The Specter of Preservation

Proust proceeds not by reflection but by recall. He is positively permeated by the truth that we all of us lack the time to live the real dramas of the existence assigned to us. That makes us age. Nothing else.

–   Walter Benjamin

When was the first famine? Who built the first storehouse? Who froze the first turnip or cured the first hock, warding off the plague air with practical magic? Food preservation, pickling and canning, is a desperate business done between sustenance and time. To want to extend life is the wish that separates the raw from the cooked, just as it separates youth from age’s certainty of death. Isn’t ‘Perishable’ is a terrible word? Trite summary of the odds, of lives and shelf-life, a keyless accordion-chord over fields and tomorrows.  Behind a screen of clouded glass is the pickled radish, putrefaction slowed down to a crawl, suspended in brine. And behind the radish waits that old bastard, Time.

Rows of preserved vegetable jars in the basement recall the old monstrosities of the carnival sideshow or Frankenstein’s lab. A shelf of preserved fruits remains a continual insult to the refrigeration age. The pickle is a fortress against the powers of heat and scarcity, as well as the aesthetic dictatorship of the smooth. And according to Christina Ward, in her new book Preservation: The Art and Science of Canning, Fermentation and Dehydration, preserved foods also recall the great revolutionary year of 1848. She begins in a public school in Milwaukee, at a communal cooking class. This group draws upon many things from around the world, especially the farming practices of the first modern revolutionary generation. These radical immigrants to the Midwest had brought with them ideas of socialism, egalitarian education, labor organizing, working-class militancy, and fermented cabbage. A proud product of this milieu, Ms. Ward has written a history, a treatise, a call to action, and a manual all in one.  Her unique book contains so many ideas and observations, so many curious pathways that constantly push the parameters of the subject, that we must confine ourselves here to but a few:

Preservation commandeers opposing forces: the institution of mass preservation in the supermarket vs. the inspired work of the lone operator; nostalgia antagonized by new innovations in the fermentation processes; the personal elements of the author’s Wisconsin socialist background followed by an ‘impersonal’ collection of stark recipes. Above all, this is a practical book, but it is also a record of the dreams that arise from necessity (eating well or just eating at all, sanitation and ritual), and the thoughts that arise from the very tools of preservation (the mason jar mouth, bruised skins of fruit, the body of the pepper).

“The mantra we live by: Don’t kill anyone by accident! If you’re going to kill someone, do it with purpose!”

After this Lady Macbeth-like invocation, Ms. Ward reminds us that the pastoral image of the farmer so dear to the Agri-business lobby conceals millions of low-paid workers who harvest our food but can barely survive themselves. Bad canning and pickling can kill (like overwork) by releasing concealed pathogens into the system, just as labor is concealed behind the manufactured product. Both conceal death, by botulism or on the installment plan. Dire results from unintended consequences haunt the political economy of food. Your diet can be a Malthus.

The moment the stem is cut, the green world begins to shrivel. Cells break down in the dead cow and in the cauliflower. Then the hosts of microbiology pour in: discoloration, pulp out of split skin, a high-speed overripe which opens the gates of enzymatic dissolution. Only the rise or fall of temperature can suspend this destructive process for a short time (18 months is the longest one can hope for when preserving foods). You race entropy with jar and tin, like the runner in Donne’s poem. After that, the pathogens call the shots and you gamble, gambling badly. Yet there is also great sweetness in rot: decomposition in fruits heightens sugar content. Here are the shadows of pies and applesauce.

Pathogens are… the myriad bacteria, spores, yeasts, molds, and viruses that cause harm to the human body. In and of themselves, they are just like us: a small creature trying to survive and replicate.

Bacteria are Manichean – the equivalent of a yeasty Light does exist and this ‘good’ phalanx of anti-pathogens is what creates wine and sauerkraut, for example. Avoiding poisons is a matter of safeguarding the host, of analyzing those forces that vie for hegemony. Aside from countless bacteria, the human body is also a fund of worms and mites, chasing through the body like the bourgeoisie after a constantly-expanding market. St Augustine, a moral Pasteur, saw into his guts without a microscope and found this sweatshop of parasites, the Apocalypse reflected in the human bowels. Like the angels and devils, our microorganisms outnumber us. Like surplus value or finance, they are quite invisible yet they are everywhere.

Botulism, E. coli and Salmonella are the darkest of strains; they can release speedy neurotoxins that kill in 48 hours or less. But, as Miss Ward reminds us again and again, a few simple and concerted steps will easily outwit these armies of the pathogenic night. To preserve and to ferment properly is to render food inhospitable to contagion, yet it is not purity but praxis which is required. Preservation is never conservative: it uses endless routes of adaptation and has accompanied our slowly dying bodies like a good comrade since the matriarchal dawn. It is a weird sister to the delusion of immortal states, and a reminder that we often ignore the loveliness in decay.

