Monday, July 31, 2017

We Don't Want No Stinkin', Rottin' Food

About a year ago, our monthly article was about Sutton’s pioneer Bemis family. We retold a story that Mrs. Bemis, the former Ada Gray had told on her husband, attorney George Bemis, a story that shows up in early Sutton accounts.

It was early in that first spring when only a few dozen people had found and settled in Sutton. George had bought a cow and that evening much of the community gathered to observe the milking of what may have been the town’s first milk cow.

The next morning George was sitting at the table after breakfast when Ada asked him if he was going to milk the cow. His response was, “Why? Are you out of milk already?”

Ada may have told Sutton’s first joke, at least its first lawyer joke. But the story triggers a more serious thought about those early days. How did Ada take care of that fresh milk to keep it from spoiling at a time before refrigeration? How did people store and protect their perishable foods generally?

The food preservation problem goes back a long way, to ancient times when people discovered that salt helped to keep food edible preventing bad tummy aches. Mark Kurlansky published a book in 2002 he called simply, “Salt – A World History” describing how much of the world’s history was driven by the search for sources of that edible and useful rock.

The Romans had numerous sources but when they settled in Britain, they found salt mines all over that island. Town names ending in “-wich” are, in almost every case, a town with a salt mine in its history.
This icebox from the 1920's illustrates one style with the block of
ice in the left compartment. Our icebox from the '40's had a bottom
compartment for the ice. 
Way before that, the city of Jericho in the West Bank of Palestinian Territories was founded almost 10,000 years ago as a salt trading center. And a more recent fun fact is that the early village of Lancaster where its 30 residents were engaged in gathering salt from the marshes along Salt Creek was designated as the state capitol and renamed “Lincoln” partially on the expectation that salt mining would be the basis of a local booming economy.

The lure of spices from the east contributed to the Columbus adventure in 1492 having a certain and large impact on history.

Salt helped preserve food by absorbing water from the food making an environment too dry for mold or bacteria to develop. Spices such as vinegar, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, etc. keep food fresh by inhibiting the growth of bacteria, though cynics may say that it makes food taste so bad you don’t notice it’s rotten.

Before the Bemis family came to Sutton, people wise to the ways of preserving food roamed the area. Native Americans had pemmican. You may have had the misfortune of stumbling upon online videos advertising a book called “The Lost Ways”. The book supposedly describes 150 lost ways to live in the woods. The impetus behind the book is the survivalist movement and you’ll need to wade through the politics on this one.
Native Americans made, and lived on pemmican; mountain men and settlers copied the recipe and today,
today it belongs to campers and survivalists. 
The pemmican video describes how to make the product by drying lean meat and berries in a low-heat oven, grinding the meat and berries into a powder, and then mixing that concoction with melted beef tallow or fat. The result is a supposed to be a high-energy, tasty, and long-lasting food. Ten pounds of the stuff will sustain you for a month in the woods, etc.

The mountain men and early settlers learned about pemmican from the Indians and adapted that and many similar Native American food and food preservations secrets.

The problem of keeping food safe was widespread, far beyond that of the Bemis family and their neighbors in those early Sutton years.

Those people moving west in wagon trains had to know how to keep food fresh. Sailors needed to bring along food and water for their entire trip, plus a safety margin. Have you ever had hardtack and grog?

Generals understood well that an army moves on its stomach, that is, no amount of the latest in armaments will do any good if the general can’t keep the men fed and healthy.

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte gets credit for one of the major breakthroughs in food
Napoleon had a hand in the invention of the
canning process when he held a contest to find
a way to keep food safe for the troops. 
preservation that the settlers used and we depend on today. Military officers knew that tainted food was a huge risk to their army. A soldier in his tent doubled up with a bad stomach ache is as useless to the general that day as the comrade who was shot in the head yesterday.

Napoleon offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs in the late 18th century to anyone who could develop a reliable method of food preservation. Nicholas Appert came up with the idea of preserving food in bottles, like wine. After 15 years of experimenting, he figured out that if food was heated enough and sealed in an airtight container, it would not spoil, and the process of canning was invented. We don’t know what he did with the prize money.

Canning food was a simple process that anyone could do at home providing safe food for long periods of time.

But back to Ada Bemis. What did she do in 1871 to keep the milk safe? The tried and true approach at that time was to keep the milk in a cool place, usually in cool water. School Creek was handy. Maybe that’s where she kept the milk.

