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Food Preservation

An essential technology for any starfaring civilization

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Dehydrating Bison by Diane Morrison
In the age of starfaring, the issue of food preservation is of paramount importance. Space travel can result in long journeys without any way to replenish supplies. Vast areas of stellar and interstellar space are not only empty deserts, but empty, airless, cold vacuum entirely devoid of life. It therefore becomes imperative to extend the shelf-life of stored food as much as possible, and furthermore, the limited space on a ship requires that stores be kept as compact as possible.   Almost every starfaring species has turned their efforts and ingenuity to this concern, with lesser and greater degrees of success. However, there are only so many ways in which food can be preserved and still maintain a degree of nutrition. As a result, many species have independently invented similar processes. This article will focus on the most successful of these food preservation technologies.

Drying

By far, the most widespread and universally successful method of preserving food has been dehydration. People have discovered, through a broad range of experimentation, that removing most of the water from foodstuff can make it last for months, years, or sometimes indefinitely. Some of these technologies are so ancient, and so universal, that it is impossible to tell who invented them, and when (such as dried and pulverized grains, like flour or cornmeal, and dried herbs and spices.) But drying can also be extended to fruits, vegetables and meats.   Food can be dried in a low-heat oven, or under infrared light, like the strong light of a red sun, as well.   Drying is an essential part of the process in the creation of jerky and other preserved meat products, such as the elvish Shalysirae and the orcish Gnàva Llóth and Gnàva Llóth Mnópap, as well as Hardtack and its orcish variant, Châff Mnópap.

Sun-Drying

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Dried Purple Peppers by Marina Shemesh (Diane Morrison)
Most races have approached this problem at one time or another, sometimes from entirely different perspectives. By far the most common method is to dry foods in the light of the sun. In this practice, food is usually broken up into smaller pieces, which makes it easier to dehydrate, and stretched out over screens, or hung on ropes or racks, in the sunlight and wind. Sometimes additional treatments are applied to speed the process, such as steeping the food (especially meat, fruit, and vegetables) in vinegar or citrus juices, or it is salted or treated with sulfides prior to drying.   This method has also been used to preserve such items as tobacco and other mind-altering substances, for medicinal or recreational purposes.   However, sun-drying is dependent on having access to direct sunlight in a relatively dry climate. As a result, it is not possible for every culture to make use of it. For example, dwarves, goblins, and orcs, who tend to choose darker environments for their homes, rarely experience ideal sun-drying conditions. Wet climates are also unsuitable, leading to rotting and mold before drying takes place, so Allyri who live in damp climates, such as swamps and seacoast, may find it difficult if not impossible.   Instead, orcs, goblins, dwarves or Sluagh from worlds that orbit red or red-dwarf suns, use an infrared heat drying method that is functionally identical to standard yellow-sun solar drying. Dried Elathan Purple Peppers are not considered to be properly prepared unless they are dried under infrared heat.

Smoking

Cultures in darker or dryer climates may have more success with smoking meat. A source of medium heat (usually a small fire or charcoal) is kept burning underneath the meat one is hoping to preserve, usually in an enclosed space, exposing it to heat and smoke until it dries out. This method of preservation has also been used on various herbs such as tobacco, nuts, and also poultry and fish. Different types of wood may impart different flavours to the preserved food, and much of this has been written about extensively. Wet wood burns longer and produces more smoke to flavour and preserve than dry wood does. Sometimes sauces or spices are added to help preservation and flavour. Warming spices and vinegars or alcohols are usually key ingredients.   This method works better in dark or wet climates than sun drying, and is a favourite of dwarves and orcs. Dwarves often divert the heat and smoke of their forges for this purpose, and they claim that different ores also impart different flavours (meat and herbs smoked with gold, for example, tastes different from those smoked with iron.) Orcs make more use of the traditional wood smoking methods, and they usually use hot spices in the process, with may inhibit bacteria growth.

Forced-Air Dehydration

In some cases, such as the redirection of forge heat, or several gnomish contraptions, food can be dried by forcing hot air to blow directly on the food while it is dehydrating. This method of drying is becoming more popular as the technology to create the necessary fans has become more commonly available. It is essential for the preservation of many staple foods for starfarers, including rice and peas.

