How do you feed a world that is becoming increasingly hungry? This is not a new question and one that according to the Food Preservation Team from the Department of Nutritional Science at the University of Missouri has been plaguing food engineers for decades if not centuries. According to their research achieving this grand goal cheaply and efficiently on a global scale is the challenge. Food preservation through dehydration may hold the key to feeding masses of hungry people. While the future of food dehydration may be stellar, its history over the last several centuries may hold some surprises.
Food drying or dehydrating is believed to be one of the oldest methods of food preservation throughout human history. It allowed hunter-gatherer societies to successfully travel, explore and hunt for different food sources. The development of agriculture was the single, major factor that made it possible for mankind to settle in permanent communities and transition from hunter-gatherer nomadic tribes. How to save or preserve these foods for a later date is a whole separate study. Research has showed that the first ancient stable, settled, civilization arose in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the Middle East. The uncovering of dried fruits, grains and dried, salt preserved fish and meat are traced back to over seven thousand years to these first ancient civilizations. Farming eliminated the constant need to search for food and allowed populations to grow through the production of a more stable food source. There are neither volumes of recorded history nor any one source of collected material on food dehydration. However very recent Middle Eastern archeological digs have un-earthed food samples which research determined to have been dried foods originating in ancient Jericho over 4000 years ago. In addition, Old Testament Biblical scholars have been able to isolate bits and pieces of scripture which mention the preservation methods of sun-drying and smoking foods over a hot fire as a means of feeding their people.
For centuries, much of the European diet depended on dried cod, known as salt cod or bacalhau (with salt) or stockfish (without). It formed the main protein source for the slaves on the West Indian plantations and was major economic force within the trade routes of the day. The next mention of food drying doesn’t emerge again until around 1630. At about this time in history a band of French mavericks began appearing up and down the Yucatan peninsula and Caribbean islands. They were known as the buccaneers. The term buccaneer was actually derived from the Caribbean Arawak word buccan which is referencing a wooden frame for smoking meat. The meat of preference at the time was the plentiful, slow moving manatee or sea cow. From this became derived in French the word boucane and hence the name boucanier for French hunters who used their wooden frames to smoke meat from feral cattle and pigs on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). History of course tells us the rest of the story about the buccaneers. English settlers occupying Jamaica began to spread the name buccaneers with the meaning of ruthless pirates when in reality it was referring to their ability to dry meat. The name became universally adopted later in 1684 when the first English translation of Alexandre Exquemelin’s book The Buccaneers of America was published.
Along with an amazingly colorful history which includes ancient roots and ruthless piracy, food dehydration is even today on the forefront of cutting edge food engineering and preservation. Today’s food dehydrator is a surprisingly simple capsule of modern technology and historical know how. Today’s typical kitchen food dehydrator has electronically generated air flow along with micro-processor governed temperature control. In place of the wood frame on the beach is an amazingly compact, ergonomically designed piece of history that fits snuggly on a kitchen counter. With multiple level trays, even air flow and constant temperature control a person can dehydrate a large volume of fresh fruits, veggies and meats literally over night. The simplicity, efficiency and very low cost of the modern food dehydrator is once again taking center stage in the complex world of food preservation and engineering. Developing nations and countries that have endured natural disasters are re-discovering the practicalities of food dehydration to feed their hungry masses. The buccaneers of yester-year had no idea how their simple practice of meat drying on the beach would become a modern means of feeding a hungry world.