I was the first to arrive at the office on Monday morning, and after flicking on the lights, cranking up the aircon, selecting the week’s playlist (We’re All So Stoked to Be Here) and throwing the front doors open to our adoring public, I went to make myself a cuppa.
It wasn’t until the carton of milk was completely upended over my mug that I realised something was amiss. Fetching a long spoon, a face mask and a heavy torch, I went in for a closer look. It very quickly became clear that unless I planned on developing a new strain of penicillin, there was no point hanging on to the contents. After some further (cautious) investigation it became apparent that it wasn’t just the milk that was whiffy, everything in the fridge was warm. At some point over the weekend the whole darn thing had conked out and its contents had begun to liquefy.
While a new fridge was being ordered, Carly took one for the team and cleared the contents of the old one with a Territory Taste-branded tea towel wrapped tightly around her face. In the grand tradition of shared refrigerators, most of the contents were suspect well before the exercise began (she found a jar of Vegemite on the second shelf that had expired in 1964), but it did get me thinking … For someone who cheerfully consumes food so far past the use-by date that it’s merely a speck on the horizon, the noble art of keeping food is clearly a subject worthy of further study.
A quick squizz at the Wikipedia entry for food preservation reveals two lists, “Traditional preservation” and “Modern industrial techniques”. The first list reads like a series of activities your mad Aunt Beryl used to perform at the beginning of the summer solstice whilst naked under a full moon, and contains techniques that have been practiced for thousands of years. The latter is full of things they did to patients of British sanatoriums in the early 1950s, before adapting the processes to suit the modern global food industry. For your enjoyment, here is an abridged and amended version.
YE OLDE METHODES OF FOODSTUFFE PRESERVATIONE
Curing: Who doesn’t love cured meats? Cured ham, cured bacon, cured pork … Let’s face it, it’s all pig and it’s all delicious. One of the earliest methods of preservation, curing with smoke or salt was first performed by Middle Eastern and Oriental cultures as early as 12,000 bce. The latter absorbs moisture and the microbes that cause meat to break down and decay, so if you’re wondering how long a strip of biltong you found down the back of the couch is still edible for, I say give it a crack regardless, even if the loose change you also found down there pre-dates decimal currency.
Cooling: The most important form of domestic preservation in modern times, thanks to our friendly family fridge we no longer have to keep a cow out the back for our daily banana, kale and turmeric smoothies. Australia was one of the first countries to adopt refrigeration technology, primarily (and stop me right here if this is shocking to you) to keep beer cold.
Freezing: One thing you may notice about ice is that it doesn’t hang around for very long. A crisp gin and tonic very swiftly becomes a watery gin and tonic after only a few minutes in the Darwin sun. However, ice in large volumes is surprisingly robust and long-lasting, as the steerage passengers of the Titanic discovered to their terminal regret. The bigger it is, the more efficient it is at retaining its bulk. Once the enterprising New Englander Fredric Tudor figured out you could fill a ship’s hold with lake ice and take it on a 20-day jaunt across the ocean while only losing a fraction of its mass, the ice trade was born. Long before domestic refrigerators had ice-cube dispensers, the commercial production of ice revolutionized the food industry. Eating ‘fresh’ foods from afar and out-of-season was suddenly a possibility. The meat and fish industries boomed, as did export in general.
Boiling and Heating: Boiling liquid before consumption is the surest way to avoid an intimate relationship with a squat toilet. In addition to zapping microbes, there’s something called ‘critical heat flux’, which I assume has something to do with time travel. As for Heating, I’m not sure I fully understand how ‘heating’ differs to ‘cooking’, but it’s basically the same as boiling but with solids. If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or indeed anything medieval, you’ll have heard of the gastranomic lucky dip that is perpetual stew. The basic idea is a massive stockpot or cauldron that has never been fully emptied (ever), which is perpetually refilled with whatever plants or game that is available. Keeping the contents hot prevents bacteria from forming, and the flavour bracingly, if not startlingly random.
Sugaring: This is a wonderful method and suits all foods and diets, as long as you’re not wedded to the idea of keeping your own teeth past the age of 32. Mainly used as a way to preserve fruit, it involves packing said fruit in syrup, cooking it in sugar or turning it into jam. Yes, it makes even grapefruit delicious, if not quite nutritious.
Pickling: Similar to sugaring but the savoury version, pickling is the preserve of veggies and meats and usually involves a form of brine, vinegar, alcohol or oil. The liquid doing the pickling gives flavour to the solids and, due to the high salt content, keeps the bacteria count low.
Lye: Now I thought this was something old people used to clean drains with, a sort of pre-1900s Easy Off Bam, so I looked it up and it’s sodium chloride, which is something we still use to clean drains with. Worryingly, it’s also used as a sort of chemical peel for fruits and veggies, in the processing of ice cream, soft drink and chocolate, and is what gives pretzels their shiny brown, glazed crunch.