Freeze Drying

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Dried Fruit by Yamada Taro
Starfarers have also accidentally discovered the process of freeze drying. Freeze drying is a process of drying food by freezing it, lowering the pressure, and removing ice by the process of sublimation (which is the instant shift of a solid to a gas, without having to go through the liquid stage.) When food is exposed to the vacuum of open space, the temperature drops, and water escapes in the form of vapour into the Void. In addition, it is irradiated by its brief exposure to cosmic rays, which helps to preserve the food by killing most bacteria. This was of course discovered by hungry spacers trying to recover spilled food from the Void in the wreckage of their damaged ships. While the exposed food tends to have a slight burnt-steak odour when it is first retrieved, this usually fades in a few minutes.   This process is not suited to every food. Food products that are mostly fat will boil before they dry, so fatty sausages and many cheeses and oils often do not survive Void exposure. Foods that are dependent upon bacteria, such as yogurt, are destroyed by cosmic ray exposure. Also, sugar binds to water and traps it in the food, so products like jams or jellies, syrups, and so forth, do not do as well, since all the water may not be removed. Vinegar may do the same, so pickles are also ill-suited to this process.   However, freeze drying works exceptionally well for coffee and tea, dried herbs, fruits and vegetables, and many dried and cured meat products. Spacers have also discovered methods of improving drying time and results, such as pre-drying meat before Void exposure, grinding meat and cheese into smaller pieces prior to drying, and breaking the skins of berries and tomatoes and similar, often by cutting them in half. It is common for spacefaring military forces, and organizations such as the Avalonian Merchant Marine, to deliberately expose suitable victuals to the Void before loading them aboardships.   Notably, the Balorian orcs use freeze-drying as part of their harvest cycle. Since their wet season homes are in high mountains, they make use of nightly freezing and morning thawing to make potatoes into a starchy staple called Llȗb Désû.

Salting

Several methods of food preservation involve, or can involve, the use of salt to aid in the dehydration process and the inhibition of bacteria and fungi growth. However, some foods are simply packed in salts to dehydrate and preserve them -- usually meat, poultry and fish, but also vegetables with flavours that work well with salt, such as runner beans and cabbage. If sulfides are added, the meat also maintains a reddish colour.

Brining

Closely related to salting is brining, in which the food to be preserved is saturated in a salt-and-water solution. This method is commonly used with fish and salt-cured meats, such as ham or bacon.

Pickling

A form of brining is pickling, which is when food is immersed in brine, vinegar, or a mixture of vinegar and vegetable oils, which are often heated to the boiling point first. This process significantly changes the texture and flavour of the food, but can be very effective in increasing food shelf-life. A pH of 4.6 or lower is necessary to kill most bacteria. Occasionally, antimicrobial herbs and spices, such as mustard seed, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, or Elathan Purple Peppers are added to help inhibit microbial growth and add to the flavour of the pickle. A variety of fruits, vegetables, eggs, and fish can be preserved in this manner.

Preserves

Other than pickling, a recent game-changer in food preservation technology is the development of canned preserves. Blanched vegetables, cooked meats, salted fish, pickles, highly sugared fruits or fruit sauces can be sealed in sterilized glass jars, and then sealed with a screw-top band on the mouth of the jar, and a wax or rubber seal on its lid. This preserves the food for months or even years. However, the elves have been quick to discover that this method significantly reduces the nutritional value of the preserved food, depleting it of most of its nutrients. Still, to extend the amount of available food, it's incredibly useful.   Gnomes and Goblins both claim credit for the invention of this fantastic new technology.

Candying

Elves have long made candies by adding sugars to fruits, vegetables or flowers. A simple sugar syrup or honey is heated to a low-medium temperature in a pot, and the items to be candied are dipped in the heated syrup and set to dry. The resulting candy usually has dubious nutritional value, but is a tasty way to spice up food that can become monotonous in the course of a long voyage.   A variation of candying is used in the process of making the famed Elven Waybread . This process does not destroy the nutritional value of the food, because the "candying" takes place at an extremely low temperature.  