Preservation is above all a bargain with time, the one solitary concession made to the power to taste. Taste is the orphan sense, dominated by the fury of vision, the militia of sound, and the blackmail of touch. It seems so short-lived at the tip of the tongue and it appears to be quite crude when compared to that conspiracy called language, which dominates the mouth. Maybe this is because it is the only sense with any real integrity and the first sense you use when you come out of the womb (as well as your only friend within it). Perhaps it is the last sense to go at the end. Women and children never forget this oppressed faculty.

Preservation is quarantine, the hour of the wolf for beanstalks and pears. It is an essential division between natural processes and human distortion which takes place in a median zone. Canned foods occupy the interval between harvest and distribution, between consummation and the first return. They await resurrection, or better – Revolution. The mystical barzakh (barrier, isthmus) spoken of in the Qur’an denotes a state between life and death, a concept deceptively similar to Limbo or the place of Judgment.  “So each (one) of… two things, when they are adjacent to each other, have need of a barzakh which is not the same as each of them, but which has in itself the power of each of them”, as wise Ibn ‘Arabi put it. It contains the attributes of life and death, but not their terminal edges. Much the same could be said of marmalade and hardtack. And it is no coincidence either that the ‘third place’ between work and home has always been considered conspiratorial, untrustworthy. City planning and the annihilation of the commons is the dark analogue of salting or the preparation of chutneys. We can also identify that which takes place in the In-between as ghostly, past and future half way, stored or remembered. Ghostly, as in “a specter is haunting Europe…”

Preservation counters violence with violence, ‘by any means necessary’. The poor vegetal substance is bombarded by infernal heat, depravation, acids and outright invasion by the food preserver. Natural pathogens and microorganisms are enlisted against natural processes in a kind of torture in order to make the Brussels sprout viciously extend its own life (NATO, EU, G7, transformation and preservation of power – all of them, Brussels). Pressure Canning is a slaughter on an infinitesimal level; pickling is a ruthless analogy to the witch-trial. Pathogens must be denied the ‘free water’ of their hosts; they must die of dehydration, be subsumed en masse in drought. Biology is intervallic, rising and decreasing in pitch: Attack (cut), delay (preserve) and ebb to silence (in mulch, in the intestine). The battlefield is both minute and gigantic. It must be. For in the US alone, some 76 million illnesses and five million deaths can be attributed to foodborne illnesses – the Triffid-like revenge of green matter corrupted by mass production, forced transport, and the manipulation of supply and demand.

The modification of crops and land for commercial purposes has led to a mad dialectical effect of both overabundance and famine. Famine relief is itself complicit: Someone in some NGO made a killing. The admixture of global crops combines soil and pathogens into a sort of neoliberal sludge. Typically, the main victims of this kind of deregulation are the poor. Food preservation offers an antidote to an iniquitous market which relies on speed, instantaneous release, corporatism and private property. The narcotic lie of false chemical ‘preservatives’ is another reuse on the part of the Gastronomic-Entertainment complex to get you to spend more money while you laugh at the superstitions of rustics and Third World peasants. Behind it all is the Black Mass of Brother Monsanto.

Not only the panorama, but also the microbes change when you move from place to place. The old heresy of a sentient landscape finds some proof in the world of food preservation: the land may ‘read’ the intruder through interruptions in its own ecosystem (just as the microbe reads and intrudes upon your biological map). Germs raid in unspeakable squads or they ease their way in like unwanted guests. But they can be confined, rendered powerless by removing or subtracting an element, just as the subtraction of a single letter stilled the golem. We can forgive those who trespass – and perhaps make them forgive us – with a properly-minded beetroot.

‘Pickle’ is often a confusion of noun and verb, but vinegar is the underlying element, no matter the process (as labor is the underlying value of all modes of goods production). In the end, we can pickle and call a pickle a pickle. Forces like the British Empire transformed traditional food production, but they were also transformed by the traditions they encountered – a metabolic effect which is often ignored when we study imperialism (Marx’s famous dictum that everything contains the seeds of its own destruction could be the very motto of food preservation). The profundity of kimchi and its recent rise in America is duly noted by Ms. Ward, and it signals a shift in geopolitics which is probably far more important than cybernetics or the end of the nation-state.

There isn’t time or space here to go into biomes, how breast milk tricks pathogens (thus demolishing forever the theories of fascist biology and the campaign against breast-feeding), how proximity to animals transmits immune defenses, the alchemy of making acidity levels rise, the difference between curing and salting (and the rites of poverty associated with each), the corvée system and the capital of meat (to each according to his lord), the Napoleonic foundations of modern food preservation (the famous ‘army stomach’ – though the Slavs, great picklers, and their winter always prove more powerful), how the height of sea-level influences canning, the fact that Aphrodite’s apple was actually a quince, Islamic jam production in Catalonia, and a thousand other fascinating things that make a garden of these pages.

The book is flawlessly arranged, with careful summaries of the material and cautionary tales: After all, we are dealing here with matters of potential sickness, life and death. But the reader never feels daunted – preservation is a social process, like all labor, and Ms. Ward gives you the confidence to begin with the clearest possible step-by-step instructions. And it is also a very funny book. Even if you never pickle a single tomato, Preservation not only preserves the mind but spikes it with a healthy dose of vinegar and the sweetness of a nightjar’s song.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.