Until recently, food preservation was thought of as a dowdy and grandma-ish chore, if one thought about it at all. In recent years, however, canning and other food preservation techniques have gained a new prominence, less as a necessity for surviving harsh winters than as a trendy pastime.
A new exhibit at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, which is part of the Experimental Farm, aims to situate this trend in a long history of food preservation. The exhibit is called “Food Preservation: The Science You Eat” (which doesn’t seem like quite a specific enough title– after all, I eat a lot of science.)
The exhibit shows how the ways that food has been preserved, particularly in North America, have developed, looking at both home and industrial food preservation. As a food preservation nerd, I was disappointed that the exhibit gave short shrift to traditional preservation techniques such as drying, curing, and fermentation.
The exhibit portrays food preservation as a holy war between the nefarious forces of rot and the ever-advancing march of Science. However, many of the world’s great delicacies were born when we learned to embrace (some of) the wonders decay can bring. Without controlled rot, we have no wine or beer, no cheese, no kimchi, and no kiviak (the Inuit delicacy where seabirds ferment inside the body of a seal).
To me, the diversity of techniques that people around the world have used to preserve and transform our food is the most exciting thing about food preservation, but the display on traditional techniques at the exhibit was overshadowed by the array of canning swag.
It’s particularly disappointing because so much interesting work is being done that combines traditional methods of food preservation from around the world with high-concept creative cuisine. For example, Sandor Katz has published several books, most recently The Art of Fermentation, that detail the adventures he and a compelling cast of characters have fermenting foods at the queer commune in Tennessee where he lives. David Chang, the chef behind Momofuku and an expanding roster of other restaurants, runs a test kitchen that cultures experimental strains of bacteria that could give life to new types of soy sauce, miso, and other fermented delicacies.
As the exhibit’s corporate sponsors are canning jar maker Bernardin, and Nestlé, hardly known for enthusiastic preservation of traditional food ways, this is perhaps not overly surprising.
However, the exhibit did have its pleasures. I enjoyed the display of historical equipment used in both home canning and industrial food processing, such as an evaporated milk canner. Arty time-lapse videos of foods rotting made me feel like I was at the MOMA.
The exhibit is housed in the Experimental Farm’s new Learning Centre, which was opened last year to make room for exhibits and workshops. It also includes a demonstration kitchen, which will be used for canning workshops to accompany the exhibit. There will be a workshop on strawberry balsamic jam on June 5th, one on corn relish, pickles, and tomato preserves on August 26th, and one on pressure canning on August 27th.
Like many native Ottawans who don’t yet have children to entertain, I have fond childhood memories of the Experimental Farm, but it had been a long time since I’d been there. Since admission to the exhibit is covered under admission to the Farm, I decided to make a day out of my visit. I grabbed a sandwich in Little Italy and picnicked at the Farm between sheep-shearing demonstrations and visits to the various barns. It turns out ogling newborn chicks, locking eyes with cows, and tussling with frisky pygmy goats is at least as fun as you remember from your childhood.
I absolutely recommend spending a summer’s day at the Experimental Farm, and if you go, I would certainly recommend checking out this exhibit, though it would be of most interest to canning enthusiasts.
Food Preservation: The Science You Eat opened May 13th and will remain at the Experimental Farm for five years, so you have lots of time to check it out. Entrance to the exhibit is free with admission to the Experimental Farm, which is $10 for adults.