Entrepreneurs on the frontier stepped up to offer ice through much of the year. Sutton’s ice man was I. N. Clark followed by his son, Bertie. Their source was the winter ice in Glen Lake, now called Clark’s Pond. They would cut blocks of ice out of the lake in the winter storing the ice in their ice house. The elder Clark put up 5,000 tons of ice each winter in the early 1890’s. Ice houses were usually dug a few feet deep into the ground and a solid roof built overhead. Ice was layered with straw, a good insulator, and would keep through most of the summer.

Several farmers in the northeast corner of the county built their own ice house, or ice cave stocking it with ice from the Blue River during the winter and sharing the ice in the summer.

Even the nobility had food storage issues. This
partially sunk ice house is in the Boboli Gardens
behind the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy, home of
the ruling Medici family from about 1550.
Ice storage was a world-wide problem. The “coolest” instance I found was the ice house in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy, behind the Pitti Palace. That palazzo was the Medici home from the mid-16th century and, of course, was used by Napoleon for a time.

Several years ago, we found a newspaper clipping about a fellow near Glenvil who had a large ice business on the banks of the Little Blue River. His storage facility was a way up the bank of the river with an elaborate pulley system to transport the blocks of ice up the hill.

Later, now within my memory, the Sutton Mill just west of downtown on the north side of the Burlington tracks had an ice business. This was during the years before electricity came to the farm and the “icebox” was the answer to cold storage. The icebox was an insulated cupboard, looking much like a refrigerator, but with a section to hold a large block of ice. There was a pan to collect the melted water that you wanted to empty often. My memory is that the blocks of ice we purchased from the mill were about 1 foot cubes, the last purchase in town before heading home.

Another handy cool place was a well. Foodstuffs could be lowered on a rope into the bottom of the well where the temperatures would be considerable cooler than above ground and food would keep for several days.

One farm wife’s story at the State Historical Society’s website describes using tanks in the farm’s milk house to keep milk cool. The water in the tanks needed to be changed daily, or more often, but it worked.

Root cellars were, and still are, another structure dug into the ground, roofed over and stocked with potatoes, turnips, carrots, etc. all layered with straw. Straw layers hold trapped air which makes a good heat insulator protecting cool food from the heat.

When electricity service came to the house, the refrigerator was high up on the wish list of new appliances. It’s hard to overestimate the impact the refrigerator had on the quality of life after literally thousands of years of making do with barely adequate ways to keep food fresh and safe.
Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), modern C-Rations, may be the current high-water mark for technology to preserve and store
food. Military needs come in large sizes and DoD has the resources to make things happen.
The technology and the methods to keep food safe continue to develop. And as often happens, the military has the biggest need and the largest incentive to address it. My last active duty assignment was at the Defense Logistic Agency’s depot in northern California. That facility was tasked with producing Meals Ready to Eat for use by the army and marines and for long-term storage. A relatively small workforce produced millions of these food packs incorporating the food processing and preservation techniques developed over time.

And finally, there is a question that bothered me a lot recently. We typically store about 10 dozen eggs for the historical society’s pancake breakfast on the first Saturday of the month and the Allegro Wolf’s third Saturday waffle breakfast.

We were keeping the eggs in the refrigerator when I remembered that back on the farm in the 50’s we collected about 30 dozen eggs at a time before taking them to town and we certainly did not refrigerate them – we never had that kind of capacity.

After inconclusive discussions, I consulted the ultimate authority, the internet. In part of the world, the U. S., Japan, Australia and Scandinavia, we prefer clean, even pristine eggs so we wash our eggs. Washing removes a natural protective film the chicken puts on the egg. That coating resists bacteria, salmonella and the like. So, without that coating, we need to refrigerate our eggs.

In the rest of the world, most of Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. the egg production and delivery system does not wash the eggs so with the protective film intact, there is no need to refrigerate the eggs. Apparently, those people are less squeamish about buying eggs with chicken poop stains.
After some time with a nagging question about the proper way to store eggs, a bit of research came up with not one
preferred way, but two completely different answers, both equally valid. Case closed.
Both systems work equally well in keeping eggs safe for consumption. The rule is that the system must be consistent and a supporting array of regulations ensures that.

Since you have lasted through this entire article, I commend you. This is another example of our attempt to learn some details about how people have lived in Sutton’s past. If there is some aspect of the past that interests you, let us know as eight years of this series eaten up almost 100 topics. Coming up with another topic each month gets increasingly difficult.

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