A recent article in the New York Times Magazine offers an intriguing explanation for why some ancient kitchen utensils may be particularly effective at preserving food: The foodstuffs they were designed to handle were much different from today’s kitchen utns.
“A few years ago, when we were doing some research on ancient foods, we learned that the earliest kitchen tools were made to be able to handle a lot of different foods, and then we also learned that they were meant to hold the foods,” says Katherine Hays, a food preservation expert and an associate professor of agricultural and food sciences at Cornell University.
The same was true for ancient pottery and pottery tools, which were made for storing the foods of the people who used them.
“There were a lot more different kinds of foods that people were cooking and preparing and cooking and eating,” Hays says.
“It’s not surprising that the utensil that was designed to hold those foods would be more likely to preserve them, and also more likely that it would have a lower carbon footprint.”
In other words, an ancient tool made for preserving food would be much more efficient than an older, more expensive one made for holding food.
Hays and her colleagues at Cornell have spent the past few years studying the carbon footprint of ancient tools, looking at the material used to make them.
In the process, they’ve found some surprising results.
“When we looked at the carbon-dioxide emissions from an ancient potter’s wheel, it turned out that they had a very high efficiency, about 10 percent,” Hams says.
It wasn’t until recently that Hays began to get interested in this topic, but she had always wanted to know why the ancient utensills were better at preserving than modern ones.
“The answer is that they’re more efficient,” she says.
When it comes to food preservation, there are many factors at play, including the quality of the food, the size of the bowl, how much water it is packed with, the kind of pot it was made in, the shape of the handles, the number of layers of food inside, and the number and variety of layers that were used to keep food at different temperatures.
Some ancient tools have very specific functions, like for making sure that the bowl has enough water to fill it.
Other utensillmakers, like the ancient potters who made the pottery that we know today, were designed for holding larger amounts of food, and for handling larger amounts in one place.
“So, if you’re making a pottery utensile that’s designed to carry a lot, for example, for cooking, it’s designed for using lots of water, but if you make a potterly utensilian that’s not designed to use a lot and you’re doing things like making an iced tea, then it’s not necessarily designed for the task at hand,” Halsons says.
But, if a potters wheel has an efficiency of less than 10 percent, that doesn’t mean that it can’t handle a wide variety of food.
It may simply be that the more the food is stored, the less efficient it becomes.
For example, in the case of a modern, more portable pottery pot, the water that was poured into the bowl is going to wash off quickly and that water has a higher carbon footprint than the water poured into a pot that’s made of pottery.
In order to preserve the food better, a potting mix should be made that doesn�t have so many layers.
And if the food itself is kept at a lower temperature, that means it should have a higher degree of protection against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and mold, and should be easier to keep in a refrigerator.
Hams’ group has recently started studying the use of potter�s wheels in different contexts, looking to understand why certain types of potters wheels were used for preserving foods in different locations.
They’re currently studying whether there is a specific function for pots that are used for storage and other tasks.
“We’re looking at why these types of utensiles were designed, whether they are used to hold food or to be used to do other things,” Hanks says.
For instance, one of the ancient pots used for storing rice, for use in preparing food in different regions, was designed for keeping the water out of the pot, so that the rice would not get soggy or moldy.
In another example, one type of ancient pot made for storage of food in the same way that it was used to preserve it, was also designed for storing food, but not for storing water, so as to reduce the amount of water needed to clean the food.
“If we can understand how pots are used and how the pots were designed in terms of what functions they serve, then we can also understand how we can use them in different situations,” Haps says.
Hrams and her team are now studying the effectiveness of ancient pots in different settings.