Each week, we rummage through the dark corners of our kitchen drawers to bring you an enigmatic item. We ask you to guess what it is in our weekly From the From the Back of the Drawer puzzle. To enter this week’s puzzle, visit this page. To read more descriptions of past items, visit this page. And, don’t forget to donate your odd items to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
This week’s From the Back of the Drawer mystery item is a technological innovation stemming from one of man’s oldest food preservation traditions: dehydration. This large, valved, wooden box was used to dehydrate fruits, vegetables, meats, herbs, and even pasta.
Many early human cultures harnessed the drying power of wind and sun to help preserve grains, meats, and seeds. In 1795, the French developed a dehydrator that produced a temperature-controlled environment for drying foods. That dehydrator was the ancestor of the dehydrator pictured here and the electric versions widely available today.
Dehydrating food presents several distinct advantages. Compared to fresh foods, dried vegetables, fruits, meats, grains, and herbs last substantially longer. The removal of moisture from the food prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause decomposition. The reduced water content also makes dried foods lighter and more compact. Dried foods can thus be easily stored for long periods of time, which, in the past, was advantageous during periods when fresh food was scarce.
There are several methods of food dehydration. The simplest method, typically used for herbs, involves storing the food in a dark, well-ventilated environment. For most other foods, heat is needed for dehydration. In this method, a controlled heat source extracts water from the food and the circulation of the hot air removes the water from the environment.
Our dehydrator seems to have been designed for use in both of these methods. The basic design is a large wooden box with a single drawer where a tray can be stored. There are four wire-covered vents on the bottom of the dehydrator and several valves on the sides and top. These openings allowed for the ventilation necessary for the room-temperature dehydration method. A burlap covered tray (pictured on top of the dehydrator) was likely used to hold herbs in this method. The four legs attached to the bottom of the dehydrator permitted the placement of a heat source beneath the device. The same vents and valves that facilitated ventilation in the room-temperature dehydration method allowed the heat and smoke to enter and circulate in the box.
Our rating: A cool historical artifact
Design: The dehydrator takes up a lot of space. Even so, its single shelf indicates that it was used in a home and not commercially.
Originality: Not very original—the basic principles of dehydration do not allow for much creativity.
Practicality: Though this dehydrator is a cool piece of history, and we were unable to test it ourselves, it is probably much easier to use an electric dehydrator.