritual when it got cold enough”; the butchering itself was shortly followed by rituals of preservation: “Later, Mama would fry up sausage cakes and can them for the coming year.” Neighbors pooled their skillets in order to cook patty after patty. Most of the women in Carlton-LaNey’s study, like many farm women in the United States through mid-century, regularly “gathered for work in small groups of relatives and neighbors,” sometimes as part of USDA-affiliated Home Demonstration Clubs.[18]

This shared work creates spaces for story.  Ruth Winkle, for instance, grew up canning spare ribs and sausage in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. One of nine siblings, she eloped in 1940 at age 22. The day before she married Carlo, they butchered three hogs; her friend Oda Flynn came to help her process the resulting tub of sausage. The women fried patties all day together, topping off the full jars with boiling grease and then turning them “upside down so that grease would seal the jar good.” As the day wore on, though, Ruth could no longer contain her news; as she related in a 2012 interview, “I told Oda I’s plannin on gettin married the next day, I said ‘Now don’t you tell nobody,’ so she kept it a secret.”[19]

Cooking up Cultural Capital: Shared Tastes

Fannie’s Sausage Gravy: 1 lb. mild bulk pork sausage, 1 c. milk, 2 1/4 T. all-purpose flour, 1/2 t. pepper. In large heavy skillet, fry sausage until brown and stir to crumble. Remove from skillet with slotted spoon and drain well. Leave 2 t. drippings in skillet. Gradually add flour to drippings, stirring until smooth. Cook over medium heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Gradually add 2/3 c. of milk, stirring forcefully until mixture is smooth and thick. If you wish to have a thinner gravy, add the rest of the milk. Stir in pepper and sausage. Cook until hot, stirring all the while. Serve over split biscuits. Yields 4 servings.

~Fannie Flagg’s Original Whistlestop Cafe Cookbook

Flavor matters, too: food practices like these also reveal dominant taste preferences. For instance, Anne and John van Willigen write that “Older people [in Kentucky oral history interviews] often praised the flavor of sausage preserved [in jars], which apparently resulted in fresher-tasting sausage than that stored in sacks” outdoors in smokehouses. The 1924 Hazel-Atlas manual thought bottles upped the taste even more, noting that sausages would “retain their fresh flavor much longer when packed with hot fat in closed glass jars, than when open jars, crocks, or buckets are used.” [20]

This emphasis on “freshness,” a quality highly valued in twentieth-century American food talk and practice, also informs marketing discourses around meat preserving. A 1922 advertisement for the Burpee Home Can Sealer (which crimped lids onto metal Sanitary Cans) promised to support home economies and ensure delicious meals. By canning their own animals using technologies that ensured a “positive seal every time,” farmers could avoid having to sell livestock en mass for low autumn prices, and they wouldn’t have to depend on unnatural “salt meat or smoked meat” before next harvest season rolled around. “Canning is simply long distance cooking,” the ad stated, “so why not can your fresh meat now for next summer?” [21] This emphasis on freshness persists in advertising copy today; for instance, Newell Brands, the company that now sells all Ball and Kerr canning jars, refers to the practice as “fresh preserving,” even though foods prepared this way will have been heat-processed for at least ten minutes (and in the case of meats, considerably longer).

This Kansas City fundraising poster from 2016 demonstrates the enduring significance of sausage to groups throughout the United States.

Shared taste preferences of this sort form the backbone of regional identities: witness Biscuits and Gravy, a meal common in several U.S. regions. Here, sausage is an unstated but understood component. Even before commercial outfits like Bob Evans, Jimmy Dean, and Tennessee Pride sold frozen sausage gravy, and before chain hotels added sausage gravy to breakfast buffets in the South, Hazel-Atlas offered a recipe for home-canned sausage gravy in 1924, “made by adding a little flour and water to the fat in which the sausage has been cooked.” This mixture, rather than straight lard, was then poured hot over the pre-cooked sausage and processed in a pressure canner.[22]

Sausage gravy is broadly familiar in many communities today. For instance, Glenwood United Methodist Church in Galax, Virginia, has run a semiannual fundraising breakfast centered on Ruth Shropshire’s sausage gravy served on “split biscuits hot from the oven.” In 2009 Shropshire described the event as a way to “share in a community gathering,” but she also reported that people say her sausage gravy is the best they’ve ever had. [23]

In short, while the methods of making and preserving sausage have changed due to new food technologies, shifting environmental conditions, and altered rhythms of work and reciprocity, the meanings of bulk sausage persist. They resonate in daily private meals and in symbol-laden public gatherings, where people contemplate what counts as “fresh and good,” and what it means to be us.

Learn more

Cured South. Oral history interviews about meat production and curing, as documented by the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Green N’ Growing: The History of Home Demonstration and 4-H Youth Development in North Carolina. Essays and primary sources about social clubs organized around food production, conservation, and preservation.

National Center for Home Food Preservation. The most recent government recommendations about home food preservation, from the University of Georgia and United States Department of Agriculture.


[1] Kantha Shelke, “Sausage,”  in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by Andrew Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 525-26.

