101: Culinary Technology and Cooking (R)Evolution

LEIGH WRIGHT (this article was published December 3, 2012)

A mortar and pestle with peppercorns. Photo by Gisela Francisco via Wikimedia Commons

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum houses many artifacts of food technology and agricultural advances. Check out Tout de Sweet: All About Sugar, sponsored by Domino Sugar, on display as a permanent exhibit.

You gather cut kindling and larger pieces of wood and bring them into the stone-laden kitchen and set them next to the hearth. After creating a spark you get a good cooking fire going and place the cast-iron pot over the flame. Then you wait for the contents to heat…

Ovens, knives, forks, baking sheets, and even baking powder are all products of evolutionary design. Evolutionary due to man’s genius and edible needs. The span of batterie de cuisine technology—from the mortar and pestle to the food processor—is much more elaborate and lengthy than what can be described in a single article.

Learning about the history of culinary technology is a map of tangents and innumerable stories, including how a culture’s first use of the knife could lead to the development of an overbite to better eat softer, more cut up foods.  Who originally created most of the more basic utensils and practices is hard to track down; however, there are people like Clarence Birdseye who changed the culinary road of modern cuisine with inventions like frozen foods. (The first biographical account of his culinary excursion was published in 2012. It is Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky. I have yet to read it but plan on tackling this one soon!)

In the 18th century (when America was being established and more settlers were venturing into the southern territory), boiling and roasting were the main methods of cooking—and had been so for thousands of years. The most basic, universal, and constant implements for cooking have and always will be fire, a pot, and a knife. With these three elements humans have been able to cook wild game, roots, vegetables, and boil water.

Quick frozen food demonstration at City Hall, Brisbane, 1952. Cake three months old was pronounced oven-fresh by volunteer tasters at a quick-frozen foods demonstration by Miss Del Cartwright, cookery expert. Via Wikimedia Commons

Before getting too much into modern food technology such as canning and pasteurization, it is important to realize how much our cooking relies on agriculture.

A few events of major importance (listed chronologically, not importantly):

  • Humans became more domesticated around 12,000 BC when we first started planting and harvesting crops.
  • Around 6,800 BC, rice was first harvested in Asia (and would grow to become the number one consumed starch).
  • The Egyptians began baking bread using live cultures—yeast—around 4000 BC and began using irrigation on their crops around 3500 BC. This was the same time agriculture is believed to have first been developed in the Americas.
  • The fermentation of fruit and grains was discovered 500 years after this. However, from 500 BC-600 AD the Chinese saw an explosion of technological advances in food including distillation (a few others were the iron plough, collar harness, and multi-tube seed drill).

All of these advances in agriculture certainly helped put the minds of 18th century Europeans at ease about the production of food—at least a little. Most of the worries about procuring enough food subsided, but the struggles to keep and maintain fresh food was still a constant concern.  So, in 1809 a Frenchman by the name of Nicolas Appert “invented” canning, a.k.a. “appertisation”.  He actually started working on his idea 15 years earlier and used glass bottles, not cans (but any hipster would know that, right?). His method involved placing food into the bottles, stopping them up with cork and sealing wax, and then boiling the contents to cook them thoroughly. The method is different than pasteurization (invented in 1871 by the more famous Louis Pasteur) because it involves higher heat.  Another European, Peter Durand, began using the canning methods using a tin can around the same time; however, it never became a popular method of preservation until the can opener was produced—some four decades later.  The second greatest achievement Nicolas Appert accomplished with his idea was writing the first cookbook on preservation, L’Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales.

Preservation was used to secure food in the long travels of the time, but it is interesting to note that ornate cuisine was not a new commodity during America’s colonial time (note my last piece on George and Martha Washington’s dining). With the new knowledge of how to manipulate iron and steel, closed ovens were coming into fashion. With a more controlled temperature and steady heat supply, baking saw an exceptional boom. Plus, with the production of baking soda in America around the 1840s there was a definite distinction in cakes. Lighter, fluffier, and softer cakes were being produced from new cookbooks that incorporated the new chemical powder.

Lemon Bundt Cake. Photo by By Stacy (originally posted to Flickr as lemon bundt cake), via Wikimedia Commons

Kitchens were moved from outside the home to inside since flus could be installed in a raised hearth or stove, but one problem eventually persisted. Firewood. More and more people were looking for wood to cook with when less and less could be found. Coal managed to win the battle for next culinary revelation.

From the mid-19th century to today there have been milestones in food technology, but mainly from spin-offs on older ideas. Canning helped propel our troops in WWII and families in the subsequent Baby Boom era. Refrigeration—which started around Colonial times—came into its own around 1895 when the modern refrigerator appeared in the United States and then the United Kingdom. Then, when China introduced the first hybrid rice in 1974, it helped feed and save tens of millions of people, but was nonetheless brought about by the ideas and theories of Gregor Mendel.

Food science, agriculture, cooking, cuisine, and economics have continuously evolved and developed to drive our society through tens of thousands of years.  Ploughs turned into an empire of tractors for an American Deere; pots made of clay began to gleam and cook evenly when constructed out of copper; and, numerous businesses based themselves off of the inebriation of others to watch it all come full circle and have their own customers begin making their own libations.

Food is a wonderful living organism.


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