Canning: This involves cooking foods, sealing them in sterilised tins or jars then boiling the crap out of the container to kill off any bacteria. Early cans were lined with lead solder, which predictably created a whole host of other health issues not related to germs, and during WWI were so indesctructable that soldiers opened them by shooting at them.
Jellying: This is absolutely as disgusting as it sounds, and has nothing to do with the Aeroplane variety. Put “jellied” into the same Google Image search as “eels” and prepare to never eat food of any sort ever again. At the yummiest end of the scale, jellying results in the fine gel layer atop a tasty pâté. At the worst, try typing “sipunculid worms” and go fetch a bucket. That they generate their own slime when cooking makes it somehow even worse.
Jugging: Nothing to do with jiggling, cupping or motorboating (or boobs at all really), this is an old way of saying ‘chuck it all in the slow-cooker and leave it till we get home’. Usually chunks of meat in a tightly-sealed earthenware pot and stewed in red wine or blood.
Burial: May sound like a weird way to preserve something, but burying limits the light and oxygen that help along the breakdown of organic matter. (Which is why burying bodies is not just about hiding the evidence.) Buried cabbage can turn into sauerkraut, and storing rice underground extends its shelflife by months.
Fermentation: This is what happened to the office milk, and is why I had to scoop it out of the carton with salad tongs. It is the conversion of starch and sugars into alcohol. Once this happens, you may as well discard the food and drink the liquid that remains. (All of it if you ever want to be able to tell a travel anecdote that begins with ‘guess what I did in Asia’ and ends with ‘and then I ate the WHOLE bowl of sipunculid worms!’)
NEW FANGDANGLED METHODS
Pasteurisation: Originally applied to wine to prevent it from souring, this process is used to treat milk and the goobies it picks up between the teat and the milk bar by heating the liquid to 70ºC, then cooling it quickly to kill off the bacteria. Louis Pasteur came up with this method after realising that microorganisms cause food spoilage. (He also developed the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax, so we really have a lot to thank him for.)
Vacuum packing: If you’ve never worked in a deli, chances are you’ve not discovered the simple pleasure in testing the limits of a cryovac machine with non-food items such as till rolls, highlighters and the boss’s keys. They’re also very handy for keeping meat from going bad for longer periods of time, but the lack of oxygen can rob more complex foods (like soft cheeses) of their flavour.
Artificial food additives: Back in 1993, a few days before Christmas my sister ate a whole box of Xmas jellybeans before breakfast. The subsequent sugar-high and accompanying tantrum was a thing to behold. (The trigger, I believe, was a Christmas tree that didn’t quite brush the ceiling.) Turns out she was allergic to the chemical compounds that turn confectionery red and green. From a preservation point of view, modern foods are positively dripping with lab-created chemicals designed to prevent them from sagging, spoiling or liquifying. Sure, everything lasts longer, but at what cost to the nutritional value and natural flavour?
Irradiation: Despite this process sounding like something Iron Man does on his days off, it’s all about the exposure of food to ionizing radiation. Yes, it’s probably going to give us all cancer but it’s highly effective in killing moulds, parasites and bacteria. Just don’t stand too close to the machine when it’s switched on.
Pulsed electric field electroporation: This technique attacks innocent little potatoes, tomatoes and soybeans (who, by the way, never did you any harm at all) at the cellular level in mass production farming in order to alter bacterial DNA using something called a plasmid. I’m pretty sure there’s a David Cronenberg movie where this is how you create fearsome flying space monkeys.
Modified atmosphere: You know those ‘no need to wash’ bags of salad at the supermarket? Who knew that each bag contained its own little atmosphere that has been scientifically modified in a lab somewhere? The leaves retain their appearance and texture, but ‘may’ lose their vitamins… It’s like magic! Grow your own if you can.
Nonthermal plasma: The Wikipedia entry begins with “A nonthermal plasma is in general any plasma which is not in thermodynamic equilibrium …” at which point I slipped into a coma and died. Sorry.
High-pressure food preservation: Believe it or not, this is about as close as you can get to turning food into diamonds and not be engaged or a contestant on The Bachelor by the end of it.
Biopreservation: I always thought microbiota was a very small ocean-going vessel, but it turns out it’s good bacteria that can be manipulated to extend the shelf life of a range of foods.
Hurdle technology: If you assumed that this is what handed Sally Pearson Olympic gold in London, you’d be wrong; it’s actually to do with controlling pathogens. I’ve seen movies where white men in white coats (usually played by George Clooney) attempt to control pathogens, and by the end everyone is dead except George Clooney and the lady he was shagging at the time. I’ll take the contents of the office fridge over the biochemical apocalypse any day.