[2] As one canning manual advised, “Kill it and can it, and thereby stop the expense of feeding” (A Book of Recipes and Helpful Information on Canning, 4th ed. Wheeling, WV: Hazel-Atlas Glass Co, 1924, 17). See Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing (New York: W.W Norton, 2008). On the ways that sausage ingredients prevent oxidation and suppress or kill microbes, see David L. Thurmond, A Handbook of Food Processing in Classical Rome: For Her Bounty No Winter (Boston: Brill, 2006), 220-22; also Anita Dua, Gaurav Garg, and Ritu Mahajan, “Polyphenols, Flavonoids, and Antimicrobial Properties of Methanolic Extract of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Miller),” European Journal of Experimental Biology 3.4 (2013): 203-08; Biljana Bozin, Neda Mimica-Dukic, Isidora Samojlik, and Emilija Jovin, “Antimicrobial and Antioxidant Properties of Rosemary and Sage (Rosmarinus officinalis L. and Salvia officinalis L., Lamiaceae) Essential Oils,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 55.19 (2007): 7879-85.

[3] Sue Shephard, Pickled, Potted, and Canned: The Story of Food Preserving (London: Headline, 2000), 112-13; Shelke,  “Sausage.”

[4] Shephard, 116; Lesa W. Postell, Appalachian Traditions: Mountain Ways of Canning, Pickling & Drying (Whittier, NC: Ammons Communications, 1999), 88; Joseph E. Dabney, Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, and Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1998), 184.

[5] Anne Van Willigen and John Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms, 1920-1950 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 233.

[6] Jones Dairy Farm, “What Sets Us Apart,” Jones Dairy,, accessed Dec. 1, 2016; “Milo C. Jones, Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame, University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Animal Science,, accessed Nov. 17, 2016.

[7] Lyman Barnes remarked that before 1945, when families were able to rent freezer space in the Robertson County, KY, “meat locker” or purchase their own freezer chests, “everything [meat] was put in a fruit jar” (Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life, 217).

[8] Van Willigen and Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life, 235; Pearl McCall (Daviess Co, IN) in Eleanor Arnold, ed., Feeding Our Families, Memories of Hoosier Homemakers, vol. 1 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), 47; Renee Thackeray and Reese Loveless. “If Only Walls Could Talk: Thackeray Legacy Homes in Croydon [UT],” April 2015, document in possession of author; Minnie Ness (ND), in Eleanor Arnold, ed., Voices of American Homemakers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 138.

[9] Henrietta Lewis Logan, “Happy Hollow,” in Grazing Along the Crooked Road, edited by Betty Skeens and Libby Bondurant (Pounding Mill, VA: Henderson, 2009), 99; Iris Carlton-LaNey, “Elderly Black Farm Women: A Population at Risk,” Social Work 37, no. 6 (1992): 517–23, at 521, 518.

[10] Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company, The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes, No. 20, edition M (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley and Sons, c1921), p. 37, and Ball Brothers Company, The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes, No. 21, edition N (South Bend: L. P. Hardy Co., 1926), p. 19, in Ball Corporation Collection (98.37), Box 1, Folder 10, The Minnetrista Heritage Collection, Muncie, Indiana.

[11] Shephard 188-91. Some kinds of potting also involved beating the meat, with spices and fat, into a paste (a confit or paté) before packing into a pot and covering with melted fat; Sally Smith Booth, Hung, Strung, and Potted: A History of Eating in Colonial America (New York: Clarkson N. Potter; dist. by Crown Publishers, 1971).

[12] Van Willigen and Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life, 235;  Dabney, Smokehouse Ham, 184; Postell, Appalachian Traditions, 88. A recipe recorded in The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery calls for fresh sage-and-brown-sugar sausage to be partially fried and packed into jars 3/4 full, then covered with hot grease and stored upside down; the book also documents balled sausage packed in churn jars, shuck sausage, and sausage smoke-cured “in small, clean, white cloth sacks”; Linda Garland Page and and Eliot Wigginton, eds., The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery, Reprint (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 123.

[13] Van Willigen and Van Willigen Food and Everyday Life, 235.

[14] Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, A Book of Recipes and Helpful Information on Canning, 4th ed. (Wheeling, WV: Hazel-Atlas Glass Co, 1924), p. 24. The manual instructs cooks to “Fry sausage, pack in jars, pour hot lard over sausage until jar is entirely full. Be sure to have jar hot before pouring lard in and do not rest on metal tray or table. Close jar at once when filled, allow to cool, and store in a cool, dark place.”

[15] Grace E. Hashman, Interview by Katherine N. Bills, July 26, 2012, p. 14, Folder 14, Box 1, Appalachian Foodways Oral History Collection (SAA 164), Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Berea, KY. Other oral histories in this collection note that curing ham properly is increasingly difficult.

[16] On social and cultural capital, see (for instance) Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge UP, 1972) and “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J. Richardson (New York: Greenwood, 1986): 241-258; James Coleman, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,”  American Journal of Sociology 94 (1988): 95–120. 

