What was life like before refrigeration?


If you were living off the land and didn’t have electricity or maybe running water…. And you’re cooking your meals, what do you do with leftovers? Is storage of leftover food not a thing? Did they have to cook a new meal every day with salted protein? I’d love to know

In: Other

They shopped at fresh markets, or from local farmers, and didn’t buy more than needed at a time !

Food preservation techniques have been used by man since the Stone Age with refrigeration being only an incredibly recent invention. Although our ancestors didn’t understand the underlying mechanisms for why food spoiled (bacteria and molds) they did understand that drying, aging, and storing food in toxic environments (acids and alcohol) would preserve food.

We actually still eat a lot of preserved food today, but you just take it for granted. Most people don’t think about it as preserved food likely because you buy it at the supermarket instead of spending the time and effort to preserve it on the farm.

Going back as far as the Victorian age Ice was commercially harvested and delivered to peoples homes. The term icebox for the Fridge came from a time when people bought large blocks of literal ice to keep food preserved and cold. Ice was harvested from Lakes and Rivers (and even the Arctic) during the winter months and stored in warehouses covered in insulation like straw. With enough straw covered ice in a confined space it would last all summer.

But the idea of freezing food to preserve it goes back a lot farther than that with Stone Age tribes burying food, particularly meat, in snow banks to keep it from rotting.

But there are plenty of other ways to preserve food.

Canning food is traced back to Napoleon who was the first to take advantage of the technique to help feed his armies march across Europe. Originally they used Champagne bottles and later switched to cans sealed with lead (which had obvious downsides they didn’t know about it). But Pasteurization of canned goods and Milk didn’t become common place until the 19th century so there was a lot of spoilage. (People knew about the benefits of heating food to preserve it for centuries, but they didn’t know why. The nature of Bacterial organisms wasn’t discovered until the 19th century)

Root vegetables like Potatoes, Turnips, and Carrots keep a long time by themselves and homes would often have cellars where food could be kept cold and dry.

Cheese is a preserved Milk product and is shelf stable. Humans have eaten cheese since before we developed the gut bacteria needed to digest pure milk.

Grains like Wheat, Corn, Oats, and Rice could be dried and ground into dry powder. Flour for example is a dried preserved wheat, while commercial rice is dried to keep it shelf stable. Oatmeal is made from dried Oats and was a staple food/starch in the Navy for a long time. Pasta is also a preserved grain.

Food like bread had to be made daily because it didn’t last, while the flour, salt, and lard used in making it did. To make bread last you had to bake it until it was completely dry to be shelf stable. These biscuits made the basis of naval rations known as Hardtack.

Fermented foods like beer, wine, and Kimchi are kept preserved by the alcohol content that wards off bacteria. Sailors were once given a ration of Rum because along with Lime or Lemon juice it was a reliable way to get Vitamin C, plus it was good for morale.

Sausages like Pepperoni, hot dogs, farmer sausage, bologna, etc are preserved meat mixed with fat and spices and store in a tube (traditionally animal intestine) and then smoked to dry it out and preserve it. Similar techniques are used to preserve deli meat, which is shelf stable until sliced.

Smoked fish, and meat was also common. Bacon for example is a preserved meat product as well.

While salt was also frequently used to preserve meat, again to get the moisture out of the meat to prevent bacteria from growing. Common examples being Salt pork, or salt fish.

There was also potted meat, where meat was ground, cooked, and stored in clay or glass jars sealed with animal fat.

Pickling is another common preservation technique. Vinegar occurs as a natural bi-product of making alcohol and storing things like beets, onions, peppers, and cucumbers in vinegar helps keep them around a long time. Hence why they are still referred to as ‘preserves’. During the winter months people would eat pickled vegetables because that’s what you could eat to get your vitamins out of season.

Similarly Jams are preserved fruit.

When you talk about leftovers, people had to get clever. Soup for example was almost always made from garbage, the leftover bones of animals used to make stock and mixed with cutup vegetables and dried grains or pasta.

Edit: Added a few more.

Salt was life.

Salting and dehydrating were key methods for food storage. There’s a reason wars were fought over salt. Expressions like “*salt of the earth*” or “*worth his salt*” even the word *salary* all derived from a time when salt was a more important currency than oil.