Christ Church Sowerby Bridge

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Food supplies today, and the invention of processed food

Our ancestors literally lived “From hand to mouth”: picking fruit, hunting meat, foraging as the seasons changed and moving across the land for better weather and sources of clean water. When humans began to settle in one place to grow and domesticate animals, farmworkers laboured, and were given board and lodging in return. Landowners rented out their fields for a share of the farmers harvest. Merchants travelled between communities:  transporting goods that were common   in one place to become exotic curiosities in another market. Exchanging items was how humans invented what we now call Economics.   

New techniques were invented to “process” food and make it keep longer.  From medieval times “salting” or “smoking” meat and fish   had been the main method of preservation. Salt is a preservative and could turn pork into bacon.  Smoking and then careful curing where food was essentially dried out to preserve it would make pork into ham, or herrings into kippers.  Fermentation using salt was also popular to keep vegetables such cabbage which is the basis of sauerkraut, or using vinegar to pickle root vegetables like beetroot and onions.   Then the increased availability of sugar imported from the British Empire meant that seasonal fruit could be turned into jam which kept for the rest of the year. Nowadays we know this was as a result of the slave trade and the horrific conditions on the sugar plantations but at the time few people knew what anything about this – they treated sugar as a cheap source of calories to help make other food taste better, or preserve it.  Whilst today we have fridges and freezers, the Victorians built “ice houses” dug into the hillside or in the shade beside the banks of a river and when winter came dug up blocks of ice and stored them so that food could be kept cool either inside or the ice gradually taken up to the kitchen during the year as it was needed to keep prepared food cold.  

Nowadays we walk into a restaurant or supermarket and expect to see food from around the world, in perfect condition as fresh ingredients, canned or frozen.  Food that’s been processed: for easy cooking, ready meals, “fine dining”, or ready to take- away. We rely on a long and complicated system using lorries, container ships and planes all using fuel so produce reaches our shelves and we can browse the aisles at leisure.   We are annoyed when a favourite product is out of stock or there is a shortage of flour.  We are now consumers and with technology we can pay with a swipe of our phone. It’s so easy to lose visibility of all the extra people and places involved in the journey from farm to fork. 

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