[17] On the social value of work and self-sufficiency—which has been especially well documented in the mountain South—see Patricia D. Beaver, Rural Community in the Appalachian South (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1986); Rhoda H. Halperin, The Livelihood of Kin: Making Ends Meet “the Kentucky Way” (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990); Lu Ann Jones, Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[18] Jenette Chapman, “Glimpses of Yesteryear,” in Grazing Along the Crooked Road, edited by Betty Skeens and Libby Bondurant (Pounding Mill, VA: Henderson, 2009), 138; Van Willigen and Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life, 235; Carlton-LaNey, “Elderly Black Farm Women.”

[19] Mary Hufford, “ Ramp Suppers, Biodiversity, and the Integrity of “The Mountains,” Folklife Center News 20, no. 4 (Fall 1998), in Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia, Coal River Folklife Project collection (AFC 1999/008), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress; Ruth Winkle, Interview with Chelsea Bicknell, June 15, 2012, Folder 29, Box 1, Appalachian Foodways Oral History Collection (SAA 164), Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Berea, KY, pages 14-15.

[20] Van Willigen and Van Willigen 235; Hazel-Atlas, Book of Recipes, 24.

[21] Susanne Freidberg, Fresh: A Perishable History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009);The Home Canner 1, no. 1 (January 1992), Home Canners Association of America, in Ball Brothers Foundation Collection (94.38), Folder 4, The Minnetrista Heritage Center, Muncie, Indiana.

[22] Hazel-Atlas, Book of Recipes, 24.

[23] Shropshire’s recipe is: “1/2 lb. Neese’s sausage, 1/4 c. flour, 2 c. milk (1 c. evaporated + 1 c. water), salt & pepper to taste.” After browning the crumbled sausage in an iron skillet, one should “stir in flour and let cook for a few minutes, add milk and stir till thick; season to taste”; in Skeens and Bondurant, Grazing, 250.

Winter Puddings

A recipe for pressure-canned carrot pudding calls up a range of stories, stances, and identity markers.

The children of Rangwell and Mable Smyth Christensen converge at Fish Lake National Forest (Utah) in August 1983. Families came from California, Washington State, Ohio, and Virginia. We ate trout, but not pudding, and the older cousins taught us how to play blackjack.
The children of Rangwell and Mable Smyth Christensen converge at Fishlake National Forest (UT) in August 1983, making the trek from California, Washington, Ohio, and Virginia. We camped for a week, ate trout (but not pudding), and the older cousins taught us how to play blackjack. I’m the one in glasses and a plaid shirt sitting at the top of the rock.

In 1983, my grandmother Mable Smyth Christensen (1911-2005) compiled a book of recipes that she distributed at a rare whole-family reunion.

The book, titled simply Smyth Recipes, includes Mable’s favorites as well as contributions solicited from her four sisters and each of her children—but it begins with a picture of a coal stove and recipes taken from her mother’s “little green tin recipe box”: ginger snaps, white layered cake with cooked cream filling, relishes and chile sauces, sweet soups and dumplings learned from Danish neighbors, catsups and sandwich spreads that “Mama” (Mary Verona Cox Smyth [1880-1973]) bottled when cucumbers and green tomatoes were plentiful at their home in south-central Utah.

Under Mary Verona’s recipe for a steamed Christmas Plum Pudding, Mable typed a seeming non-sequitur about pressure canning: “(In a cook book I have for cooking in [a] pressure cooker it says: Allow steam to flow from vent pipe for 20 minutes. Place pressure regulator on vent pipe and cook 50 minutes at 10 lbs. Let pressure drop of its own accord. When I make carrot Pudding I put it in quart bottles)” (Smyth Recipes, 1983, 6). It wasn’t until page 20 that I discovered a “Sauce for Carrot Pudding,” and on the next page, a recipe for Carrot Pudding itself.

Eighteenth-century instructions for carrot pudding produce a kind of custard pie. But like steamed plum pudding, Grandma Christensen’s carrot pudding uses raisins and carrots and makes a dark spiced cake. And unlike its plummy relative, carrot pudding includes grated raw potatoes.

During the 1930s, this root vegetable recipe circulated in U.S. periodicals such as Your Thrift Guide Magazine, and similar recipes can be found today on the web, often linked to grandmothers, the adjective “old-fashioned,” or winter holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Steamed for the recommended time using a pressure canner, the jar of carrot pudding could be kept in the cupboard until revived with a sweet citrus, vanilla, or rum sauce.

[Note: Today’s food scientists do not recommend canning quickbreads or cake at home, since many circulating recipes erroneously instruct users to simply steam or bake the batter and then seal by adding a lid. Unfortunately, neither a boiling waterbath nor oven baking can adequately sterilize these low-acid foods. Sealing a jar of steamed pudding without processing it properly in a pressure canner risks cultivating the toxin that causes botulism. But never fear: to make fresh carrot pudding for immediate consumption, try this recipe from Canada (with a lemon sauce) or this lower-fat version (with a vanilla sauce), and if you want to keep it around for a while, put it in the freezer instead.]

