With the near-obsession over food safely in America these days, I've often wondered how food was stored before refrigeration. My great-aunt Rose told me that leftovers (including extra milk) on our family farm were placed in a tightly closed jar, tied with a string, and lowered into the cold water in the well. They were basically self-sufficient year round on the farm in Louisiana, but I still wondered how people preserved foods hundreds of years ago, through the harsh winters of old Acadia (now known as Nova Scotia).
This was one of the most fascinating parts of the research for my book, In a Cajun Kitchen (St. Martin's Press, 2006). Necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention and I hope you find these food preservation methods as fascinating as I do.
- Food preservation and cooking methods in old Acadia. The main techniques for food preservation were brining, freezing, drying, and smoking. The precursor of the Cajun Boucherie was the slaughter of pigs and cows each autumn by neighbors who would divide the work, then share in the enjoyment of the resulting meat throughout the winter. Part of the meat was frozen in the snow, some was salted and dried, some brined in salted water, and other cuts were smoked in home-fashioned smokehouses. Cod and herring for family use were salted, eels frozen, and herring smoked.
- Root vegetables were kept in cold storage in cellars; while corn and beans were dried, to be reconstituted as needed. Green beans were salted, as were cabbage and herbs. Chives and onion tops were used as herbs, and were the primary seasonings in most savory dishes--much the same way onion, celery, and bell pepper are the primary seasonings in Cajun cooking. Berries were made into jam; apples put in cellars for cold storage, just as apples are today; cranberries stored in light brine; and blueberries and apple slices were laid out in a single layer and dried. Eggs were gently layered in oats and put in cellars for cold storage; and butter was formed into blocks and kept in lightly salted water (see picture above).
- Frying and boiling were the two most common methods of cooking in old Acadia. Fried chicken was a favorite, fish was enjoyed fried or made into fishcakes and consumed while fresh. Salt pork, bear fat, or occasionally butter were the frying agents. A black cast iron pot was used for most daily cooking, as many dishes were boiled for a long time to tenderize them or bring together flavors through long, slow cooking. This cooking method was a forerunner of the one-pot, long-cooked gumbos, étouffées, and fricassees that are such a part of Cajun cookery today.
- Root vegetables, potatoes, and cabbage were boiled, as was wild game. Often, whatever vegetables or meats were available were long-cooked in the cast iron pot to make a hearty soup. Their stews had more liquid than Cajun stews of today; they were what we might consider a cross between a stew and a soup. Breads and biscuits were baked, as were pies, cakes and tarts. Bread was an important part of meals and was made from buckwheat, whole-wheat flour, or from mixed grains, and enjoyed with syrup or molasses.
- Were we to be imported back to the old days of Acadia, we just might find that the food was not that different from what we now eat. After all, following their arrival in Acadia, and throughout the building and maintaining of this new community, the Acadian people held on steadfastly to their language, cooking methods, music, stories, and the religious and cultural traditions that they brought with them from France.