Tag Archives: dehydrated food

“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), http://www.firmancs.org/aboutus_history.html; “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 ancestry.com, noting that she’d downloaded it from the internet in 1999.

“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 http://www.clopayplastics.com/history-timeline and http://www.clopaydoor.com/aboutus/clopay-history.
[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, DuPont.com, 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.