National Geographic Magazine/Volume 31/Number 6/Reviving a Lost Art
Reviving a Lost Art
Photographs by Charles Martin and David Fairchild
In no other field of endeavor have German efficiency and German science been so eminently successful as in the conservation of that country's limited resources to such a remarkable degree that even after three years of isolation from world markets, on which formerly it depended so largely for sustenance, the nation is not yet faced with the alternatives of surrender or starvation.
The United States can profit by this economic success of its enemy.
One of the most important features of the food conservation movement in Germany since the outbreak of the war, and one which has been of material aid in maintaining the physical fitness of the German industrial worker and his family, has been the practice of drying fruits and vegetables.
In the great cities all over the empire the government, following the establishment of an effectual blockade of food supplies, put into operation the scheme of collecting from the markets all unsold vegetables and fruits at the end of each day. Those foods which would have spoiled if “held over” were taken to large municipal drying plants, where they were made fit for future use at a negligible cost. These drying plants thus became great national food reservoirs, saving immense quantities of food which otherwise would have gone to waste.
But the activities of the German Government did not end here. Community driers were established in the smaller towns and villages, and the inhabitants were instructed to see that all surplus vegetables were brought in and subjected to the drying process, which insured against the great extravagance of non-use.
A third method of conservation by drying was inaugurated with the itinerant drying machines. These vegetable dry-kilns on wheels were sent through all the rural communities, and the farmer was admonished to allow no fruit to grow over-ripe in his orchard, no vegetable to spoil ungathered in his garden. It was an intensive campaign for the saving of little things, in so far as each individual household was concerned; but it has totaled large in the story of the nation's economic endurance.
Not only does the drying of fruits and vegetables increase the supply in the winter larder of the people at home, but much of the dried product can be included with the wheat, which must be sent in a constant stream across the seas to feed our own soldiers in France and our Allies on the battle fronts of the world.
The practicability of sending dried garden and orchard products to the fighting men has been demonstrated already in Canada, where fruits have been preserved in this manner and shipped to Europe.
While the process of saving surplus summer vegetables for winter consumption by merely drying may seem novel to the housewife of today, it was not unknown to the thrifty mistress of the home two generations ago. Our grandmothers knew the secret of drying many garden and farm products, and so successful were they in putting aside for the winter day those vegetables which could not be consumed in season that they came to prefer dried sweet corn over the canned product, while the dried pumpkin and squash were pie-plants par excellence.
In certain communities today snap-beans are strung on threads and dried above the stove, while festoons of red and green peppers decorate the space between the kitchen rafters. Thrifty housewives dry cherries and raspberries on bits of bark for winter use in place of raisins. In fact, a survey of our fruit products shows that drying is by no means an unusual method of preservation. Prunes, figs, dates, raisins, apples, and apricots are staples in the food markets of the world.
Turning to the vegetables, we find that dried beans of many varieties, peas, and other legumes, tea, coffee, and cocoa are familiar articles of food, while various manufactured products, like starch, tapioca, and macaroni, are dried either in the sun or wind, or in specially constructed driers.
While the modern methods of canning on a vast commercial scale caused the drying processes of two generations ago to become one of the “lost arts” of the home, the present food situation seems destined to revive it with splendid economic results. The country is producing at the present time larger quantities of perishable foodstuffs than at any other period in its history, owing to the effective educational campaign which has stimulated the cultivation of individual gardens in waste places.
Drying will help to conserve the surplus yield of these gardens. But canning and preserving should not under any circumstances be abandoned. All processes have their place in the economy of food conservation.
One of the chief advantages of drying vegetables and fruits lies in the practicability of the process for the city housewife. The farmer's wife has her root cellars and other places for storing vegetables; but in the city home, where space is a primary consideration, the drying method furnishes a practical solution of an important problem.
For the farmer's wife the new methods of canning are commended in preference to the longer process of sun-drying. But new and shorter methods of drying are now available, and the dried product has several advantages over the canned product, particularly in the saving of the expense of cans, glass jars, and other containers. Dried vegetables can be stored in receptacles which cannot be used for canning, and the bulk of the product is usually less.
Another consideration should be taken into account: the canned fruits and vegetables are subject to freezing, a danger entirely obviated in the drying process. Dried foodstuffs can be shipped in the most compact form, with a minimum of weight and a minimum of risk.
One of the most important considerations commending the drying process is that the city or town housewife can employ this method of preservation with the simplest and most inexpensive facilities, and the process can be employed continuously, whether the food to be saved is in large or small quantities. A few sweet potatoes, peas, or beans can be dried at a time. Even a single turnip or an apple is worth drying. Bit by bit vegetables may be saved until a whole meal is conserved. Small lots of dried carrots, cabbage, turnips, potatoes, and onions are combined to advantage for vegetable soup.
As to the tastiness of such dried products as spinach, beet-tops, and kale there is no question. In other cases, while the flavor of the fresh vegetable is not preserved in its entirety, the use of these ingredients in soups and stews meets successfully the problem of any loss of palatability, while the food value of the dried product remains unimpaired.