living in an era when there is no refrigeration. None at all. If you live in a
town you might get ice delivered to your house every week or so during the spring,
fall, and winter, about twice or three times a week during a Southern, Texas,
or Southwestern summer. However, if you live in the country, you're not going
to have ice except as a special treat a few times a year. Of course, if the creek
nearest your property freezes over during the winter-thick ice, not thin-you might
go down and saw chunks of ice out of the creek. Unless you've got well-insulated
underground storage for it, it's not going to last much past the middle of June.
So-how are you going to preserve meat for late spring, summer, and early fall
Meat was dried-the stuff called 'jerky' from what Native Americans
called it, though the practice seems to be world-wide. In sub-Saharan Africa exactly
the same stuff is called 'biltong.'
It was pickled. It was smoked. Those
were about the only ways of preserving meat.
to DR. CHASE'S RECIPES OR INFORMATION FOR EVERYBODY, the thirty-sixth edition
of which came out in 1866, here are some recipes for preservation of meat without
refrigeration. One of the recipes for preserving beef deals with hundred-pound
lots, which would not be unusual on a farm or ranch. First you would thoroughly
cover the beef in salt 'to draw
out the blood.' After the beef remained in the salt for twenty-four hours you'd
drain it and pack it into a wooden barrel. Then you'd prepare the preserving brine.
This would consist of seven pounds of salt, one ounce each of saltpeter (potassium
nitrate, also used in making gunpowder) and cayenne pepper, one quart of molasses,
and eight gallons of 'soft water.' That was usually rainwater caught in barrels
and allowed to settle until all the dust went to the bottom of the barrel. This
you'd bring to a boil and 'skim well.' You'd then let it cool, pour it over the
beef, and put a lid on the barrel.
Now, obviously, this stuff is gonna be mighty salty when you take it out of the
barrel. What you'd do to get rid of the salt would be parboil the stuff-throw
it in a pot of water and boil it for fifteen or twenty minutes. After that you
could cook it in whatever way you wanted to. Unfortunately, parboiling has an
unfortunate effect on the meat. It makes it about as tough as boot leather. After
the meat was parboiled but before it was cooked a good cook took a heavy metal
skillet and pounded the meat with the edge of it to tenderize the stuff.
By the end of summer, the onset of autumn, this preserved beef would be getting
a mite 'high,' to say the least. The primary reason rich brown gravies and tangy
sauces were invented was not to 'enhance the flavor of the meat,' but rather to
disguise the fact that it was pretty far on the way to being rotten.
preserve mutton-the hams only-you were advised to put the mutton hams into a weak
brine for two days. Exactly how much salt
made a 'weak brine' isn't mentioned. After that, for each one hundred pounds of
mutton hams put six pounds of salt, an ounce of saltpeter, two ounces of saleratus,
and a pint of molasses into six gallons of water and pour it over the mutton in
the barrel. You would leave the mutton in the brine for two to three weeks and
then take it out, dry it, and apparently dry it as you would jerky. According
to a note, the saleratus kept the meat from getting hard.
were several methods of curing hams, all of which involved smoking them. Mr. Thomas
J. Sample of Muncie, Indiana, writing in 1859, prepared his hams this way. To
what Mr. Sample called a 'cask of hams'-he apparently used large casks, for this
recipe is for twenty-five to thirty hams-he allowed them to lie in salt
for two or three days. He then packed them in casks and poured his brine over
them. The water-he doesn't give a quantity-had to have enough salt
added to float a 'sound egg or a potato.' That's a lot of salt.
To that he added a half-pound of saltpeter and a gallon of molasses. He then left
the hams in this brine for six weeks. After that time he took them out, drained
them, dried them, and smoked them. Dr. Chase adds that immediately dusting them,
upon removing them from the smoke, with finely-ground pepper will keep flies off.
A Marylander, Mr. T. E. Hamilton, who took several first prizes at fairs
with his hams, did it somewhat differently. First he rubbed the hams with fine
salt and let them sit for two days. He then made a brine of four gallons of water,
eight pounds of coarse salt, two ounces of saltpeter, one and a fourth ounces
of potash, and two pounds of brown sugar. This he poured over the hams and let
them pickle for six weeks. After that he took them out, drained them, dried them,
and smoked them. Having eaten Virginia smoked ham myself-though it's been well
over half a century-I can testify that the hams of Virginia and Maryland, which
are very similar, are great.
have pork chops or pork steaks for summer from the winter kill, this method was
used. After pickling the pork 'until it is salty enough to be palatable,' you
would fry it or cook it until it was about half to two thirds done. Then you would
pack it into airtight jars in its own lard. According to Dr. Chase, when you took
it out and finished frying it or cooking it, it would be as fresh as you could
want. He mentions having handled beef in the same way, packing it in lard, and
that it was preserved, as well. Bacon was also prepared like this. After being
cured and smoked, it was cooked about half way, then packed in lard in airtight
containers. According to Dr. Chase this worked on the same principle as canning,
by excluding air from the meat.
One method Dr. Chase mentions would
supposedly preserve meat for as long as three years. He recommended packing it
in finely-ground charcoal. (Don't try this with modern charcoal briquettes. They've
got a lot of petroleum products in them as well as charcoal-and not just the 'light
the bag' kind.) Apparently this is the way the British Royal Navy packed meat
for long voyages. Dr. Chase mentions that Captain Cook sailed three times around
the world with the meat for his crews packed in powdered charcoal, and the meat
was still edible at the end of the third year-long voyage.
preserve eggs, pack them in finely-ground corn meal. According to the recipe,
eggs will keep 'perfectly fresh' for up to a year this way. Now-aren't you glad
you live in the era of home refrigeration?
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" February
21, 2008 column