Mable’s carrot pudding calls up strong sensory memories for my father, and I once sampled a jar more than 20 years old. Here are the recipes for both puddings as my grandmother typed them, minus a few spelling errors:

CARROT PUDDING (Mable Smyth Christensen)

Smyth Recipes cover_web
Now battered by years of children attempting to whip cream near its pages, Smyth Recipes includes turn-of-the-century classics, mid-century experiments with ready-made goods, and a number of inside jokes.

“1/2 cup shortening or margarine
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup grated carrots
1 cup grated potatoes
1 cup flour
1 cup raisins
1 tsp soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cloves
1/8 tsp salt
1 cup nuts if you enjoy the nuts

“Mix together with the other ingredients the creamed sugar and shortening. I put it in [quart] bottles and pressure it [i.e., process it in a pressure canner] for 50 min at 10 lbs. [Let pressure release naturally.] I have also used dates and sometimes added candied fruits.”

[Note: Avoid red potatoes; to improve texture, mix the grated potatoes with the baking soda and add them to the batter last.]

[Note: For fresh eating, I’ve divided this recipe into 4 widemouth pint jars covered with aluminum foil (since you’re not pressure canning, don’t use canning lids–lids might seal during steaming and create the low-oxygen condition that encourages botulism). Place the filled jars on a rack in a deep pot, add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the jars, cover, bring water to a slowish boil, and steam for 2 hours. Store jars in refrigerator or freezer.]


“1 cup sugar
2 cups boiling water
2 tbs flour
2 tbs butter or margarine
1 orange rind and juice
1/4 tsp salt

“Combine sugar, salt, and flour. Add boiling water slowly, stirring constantly. Boil slowly for 3 minutes. Add other ingredients. Keep warm until ready to serve. A dip of ice cream on top is delicious.”


“1 lb currants, 1 lb raisins, 1/2 lb lemon citron, 1 lb grated carrots, 1 lb bread crumbs, 1 lb flour, 3 tsp B.P. [baking powder], 1 tsp cinnamon, allspice a little ginger, a little mace, 9 eggs (or less), 1 lb beef suet, 1 tsp salt, 1 lb sugar and 1 cup molasses. Steam 2 days and till dinner time Christmas day.”

Carrot pudding bottled in 1982. My father brought several pints home to Ohio after his mother's death in 2005 (photo taken March 24, 2014).
Carrot pudding pressure-canned in 1982. My father brought several pints home to Ohio after his mother’s death in 2005 (photo taken March 24, 2014).

It’s not surprising that steamed puddings—so very English—show up in a cookbook about Smythness. Mable’s paternal grandparents Adam Craik Smyth (1840-1909) and Frances Harriet Townsden (1854-1926), who lived just around the corner during her childhood, were born in the counties of Lancashire and Kent. One set of her maternal great-grandparents (Robert Johnson [1823-1911] and Elizabeth Johnson [1825-1908]) immigrated from Cheshire and Lancashire in the 1840s. The other set (Frederick Walter Cox [1812-1879] and Cordelia Calista Morley [1823-1915]) brought together two families whose ancestors had colonized Massachusetts. So there’s plenty of Anglo to remember.

Notably, however, the Christmas pudding recipe fails to mention any kind of custard accompaniment, nor does it advocate drenching the finished pudding with a traditional dose of brandy. The recipe’s lack of sauciness may reflect a longtime culinary accommodation to Mormon restrictions on alcohol use—and explain why Grandma canned her carrot pudding rather than preserving it with spirits. Or perhaps one of my forebears had taken a page from Miss Briggs’s temperate London-based  Instruction In Cookery (1890). Then again, maybe Grandma just didn’t write that part down.

“With a Blather and Leather”: Packaging Preserves

Why might something as sticky and tricky as a harvested animal bladder morph (culturally speaking) into a pinked gingham lid cover cinched with twine?

This packaging is probably from the early 1940s; an ad in the July 1937 issue of Farmer’s Wife Magazine claims that the product is a “new kind of seal” (28).

When Cincinnati’s Clopay Corporation started promoting a “special form of DuPont Cellophane” as a closure for jelly jars in the late 1930s,[1] the product’s name and marketing emphasized convenience and efficacy: Jiffy-Seals were “Quick-easy-sure” (“Just moisten, press-on, and it’s done!”). The transparent, one-size-fits-most covers eliminated the need for messy paraffin coatings and allowed homemakers to avoid buying tin lids or new pots (“Use for all your odd-shaped glasses or jars!”). Most importantly, Jiffy-Seals promised to safeguard the product, offering “absolute protection” in a “tough, air-tight” package. A cutout in the product’s paper envelope allowed the new food-grade film to peek through, where it could be seen or even touched by the curious.

To ensure complete closure, consumers were instructed to lick a gummed strip (which doubled as a label) and fasten the crimped edges of the cellophane to the jam jar itself. Yet none of the colorful pots on the Jiffy-Seals packaging depict the gummed bands—arguably the most important part, the step that finalized the seal.


The visual omission is a small thing, but one that communicates more than thrift or longevity. By choosing to draw a ruffled cap rather than a tidy, taped-down cover, the Jiffy-Seals illustration invokes an earlier technology even as it claims to supersede that technology’s successors, wax and tin. This is an assertion of authenticity that reaches back to at least the eighteenth century—and animal bladders. And it is with us today in yet other forms.

