Pickle Reading

With the return of short, cold days, it’s time again to steep some warming tea, bury in under the blankets, and grab a book from that teetering reading pile.

One of my current browsing companions is Sue Shephard’s Pickled, Potted and Canned or How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World (Simon & Schuster, 2000). It’s relatively light reading, as nonfiction goes, and it’s perfect for the occasional one- to two-chapter dose of entertaining and anecdotal food history.

You’ll learn about the ingenuity of ancient civilizations, who preserved not for flavor but for simple survival, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of more modern processors. I’ve been enjoying how Shepard covers not only the technological aspect of food preservation but also the need to encapsulate the ritual of meals. Despite speed or convenience or bare necessity, from women giving birth to sailors on Tudor navy ships to NASA astronauts, the act of sharing food is as important as the nutrients consumed.

The writing is breezy, if not terrible inspired, with enough concrete details to be engaging and enough big-picture perspective to create meaningful connections in traditions and tastes around the world. The straightforward structure of the book — with chapters dedicated to Salting, Fermenting, Canning, etc. — lends itself well to short bursts of informative reading. Hard-core historians beware: this is secondary research, there are no footnotes and the bibliography is selective. The book is geared toward a wider readership, however, so the average person who just happens to be obsessed with pickles will be more than satisfied with Shepard’s level of scholarship.

For a quick taste of some of the tidbits offered in the book, read this collection of fun and fascinating facts put together by San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum.

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