In the Presence of the Past
I live on a dirt lane in a small, historic New Mexican village. In the middle of the lane is a place where raised stones mark the sides of a six-foot square. I had driven over these stones for years, wondering what they might signify—an old well or perhaps a cistern?—until I happened to have a chat with my neighbor, Modesta. In the course of discussing all our wormy apples, she told me how people here used to store food for the winter, chiles and other vegetables, in pits of sandy soil. “Like that,” she said, pointing to the patch of stones. “That was a storage pit. There are lots of them around here.” And it was probably used not that many generations back.
It’s good to know how people have, through time, preserved their food—to have a window to view the old techniques and traditions. Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning gives us just this opportunity. The methods here may well inspire us with their resourcefulness, their promise of goodness, and with the idea that we can eat well year around and quite independently of our long-distance food systems. Mostly what’s required is curiosity and the willingness to use some elemental tools—air and sun for drying, the earth for holding, salt for transforming and preserving, paper for wrapping, oil for banishing air, ashes for preserving freshness. These basic things are the stuff of old world techniques, and not all are in the past.
The oldest technique for preserving food, drying, is still commonly used in New Mexico. Corn is roasted or slaked with lime and then dried in the sun on tin roofs or wire screens. Chiles are dried then ground to make molido, apples are sliced and dried on strings on clotheslines. The long red ristras of chiles are still stored food even if they now have the dual role of ornamenting homes. On the farm they hang from the eaves of barns where the dry air passes freely around them, discouraging mold. A ristra placed in the kitchen makes it easy to pluck off chiles when cooking. Although green chiles are no longer buried in sand pits like the one in my lane, two techniques for doing so are described in this little book should you want to try. Covering food with earth, drying it in the air, fermenting it in salt, burying it in fat—all traditional techniques of food preservation—should not be so impossibly far from our plates and palates today as we might, at first thought, assume.
It’s tempting, if one is nervous about the future, to say that it’s good to know about the old ways of putting food by because we might need to know about them someday, just to survive. True, this could be a life-saving book, but this isn’t the main reason to read it. There are good reasons that don’t involve an uncertain future, those that have to do with taste and flavor, processes that preserve nutrition, such as lactic fermentation, as well as pleasure and poetry. One of my favorite descriptions in Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning, a method for storing apples, involves wrapping them in dried elderflowers. Imagine the pleasure of being sent to retrieve such an apple, brushing off the still fragrant flowers, discovering that the fruit has changed from an apple to something mysterious and enchanting. Or, consider how simple is it to wrap tomatoes in paper to extend their precious season where frosts come early. This is a book I turn to when I find myself with a bounty of fruit, which is frequent enough in northern New Mexico that preservation matters. It guides me with the most direct ways to transform fruit into jellies and syrups, chutneys and preserves, without drowning it in sugar or killing it with pasteurization. The combinations are subtle and poetic, not quiet like others I’ve encountered. Take, for example, Melon Marmalade with Mint, Pear Jam with Walnuts, Blackberry Jam with Hazelnuts, or Cinnamon Dark Red Plums preserved in vinegar. The Bicolored Grapes in Vinegar are said to be divine with game—how enticing. I have some venison; where are the grapes? We all have these fruits and nuts, but what different ways of aligning them are given here. There are also foods we might have but really don’t know how to use, like buckthorn berries, linden flowers, elderberries, and wild greens and mushrooms, but can learn about should we encounter them. Thinking of the velvety winter oyster mushrooms in my farmers market that will, in fact, not last the winter unless I dry them, I am happy to know how to go about it.
Lactic fermentation, an old preservation technique that is suddenly new again, produces foods that have biological energy—that is, they are alive and do something good for those who eat them. Sauerkraut is well known (though mostly in its imitative form), but imagine radishes, those humble little roots that so many people toss into the compost (hopefully) because they had been forgotten in the back of the refrigerator. They can be chopped—red, black and pink ones—layered with salt, covered with brine and put away until the dead of winter when you might well be wishing for something crisp that didn’t travel thousands of miles. Chard ribs, too, are treated to salt and brine, as are cucumbers, leafy vegetables, even tomatoes. I’m not sure exactly how these foods might taste, but I can guess—intense, concentrated and alive—and I’ll know in a few months.
Drying fruits and vegetables in the sun focuses their flavors while making it possible to keep them past their season. The results are, to my taste, much better than those dried in a dehydrator, although that might be what people in moist, gray climates have to do. But imagine dried plums (yes, prunes!) pears and persimmons, grapes (raisins, of course), but also string-dried turnips and fermented tomato coulis. You can dry bread and preserve yeast, and make vegetable bouillon powder. One of the most enticing notions is clarifying animal fat with herbs and vegetables to use in the cooking of what must be the most savory dishes imaginable. Anyone who is now buying sides and quarters of beef, pork or lamb, as many are in lieu of going to the store for an industrial roast or a chop, is in just the right position to use such an idea.
These deeply useful techniques are expressed in words that include the distinct personalities of their keepers. Taken together, they open the doors to a big new pantry full of flavors and textures many of us have yet to experience. I know that even from my own limited experience using this book in its former incarnation, Keeping Food Fresh, Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning can give us food that sings, not the blues of freezer burn and heavy syrup, but the joyful chorus of elemental flavors wrought by sun and air, salt and vinegar, fat and fermentation on the good foods we grow. It offers an exciting entry back into the world of real food. Use it and the past will become present.
Galisteo, New Mexico