“I don’t like to eat all that mechanical food!” That’s essentially all I can recall of what one of my uncles said defiantly during a discussion about modern methods of preserving and preparing food. I was just a small lad and must have been especially struck by his objection, which was focused on frozen meat. This was in the late 1940s, when freezers were gaining popularity among those who handled meat. In those days, meat was seasoned as soon as it arrived home from the market. Some would be prepared right away and the rest would be cooked in the next day or two.
Very few homes had refrigerators, and preservation of things like butter, cheese, meat and other perishables was accomplished by virtue of the icebox. This came in two varieties, the more fancy being an insulated metal cabinet usually with two doors. The upper compartment held a block of ice, and food was stored in the the lower section. The more delicate stuff was placed right next to the ice or directly on top of it. Thus butter would remain hard and cheese wouldn’t go rancid. We could even enjoy some Jell-O after supper!
The second type of icebox was just that – a wooden box filled with sawdust (cedar being the most prized, because of its water-resisting capabilities and appealing odour) which cushioned and insulated the block of ice placed on the bed of sawdust. It was covered with the coarse jute fabric recycled from its primary use as a “crocus bag” used to transport bulk goods. Wetting the jute cloth helped reduce the rate at which the ice block melted and thus the box needed new ice only a couple of times a week.
The fancy iceboxes were constructed of galvanised steel because of its resistance to rust, and with careful maintenance would often last quite a long time. Another of my uncles, who was a metal worker, would sometimes obtain a commission from a customer to make an icebox, and he did this at home. As a young fellow I was fascinated to watch as he transformed steel rods and square tubes into frames which would support the sheet metal he carefully cut with heavy-duty shears and attached with screws. This was the first time I ever saw an electric drill in action as it made short work of piercing what I had perceived to be impenetrable steel.
These food cabinets were usually painted white or cream, although the custom builder could supply any colour the buyer desired — as long as it was available from the paint supplier. And of course, apart from the food, these storage units required the regular feeding by the ice truck, which made regular rounds in Kingston and some of the bigger towns. In Kingston we had two ice makers who vied vigorously for the household business: the Kingston Ice Company and Bronstorph Brothers.
Each boasted about the quality of the ice it made, but to the casual observer or a curious young boy it was difficult to see any difference.
The ice came in 100-pound blocks, which the men who rode in the back of the truck would quickly divide into 50- or 25-pound blocks through the skilful manipulation of sharp ice picks and curved ice tongs with which they grabbed the blocks and slung them into the waiting hands of the householder.
As I grew older I inherited the chore of emptying the container at the bottom of the icebox which caught the runoff as the ice melted in the top compartment. Later on, when we acquired a refrigerator in the 1950s, that job was transformed into the weekly defrosting of the small freezer compartment, which could hold not much more than a couple of ice trays. The most popular make in those days was Kelvinator, and for a time it became a generic name for refrigerator. By this time, I suspect, my uncle had to give in to the advances of technology and either eat meat which had once been frozen, or go without.
For those of us who lived in the country, ice wasn’t as easily available, and the old tried and tested means of food preservation held sway. This is why to this day, we still have a taste for salty food. The grocery shops stocked a wide variety of canned meats and fish, all preserved with compounds of sodium, chlorides and nitrates. We knew these as salt and saltpetre, and their job was to suck the life out of any germs that dared invade the food.
“Bully beef”, processed pork, potted meat, salmon, sardines and mackerel came to us sealed in tin cans and bathed in these chemicals. In some cases fish, pig’s tail and certain cuts of beef were packed in brine and sealed in pails, kegs and barrels. The shopkeeper would grab the desired product with tongs, drain off the very salty water, and weigh the portion before wrapping it in used newspaper or waxed paper and handing it over. Some products, like the overwhelming favourite, codfish, or smoked herring and mackerel, were heavily salted and shipped dry in wooden crates. These were a bit easier to handle than the items packed in brine.
Smoking and salting to preserve food go way, way, back in human history and remain with us even with the array of high-tech methods of preservation, including vacuum-packing and freezedrying. Part of this is the simplicity of these tried and true traditional methods as well as the fact that, over many generations, our taste buds have become addicted to the flavour of salt.
Now, the lab denizens tell us, salt is killing us, albeit slowly. Study after study have told us that the amount of salt in our diet is too high and the result is a near-epidemic levels of hypertension and heart disease. Hypertension – commonly referred to as high blood pressure – affects about a billion people worldwide, a quarter of the world’s adult population. It is often called the “silent killer” because it normally causes no obvious symptoms and therefore often goes undetected.
A study carried out 10 years ago found that almost a quarter of Jamaicans (23.8 per cent) were hypertensive and you can be sure that percentage has increased since then. The main culprit is the sodium which constitutes half the makeup of salt. If caught early, the disease can be brought under control and medication is often unnecessary. Doctors assure us that the drugs prescribed to control hypertension are neither addictive nor habitforming and side effects are usually rare and not very serious. The effects of the disease, on the other hand, are serious – including heart attacks, strokes and kidney and heart failure.
Fighting this disease requires a complete overhaul of our habits. We have to exercise more and wean ourselves off salt as much as we can. A simple trick is to cook the side dishes – yams, potatoes, rice, vegetables, etc – in the Rastafarian ital style (without salt), and using salt (sparingly) only to season the fish, flesh or fowl that constitutes the centrepiece of our meals.
The food tastes just as good, you take in much less salt, and your circulatory system will thank you!