Many Jewish meals would not feel complete without pickled cucumbers and green tomatoes, Sephardic pumpkin jam, smoked salmon and other preserved foods on the table. But why is this the case?
A tradition of eating preserved food items was bred of necessity—to stretch available resources, let little go to waste and spice up and add variety to the diet. In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden explains, “Vegetable pickles, especially cabbage, beet and cucumber, were staples in the diet of Jews in Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Russia. Developed as a method of food preservation, they had strong flavors that brought a welcome sharpness to the bland tastes of the bread-and-potato diet of these areas.”
Jewish practice of making jams and other fruit preserves have roots in Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities. Preserving the sweetness of the season allows for special jams to be served at brit milah and other happy occasions. “In the old days,” Roden writes, “large quantities were made during their season to last through the year. Women got together…and spent the day pitting, peeling and stirring…and they all went home with a bagful of jars.”
What’s old is new again in the 21st century. The Great Recession of a decade ago has led to renewed interest in home food preservation.
As spring turns into summer, our gardens burst with strawberries, peaches, tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers and more. If we’re attentive to our gardens and blessed with good growing conditions, we will produce way more than we can enjoy before our harvest spoils.
Food preservation—canning, freezing, dehydrating and other methods—helps us save some of the seasonal bounty in ways that are safe and nutritious while adhering to the commandment of bal tashchit (do not destroy or waste).
According to the US Department of Agriculture, roughly 30 to 40 percent of food that would otherwise be fit for human consumption is sent to a landfill. Habits at home are big contributors to this waste, yet we can each make changes to reduce how much we throw into the trash, which in turn can help increase food security.
A prohibition against destruction is most clearly laid out in the Torah, and we can extrapolate and interpret food preservation as a halakhic imperative. In this way, bal tashchit is an element of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
The low-hanging fruit (pun intended) involves making it a regular habit to plan meals, writing grocery lists and sticking to them, better estimating how much food you need and not over-purchasing, eating as much of the food items you purchase as you can and composting what you don’t use or what is inedible. But when there’s just too much to enjoy right away or you want to savor summer flavors in the cold-weather months, there’s food preservation.
If you have the space available to you, freezing is the simplest method of preserving, particularly for fruits and vegetables. Freezing is also low risk.
There’s that word: risk. There’s risk in everything we do from driving a car to breathing air to preserving food. And lots of risk, such as food safety, can be managed.
The unsung hero for sharing the knowhow for home food preservation safety is the Cooperative Extension System (CES). CES agents are the literal extension of America’s land-grant universities in communities large and small across America. Extension agents are here to help us put food safety knowledge into practice.
With great power (to preserve food) comes great responsibility (to not accidentally poison people with it). The most comprehensive source of information about food preservation is the National Center for Home Food Preservation run by the University of Georgia Extension. The University of Minnesota Extension offers a breadth of videos to get people comfortable with preservation techniques.
Reading books and websites are one way to learn. Classes and hands-on experiences to discuss and reinforce methods as well as opportunities to ask questions are also available—you just have to know where to find them. Wherever you’re located in the United States, look up your local Cooperative Extension System office to find out about classes for home food preservation.
In the DC area? Attend Preserving the Harvest – Canning, Freezing on July 31 at 7 pm in the Bluemont Room at Central Library, 1015 N Quincy St, Arlington, Virginia, to learn from experienced Master Food Volunteers about how to can and freeze fresh produce to savor summer flavors all winter long.