Capturing Abundance

by Roberta

If abundance is “a very great quantity, [usually] considered to be more than enough” (as defined by the Oxford Canadian dictionary), then we had an overload of abundance of rain this year as well as heat. However, like most things in life, abundance is more often than not a fleeting occurrence. The rain came, dumping it’s great abundance in spring with an additional couple of overwhelming and flooding splashes later on, and has recently become scarce; the heat wave came and went. When it comes to food, abundance has for our species (at least for the sake of this argument) been a precarious affair.

As hunter-gatherers we foraged for and were often rewarded by abundance, and found it in many places at either short or long distances. This was fresh picked or scavenged food enjoyed in the here and now, because the climate of where early humans lived was favourable to that way of eating and living. With global human expansion and the pursuit of agriculture, abundance or perhaps more appropriately, surplus, was hoarded. Because our ancestors knew enough about the fickleness of abundance, a sure way to overcome the more than occasional scarcities was to hoard foods (and grains, nuts, legumes and seeds were good first candidates for longer-term storage).

Our ancestors (sedentary or otherwise) were very food storage savvy, adapting to new environments with their specific growing conditions, as well as adopting new plants and inventing/discovering new methods for their preservation. Salting, drying, fermenting, smoking, freezing (where the climate allowed) etc., were the first food preserving techniques. Preserving with vinegar (i.e. pickling) was just an extension of wine and beer making or the spoilage thereof (old wine = vinegar, right?). Preserving with sugars (first honey then from sugar cane) was happening in ancient times as well. And then there is the preserving of milk (in the form of butter and cheese), and the list goes on.

Canning and refrigeration are a different story, because they have their origins (as much of human “modern” day history does) in commerce and warfare. Colonizers and armies needed to be moved over long distances, and while at sea (or on the road) they needed to be fed. There are many works of literature devoted to these topics, so if you are interested, I am listing some of them at the end of this article.

In the domestic and community spheres, preserving has recently emerged as a cool “new” thing to do. Canning workshops are super popular, and bookstore shelves heave with canning and food preserving books and the internet equally brims with resources. Yet, knowledge is not the only resource needed to capture abundance, time and a place to store this captured abundance are also required. Let’s first take a look at time.

Since the early days of industrialization, the objective has been to free more bodies up for labour in factories. Bread and jam emerged as cheap, quick energy foods fed to the masses, but it was still often women who kept the fire in the hearth and food, whatever they could afford, bubbling in the pot. Once women joined the workforce in ever larger numbers, industry stepped in to bring us easier to prepare and convenience foods (minute rice, anyone?).

The kitchen was a woman’s prison; work outside the home was celebrated as the emancipator and liberator of women everywhere (well, mostly in the West). Sure, there was less time for domestic chores and cooking in particular, but hey, that was OK, because now there were nifty time saving gadgets, supermarkets with ready made or instantly consumable foods (and I’m not talking carrot sticks, although baby carrots… well, that’s a story for another time), drive-through and take-out. Industry happily developed ways to take the chore of preserving abundance off our hands and give the results back to us at any time of the year in exchange for money and the loss of knowledge. But convenience is great, and a time saver (or time reallocator) to boot, so it’s worth the price, perhaps.

Space, on the other hand, is one of the answers to the North-American dream: a house of one’s own, a place to call home, a yard to barbecue in. I am not talking specifically about suburbia, but the desire for a house (big or small, but preferably bigger), a property, as a place to store our stuff and arrange it in pleasing ways. In the country, not even much longer than, oh, 50 or 60 years ago, space was needed to store foods: cold cellars, basements or larders, attics, sheds, smoke houses, whatever. My grandmother had a small house with a room plus a whole hallway dedicated to the storing of jams and pickles, cured meats, potatoes, carrots, cabbages, apples, flour, grain, and whatnot. She also had a fridge and an upright freezer (tub freezers are usually more energy efficient, but upright freezers have a smaller footprint). The freezer held peas, tomatoes, chicken, cuts of meat, fruit, beans, and all sorts of other foods. Best of all, the freezer offered a much faster way of preserving foods (wash, dry, perhaps blanch, pack, freeze) than canning, which required cooking time in addition to prep and packing time. But then again, each method has a slightly different food preserving purpose and yields different results.

My apartment sized freezer-refrigerator combo, has a 2.3 cubic feet capacity (the capacity of the fridge is 6.9 cu. ft.). What can I store in this tiny little freezer? Not much, so I set priorities: basil, garlic scape, and other pestos; oven-roasted tomatoes and peppers. Occasionally I find room for other seasonal produce, but that all depends very much, believe it or not, on time (for obtaining and then prepping the food for freezing). (I will sadly admit that much food gets wasted in my household, not because I don’t want to prepare it, but because I many times don’t get to it (hey, life is busy).)

My fridge resides in a corner of my small galley-style kitchen. There is only so much room for it to fit, unless I decide to sacrifice counter and cupboard space for a larger model. If I wanted to have a smallish tub freezer (a possibility, of course) I would have to decide what space in the apartment to sacrifice to it, and at this point it would feel like a sacrifice because floor space is precious, and I somehow can’t get used to the idea of having a freezer in the living room or office/guest bedroom even.

In my ideal and perfectly balanced and time-managed life, I would dedicate a whole (small) wall to shelves solely intended for the storage of jams and pickles. I would have time or have the ability to make time to acquire produce (pick my own fruit and veg) and then preserve it (by jamming, freezing or canning). However, I am currently not living my dream, but until I do, you bet I will be lining up at the farmers’ booth every market day to capture and enjoy the best of what the season has to offer, and enjoy the abundance in the here and now, because it is so very fleeting.

Books:

  • Fresh: A Perishable Historyby Susanne Freidberg
  • Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat by Sarah Murray
  • Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas
  • An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
  • Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round by Marisa McClennan
  • We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food by Sarah B. Hood
  • Well Preserved: Small Batch Preserving for the New Cook by Mary Anne Dragan
  • Bernardin Complete Book of Home Preserving: 400 Delicious and Creative Recipes for Today by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine
  • The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World by Sandor Ellix Katz & Michael Pollan,
  • Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz, and a slew of others.

Web: Food in Jars, Manning Canning, Well Preserved (not the same folks as of the title in the book list), just to mention a few.

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