Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Tools of the Trade: Preserving Our Mess
A good example of this kind of conundrum being attacked by human ingenuity is the beer known as India Pale Ale. Beer and ale were a favorite of seamen, who considered them both a luxury and a right. The problem was that beer did not keep well in barrels particularly in warmer climates, making it necessary to drink it up directly out of port before it went off. IPA solved this problem, to some degree, with the addition of a noticeably large amount of hops. The ale was designed specifically for East India merchants travelling back and forth from Britain to India but it caught on quickly with the Royal Navy and eventually the U.S. Navy as well. Although some modern historians of beer dispute this IPA origin story, our seafaring ancestors certainly believed it and were drinking a form of the more bitter, robust IPA happily by the latter half of the 18th century.
In the galley, meanwhile, generally perishable things like butter and meat needed to last as long as possible. It was one thing to eat a moldy potato but rancid meat could, under the right circumstances, literally kill a man. As the Brethren are probably well aware, the answer was salt. Here are a couple of examples; one for preserving bacon and the other, butter:
For bacon, a layer of very dry salt would line the bottom of a container. A single layer of bacon strips would be packed closely on that, followed by another layer of salt, then bacon and so on, alternating until the container was full. This would then be covered as tightly as possible and stowed for future use. The salt was wiped away and, if it was available, fresh water might be used to rinse the strips of any remaining salt before cooking.
A similar method would be used for butter. The churned butter would actually be mixed with salt (the origin of our modern “salted” butter). This would then be pressed down into jars and a layer of dry salt would be spread over the top. The jars would be sealed tightly and stored some place cool. Use required a bit of fresh water to wash out the top layer of salt. If necessary, depending on the size of the jar, fresh dry salt could be packed on top of the butter again until future use.
Fish and meat were of course preserved similarly. What always strikes me is the amount of salt our seafaring ancestors must have taken in over the course of a lifetime. If most our physicians today found us eating like that they would probably suffer some form of paroxysm. And yet a fair number of these men and women lived to a rather advanced age. Maybe it was something in the IPA…
Header: Mess on the deck of the ironclad USS Monitor during the American Civil War via The Pirate’s Lair (more great pictures of vintage shipboard messes here)