Or, how do you keep your pickles?
At work, we have found that the road to history is paved with unexpected documents. As often happens, while looking for something completely different, m’colleague and I found two documents that might help illuminate the question of food preservation and storage in the 18th century.
Probate inventories: I read all the way through and had one of those d’oh! moments. Why? Because at the end, there’s all the kitchen stuff. Andirons, warming pans, roasting pans, kettles, firkins, kneading trays, piggins, barrels, casks, bottles. This is the stuff of cooking and keeping food.
There are clues in the receipts (recipes): Amelia Simmons gives a hint in the final instructions “To pickle or make Mangoes of Melons.”
“put all these proportionably into the melons, filling them up with mustard-seeds; then lay them in an earthen pot with the slit upwards, and take one part of mustard and two parts or vinegar, enough to cover them, pouring it upon them scalding hot and keep them close stopped.”
To pickle Barberries ends thusly:
“let it stand to cool and settle, then pour it clear into the glasses; in a little of the pickle, boil a little fennel; when cold, put a little bit at the top of the pot or glass, and cover it close with a bladder or leather.”
To pickle cucumbers:
“put them into jars, stive them down close, and when cold, tie on a bladder and leather.”
To keep Green Peas till Christmas:
“have your bottles ready, fill them, cover the them with mutton suet fat when it is a little soft; fill the necks almost to the top, cork them, tie a bladder and a leather over them and set them in a dry cool place.”
If we tease these apart, we come up with some basics: preservation is done with pickling and “putting up” foodstuffs in pots, jars, bottles, and glasses. These are sealed with bladders, which are tied on; there is a sense in the first receipt that “close stopped” might imply corkage, but the repetition of bladders in the following receipts suggests otherwise for most of these; the entry for Emptins does state “will keep well cork’d in a bottle five or six weeks.”
The other key? You’ve probably come across food packages that require storage in a “cool dry place,” and as we have cupboards in our kitchens, or perhaps in our pantries, early cooks also had pantries or butteries (say it but-trees). How’d they do it?
The 18th century house was not centrally heated. 18th century Providence residents recorded temperatures of 48 and 58 degrees indoors in the winter, in rooms with fireplaces. An unheated room or cellar would be cool, too; here in the Ocean State, maintaining dry conditions could be the bigger challenge.
What did those jars and pots look like? As you can see in this post, the Met has a few– fortunately, these appealed to collectors and wound up in museums. Closer to home for the original question, the Missouri History Museum has a collection with a number of jars. A cursory look showed dates in the 1830-1860 range, but the shares are consistent with those seen at the Met.
I’m not a food historian, and I don’t pretend to be, but as I think about answering a question, these are the steps I take. Recipes, collections, and then more looking. I just hadn’t remembered that probate inventories would list everything, so one might get a sense of a household’s contents and thus its eating and storage habits.