A blather and Leather

In 1719, Thomas Newington—employee of a household in Brighthelmstone (now Brighton), England—recorded this recipe for pickled green beans:

Make a brine with water and salt strong enough to bare an Egg, put it to your beans cold and let them ly nine Dayes. Turn them every day. Then drain them and make som fresh water boyle, put in your beans and let them get boyle up then drain them dry and put som boyleing hot Vinigar to them, let them stand a day or two, then set them over fire in the Vineger and keep them scolding hott till green. Be sure let them not boyle, then to half a Peck of beans put half an ounce Cloves & Mace, a handfull or two of Dill and fennell, and tye them Down close with a blather and Leather. [2]

The recipe combines aspects of two pickling techniques (lacto-fermentation and “quick” vinegar processing), strategies familiar to anyone who pickles today: first let the green beans “work” in a salt brine; then stop the fermentation, draw off the salt, and kill any yeasts or molds by putting the beans through a fresh boil; and finally saturate the beans in a hot seasoned vinegar solution for better long-term storage.[3] But what about the last instruction, to “tye them Down close with a blather and Leather”?

Blather here is a variant of bladder, in this case one retrieved from a slaughtered cow, sheep, or hog and cleaned thoroughly. These membranes were commonly used as flexible vessel coverings before the twentieth century.[4] In an 1876 speech, for instance, a conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in England recommended using layers of bladder, tin foil, lead, bladder, and finally varnish to seal jars of dissected anatomical specimens suspended in alcohol. (He noted, however, that in order for the bladder to “adhere firmly” to the glass rim, it must be “macerated until it is partially decomposed”—a process he found “disagreeable and dirty.”)[5]

Bladders also attracted bugs, and they hardened and shrunk as they dried—fine for a layered plug or a post-slaughter homemade balloon, but not so great for keeping food impervious to environmental threats. Some bladders had to be wetted every other day with salt water (or with “the pickle” [solution] itself), and they were often backed up with a second covering of heavy paper or leather.[6]

Persistence: forms, functions, meanings

Even after other closures were common, bladders continued to be used to seal food jars.[7] An 1877 household encyclopedia included the following instructions for making and storing peach leather:

Allow a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit, pare and halve ripe peaches; crack a dozen stones [peach pits] for a peck of peaches, chop the kernels after blanching them, and throw them over the fruit, which must now be put in the preserving pan, heated slowly and boiled to a pulp. Add the sugar (granulated or crushed) and boil until clear; then spread on plates and dry in quite a cool oven until so stiff that it can be eaten from the fingers. Tear the sheets into bits and pack in jars with powdered sugar between the layers. Stretch clean, well-soaked bladder over the top and tie securely; or it may be packed in air-tight fruit cans.[8]

The same 1877 source laments that whole preserved quinces could only be stored prettily by using bladders, since fruit bottles with threaded necks (“Mason” or “patent” jars) were not yet available in a wide-mouthed option. “Put [the stewed quinces] hot in jars,” the encyclopedia advised, “and cover immediately with bladder. It is a great inconvenience that none of the glass fruit cans are made large enough to admit whole quinces, large pears or peaches. Paper dipped in the white of egg makes an air-tight covering, but it is very frail.” [9]

The packaging of this mandarin marmalade cultivates an artisanal aesthetic, calling up rarified authenticity via richly unique fabrics and the look of historical closures. Photo by Malene Thyssen, Nov. 2006 (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The improvement of rubber gaskets in the early twentieth century, and the subsequent development of cellophanes and plastic wraps made the mess and inconvenience of working with animal bladders unnecessary and obsolete.[10] Yet, as the Jiffy-Seal packaging makes plain, the bladder closure lived on as an idea. The high-tech cellulose product did the same job as the older closure—it kept stuff out of the jelly. But the not-yet-banded illustration of a jar apparently cinched with a string also works to replicate the unregulated form (uneven edges) and substance of the old-timey “blather.” Even as Jiffy-Seals marketing employed bright colors and celebrated cutting-edge technology as the U.S. moved into the mid twentieth century, its images also managed to invoke history and the marks of a maker’s hand.[11]

Exhibiting Continuity and Care

Strawberry jam guest favors at a 2012 Saskatchewan wedding that used Mason jars as table vases and in outdoor chandeliers. Photo by Jesslaine Elise Photography.

Few people today have heard of Jiffy-Seals; food scientists’ early repudiation of so-called open kettle techniques (in which hot foods are poured directly into a sterilized jar, and then sealed without further processing in a boiling water bath) has led to widespread use of two-piece metal caps even for high-sugar, high-acid jams and jellies. Still, the tied covering persists in purely decorative form, in the fabric-topped preserves that circulate as seasonal gifts (and, in recent years, as popular DIY wedding favors).

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has argued that heritage is produced when people give “the obsolete, the mistaken, the outmoded, the dead, and the defunct”—say, animal bladders, open kettle processing techniques, home cooking in general—a “second life” through exhibition. A “virtuality”—the idea of a thing—is presented in place of an “actuality” and signaled as noteworthy by means of plaques, guidebooks, interpretive panels, and the like.[12]  While these heritage displays can be grand and public, taking place in museums, recordings, classrooms, festivals, and farmers’ markets, they also happen in more intimate sites of cultural production and exchange. Tying a fabric cover on a jar of preserves—a move that reaches back to past closures—is a way to mark the jam (and jam-making) as important, worthy of adjectives like “historical” (imbued with continuity, tradition) and “handmade” (evoking care, skill, foresight).


Pinked gingham as international sign for “homemade”; Zagreb, Croatia, October 2015. Photo by zalazaksunca, via Pixabay

Depending on cultural context, of course, these very qualities could be interpreted differently: historical can be read as “outdated,” homemade as “tacky.” Choices regarding fabrics work to communicate where a maker stands in relation to cultural hierarchies. Should one ornament a jar with vintage calico, unfussy burlap, or artisanal paper?[13] Gingham, for instance, has become an international sign for homemade/handmade. The J.M. Smucker company trademarked its plaid Smucker’s (all-metal) lid in 1975 and has been engaged in legal action with a European firm over the ways these decorative decisions translate into elite market share.[14]


imitationBladderIf Smucker’s has moved from the virtuality of a fabric cap to virtual fabric itself (reproduced two-dimensionally on a metal lid), Jas Townsend & Sons, Inc. allows historical reenactors and others to simulate the cloth cap’s historical antecedent in function, form, and style. Like Jiffy-Seals of the 1930s and 1940s, the company’s imitation hog’s bladders work and look like the real thing, but they employ new materials. This very moment, for $7.50, one can purchase a 4-piece set of foot-square collage protein sheets; the company claims its faux bladders “provide an authentic look and effect without all the squeal and unpleasantries.”

Which is to say, this packaging aims to preserve more than preserves.

[1] Cellophane is made from cellulose, a plant-based polymer that forms the backbone of goods like cotton and wood. The Clopay Corporation (its name a combination of cloth and paper) also made window treatments and “moth-tight” garment storage bags; during WWII the company manufactured blackout shades. In 1950 it embraced petroleum-based plastics. See and
[2] “To Pickle French Beans,” Butler’s Recipe Book, 1719, edited by Philip James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), 17-18.
[3] The recipe implies that this last step involved extended time in a copper, brass, or bell-metal cooking vessel, which would have artificially “greened” the beans by leaching copper from the pot—an aesthetic strategy now known to be poisonous. (It’s no accident that the acid-salt solution used by jewelers to clean metal is also called a pickle.) Use glass, stoneware, or food-grade plastic containers when fixing pickles.
[4] e.g., Richard Briggs, The New Art of Cookery; According to the Present Practice; Being a Complete Guide to All Housekeepers, on a Plan Entirely New, Second American Edition, Improved (Boston: W. Spotswood, 1798):328; William Scott, The House Book, or Family Chronicle of Useful Knowledge, and Cottage Physician (London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, 1826): 564. In giving general directions for preserves, Catharine Beecher wrote, “Lay brandy papers over the top, cover them tight, and seal them, or what is best of all, soak a split bladder and tie it tight over them. In drying , it will shrink so as to be perfectly air-tight”; Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1846): 153.
[5] W. H. Flower, “Museum Specimens for Teaching Purposes,” Nature Jan 4, 1877, 204-206, at 205.
[6] Kay Moss and Kathryn Hoffman, The Backcountry Housewife (Gastonia, NC: 18th Century Backcountry Lifeways Studies Program, Schiele Museum, 1994): 93; Marjorie Kreidberg, Food on the Frontier: Minnesota Cooking from 1850 to 1900, with Selected Recipes (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1975): 285n15.
[7] In addition to the rubber or composite gaskets that have been standard since the early twentieth century, other sealants for food jars have included layers of oil or suet, paper dipped in brandy, and corks or other plugs secured with wire and/or sealed with wax, resin, or varnish. Often, and especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more than one strategy was combined.
[8] Goodholme’s Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information (New York: Henry Holt, 1877): 385.
[9] ibid.,  423.
[10] William Hale Charch had patented a moisture-proof cellophane using nitrocellulose lacquer in 1927, and the product was marketed very successfully by DuPont until the 1960s, when PVC-based plastic wraps came on the market. John K. Winkler, The Dupont Dynasty (Baltimore, MD: Waverly Press, 1935): 271; David A. Hounshell and John Kenly Smith, Science and Corporate Strategy: Du Pont R&D, 1902–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988): 170; DuPont, “1925 William Hale Charch,” About Us: History,, accessed May 2016; Cory Bernat, “Supermarket Packaging: The Shift From Glass to Aluminum to Plastic,” The Atlantic, January 25, 2012.
[11] See David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).
[12] Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Theorizing Heritage,” Ethnomusicology 39.3 (1995): 367-380, at 369, 377-78.
[13] Those who create material culture can manipulate aspects of form (shape, structure), decoration (color and other forms of ornamentation), and technology (materials, techniques) to communicate practical, social, and ideological functions. See Henry Glassie, “Folkloristic Study of the American Artifact: Objects and Objectives,” in Handbook of American Folklore, ed. Richard M. Dorson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983) and James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1977).
[14] Janon Fisher, “Jam War Spreads to Federal Court,” AdWeek,  August 9, 2011.

Dried Veg & Culinary Campaigns

Preserved food has been integral to the expansion of empires, though sometimes the eaters push back.

I’m writing a book about the politics of home canning. When I say politics, I mean the ways that home food preservation has been enmeshed in negotiations of power and influence, on scales large and small. This blog is a way for me to think through primary sources I’m encountering in my research—posters and labels and recipes and illustrations, like the frontispiece of a Crimean War memoir called Soyer’s Culinary Campaign (1857).

Let’s start large, at the Crystal Palace—the huge iron-framed glass building built in London’s Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, just a few years before the Crimean War began. Officially, this mid-century international fair of mechanical triumphs was called the Exhibition of the Works of Industry to All Nations, and its main building housed nearly 8 miles of display tables covering a total floor area (on multiple stories) of about 23 acres. Full-grown trees sheltered comfortably inside its glass walls. The exhibition was a celebration of Empire: winning exhibitors received medals that featured Victoria and Albert on the front, and on the back a Latin phrase that means “For there is a certain country in the great world.”

Blood, Honey, and Vegetable Cakes

“The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, 1851,” Add. MS 35255, The British Library

Among the nearly 14,000 exhibitors at the Crystal Palace—producers of pig iron, silk, cod liver oil, lichens, wallpaper, and every other imaginable creation—were those who entered products in Class H, “Animal Food and Preparations of Food As Industrial Products.” Judges in this category examined “portable soups,” “consolidated milk,” honey, blood (“and its preparations”), caviar, glues, gelatins, “articles of Eastern commerce” (such as shark fins and the “Nest of the Java Swallow”—a gauzy web of secretions apparently highly prized in China as an aphrodisiac), and, in Class H.1, “preserved alimentary substances.” Included here were tinned meats, bottled fruits and vegetables, and—taking home a Council Medal, the exhibition’s highest prize—M. E. Masson’s “dried and compressed vegetables,” manufactured by Chollet & Co. by means of dry heat and hydraulic pressure.[1]

I’ll get to tinned and bottled foods in future posts; for now, let’s focus on the big winner of Class H.1: dried vegetables. When Arthur Hill Hassall, a physician and pure-food crusader, tested a 4-inch-square of Masson-style vegetables a few years after the Great Exhibition, he noted that the cake’s fragmented and compacted state made it “difficult to determine what the nature of the vegetable was.” (He was looking at dehydrated cabbage, but it could also have been spinach, Brussels sprouts, beans, peas, sliced carrots, parsnips, potatoes, apples, endive, cauliflower, celery, or various herbs, all of which had been successfully processed in this way by Masson, a French horticulturist.)

Still, like the judges at the Crystal Palace, Hassall was a huge fan of these “dry and shrivelled” products. Once rehydrated, he noted, they tasted and looked better than vegetables preserved “in the moist way.” The fragments transformed in hot water, plumping, uncurling, becoming opaque, so that they resembled the fresh item’s taste, color, and overall appearance “in remarkable” and “really marvellous” ways.[2]

“What a Luxury for the Arctic Seas!”

One London paper of the period called them “mummy vegetables,” but this wasn’t a slur; the editors themselves, upon tasting a dish of green peas that had been two years dried, “found them as succulent and as palatable as if they had only just come from Covent Garden market.” When poured from the 3-inch-long rectangular tin box in which they were stored, the peas had appeared “about the density and digestibility of small [bird]shot,” but after 30 minutes of soaking they regained their shape and turned “a perfectly natural green.” In fact, when the tasters found that these patent vegetables retained both their natural “nutritive qualities” and their “vascular tissue,” they were moved to exclaim, “What a luxury for the Arctic Seas!” (Apparently a boon for Atlantic and Pacific voyages, too—the article was reprinted in a New Zealand paper in 1853.)[3]

Masson’s preservation strategy was in fact eagerly adopted by people and Powers that wanted to be out and about, beyond existing borders. The dried vegetable cakes weighed just 1/8 of comparable fresh produce and reportedly compressed 16,000 rations into one cubic yard. And they could withstand long voyages: in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, the French Navy affirmed that Masson-processed cabbage kept on board a man-o-war for four years in its desiccated state had been revived with “complete success”; 15 grams of the stuff were ordered for each sailor’s mess three times a week, alongside their salted meat.[4]

“It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of these preparations”

More than offering convenience or variety at home, then, these products made possible the conquest of previously autonomous spaces, and they sustained empire through commerce. As the jurors at the Crystal Palace acknowledged in their report,

“It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of these preparations. The invention of the process by which animal and vegetable food is preserved in a fresh and sweet state for an indefinite period has only been applied practically during the last twenty-five years, and is intimately connected with the annals of Arctic discovery.”

Demand for “preserved alimentary substances” had been created by 1) attempts to discover a northwest passage that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, thus simplifying trade routes; 2) desires to “prosecute scientific research in [virtually] inaccessible regions” (such as the jungles of South America); and 3) aspirations to thrive in hot climates (“especially in India,” where scattered European families were often unable to consume quantities of freshly slaughtered meat before it spoiled).[5]

During the Crimean War (1853-1856), Alexis Soyer advocated the use of mixed “vegetable-chollet” to improve the diet of soldiers. He proposed to the Paris company that the dried and seasoned cakes of carrots, turnips, parsnips, onions, cabbage, celery, and leeks be “marked in compartments of ten rations each, like chocolate cakes,” to help the men avoid “this excellent vegetable rising pyramidically” from their cooking pans when they underestimated the astonishing power of rehydration. Soyer’s Culinary Campaign (London: Routledge, 1857).

With improvements in sterilization and hermetic sealing during the first third of the nineteenth century, “the consumption of preserved meats became, at once, enormous. Hundreds of tons,” the judges wrote, “are annually transported to the East Indies and all our colonial possessions, and many are consumed by our fleets.” These processed provisions were thrifty: they reduced waste generated during food preparation, were lighter than whole animals (which inconveniently carried bones and skin with them on voyages), and limited potential decay to individual tins rather than letting putrefaction spread through entire casks of salted meat. Featherweight vegetables could nurse the sick aboard ship and prevent nutritional deficiencies. Then, too, the bounteous raw materials being harvested in the likes of Tasmania, Canada, and Australia could be efficiently processed and preserved abroad, then shipped back to England as cheap food for “the lower classes.”[6]

“Desecrated” Vegetables: Talking Back

Such effusive praise leaves me wondering about other voices, those who participated in these culinary campaigns from different perspectives. Did Madame Daniele St. Etienne, who also exhibited in Class H.1, find a market for her “specimens of vegeto-animal substances, meat, flour, &c. prepared for long voyages,” to be used in soups, puddings, pies, and other dishes? Though she received an honorable mention for a “bottle of dried and pulverised spinach,” the judges remarked that her “curious preparation resembl[ed] M. Masson’s, but the quantity exhibited is too small, and the general applicability of the process is not known.”[7]

And what about the soldiers, sailors, and other members of the “lower classes” who were treated to these industrial efficiencies? About a decade after the Great Exhibition, on Virginia battlefields during the US Civil War, John Davis Billings was less than ecstatic about dried veg. A private in the Army of the Potomac, Billings recalled in an 1888 memoir that Union soldiers were occasionally given a one-ounce, 2- to 3-inch cube of mixed “vegetables, which had been prepared, and apparently kiln-dried, as sanitary fodder for the soldiers,” a way to ward off scurvy. The cubes did swell to “amazing proportions,” he observed, and

“in this pulpy state a favorable opportunity was afforded to analyze its composition. It seemed to show, and I think really did show, layers of cabbage leaves and turnip tops stratified with layers of sliced carrots, turnips, parsnips, a bare suggestion of onions,—they were too valuable to waste in this compound,—and some other among known vegetable quantities, with a large residuum of insoluble and insolvable material which appeared to play the part of warp to the fabric, but which defied the powers of the analyst to give it a name.”

In one lot, inspectors found powdered glass between the vegetable layers, though Billings was unsure whether this was an act of Confederate sabotage or just “showed how little care was exercised in preparing this diet for the soldier.” His comrades—who felt the so-called desiccated vegetables were better fit for “Southern swine than Northern soldiers”—called “this preparation of husks” “desecrated vegetables.”[8]

Billings’s use of kiln-dried, fodder, stratified, residuum, insoluble, analyst, and even possibly his weaving metaphor (“play the part of warp to the fabric”) reveal his awareness of the soldier’s place within military-industrial-scientific complexes. Yet his wordplay (desecrated vegetables, Southern swine; the parallelisms of Southern swine/Northern soldiers) works to humanize and critique these circumstances. Instrumental as military campaigns were for expanding states and industries, they and the food technologies that enabled them were not received in silence.

[1] Exhibition of the Works of Industry to All Nations, 1851: Reports by the Juries on the Subjects in the Thirty Classes Into Which the Exhibition Was Divided, vol. 1 (London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1852).
[2] Arthur Hill Hassall, Food and Its Adulterations (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855), 431, 436.
[3] “Masson’s Patent Dried And Compressed Vegetables,” Lyttelton Times, April 23, 1853.
[4] Hassall 1855, 431-32.
[5] Exhibition, 1852, 154.
[6] ibid., 1852, 154-155. It should be noted that in 1852, the very year that the juries published awards for meat prepared by “Goldner’s process” (156), the eponymous Goldner (whose prices undercut other contractors) was apparently responsible for a tinned meat scandal that resulted in tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of pounds of rotten meat being discarded; read the gory details here.
[7] ibid., 1852, 156; Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851, Part 1 (London: W. Clowes and Sons), 194. According to the building plan published in the Catalogue, the “Vegetable and Animal Substances Used as Food” display was in the South Gallery, with “Raw Produce” on one side and “Chemicals” on the other; across the aisle were ribbons, lace, and precious metals.
[8] John Davis Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, the Unwritten Story of Army Life, (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley, 1960), 141-42. Emphasis in the original.