Uses and Manufacturing

Utility

Food preservation technology has self-evident advantages to any starfarer. Long voyages through the empty void of space often require that a ship bring its own food and water, and the longer one can make that food last, the healthier the crew will be and the farther, or longer, they can travel.   However, this has much broader implications for spacefaring civilizations. Enterprising merchants load barges without spindizzies full of fresh food, strap it down, and take the barges into the Void via tugboats or other small craft, to be freeze dried. They then haul these barges full of freeze dried provisions to various outposts, asteroids, and moons, where they can be purchased for relatively little expense.

Manufacturing

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Hard Tack with Sorghum Flour by Diane Morrison
Most sentient cultures manufacture their own preserved food to support themselves in hard times or climate shifts, and to supplement their diet in areas that are poor in particular food resources. Large scale food preservation operations are employed by most starfaring civilizations, especially starfaring militaries.   The Avalonian Imperial Navy purchases dried, smoked, and salted foods from the Nunnehi and elven communities. They also manufacture their own preserved food products, particularly freeze dried foods. Some of their manufactories include mills that grind dried meats, fruits, and grains for Shalysirae and other such products.   The enterprising Avalonian Merchant Marine has also begun manufacturing preserved foods and selling them (sometimes at inflated prices) to space communities that rely on food imports for their sustenance.   The Fomorian Armed Forces also manufacture their own dried foods in mills and factories. In the Fomorian Empire, this is the foundation of a rather large industry, and drives a significant portion of the economy.   The Allyri, Gnomes, Dwarves, Humans and independent Goblins manufacture their own preserved foods on a large scale to support their starfaring activities and settlements as well.   Little, if anything, is known about how, or even if, the Rachs, Cthulans, or Shoggothi preserve their food, and perhaps that is best.
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Children Technologies
Inventor(s)
Because food preservation technologies are so widespread, there is little agreement on who invented the various techniques used.   Sun-drying was probably invented independently by most surface-dwelling species in dry climates. However, it is likely that desert-dwelling dragons invented the process long before anyone else, since they have been around longer than anyone else and live in an ideal climate. Heat drying under infrared light was probably the natural evolution of this same technology on red sun worlds, such as the orcish and goblin homeworlds.   Smoking was invented independently in most civilizations that spent any time in their early history dwelling in caves or huts. Forced air dehydration was likely first discovered by the Dwarf people, but quickly taken up by Gnomes and Goblins. It spread rapidly from there to most other cultures with similar technological bases.   Freeze drying was probably discovered by hungry spacefarers in the early days of their exploration, so was likely first invented by the Elf people. One assumes that goblins and gnomes quickly followed suit. The process of freeze drying potatoes was independently invented by the Balorian orcs in an effort to survive their harsh climate.   Most cultures discover the link between salt and food preservation at about the same time that both metallurgy and animal husbandry become widespread. Likely this is because both mining and ranching technologies are needed to inspire this development. Brining, and in some cases, pickling, naturally evolves from this technology and a technology even more ancient, which is fermentation.   Canned preserves are a very recently developed technology that depend on a certain degree of cultural industrialization to function. Although the elves argue this point, it was likely the goblins or the gnomes who first developed these techniques, since they had the necessary industrial base before anybody else.   Candying was likely first invented by elves, who have made use of honey and fruit for thousands of years. Other cultures that enjoy fruit and honey have adopted the same methods.
Access & Availability
Food preservation is a readily available technology. Most cultures have developed at least some form of food preservation technology, although which kinds are available vary with climate and diet. Freeze drying by Void exposure is common to every starfaring culture.
Complexity
Sun-drying is a simple, readily-available technology for those who live in suitable climates. Likewise, active starfaring cultures almost accidentally discover freeze drying in the process of their voyages. Spacers will eat almost anything and they hate wasting food.   Forced air drying was accidentally discovered by dwarves as a side effect of the way they structure their dwellings, but generally took some time to develop for other cultures, who would have had to construct fans to imitate the effects of hot winds.   Smoking is also a technology that is almost accidentally developed by most cultures early in their history, although flavouring recipes are usually the result of careful experimentation. Smoking requires a low-heat fire, an enclosed area, and salt, vinegar, or warming spices, or a combination thereof.   Methods that use salt and other ingredients take the most time and experimentation to develop, but by now, most of the cultures that make it into space have their own recipes that they swear by.   Candying is a fairly ancient technology of the elves, but is newer to many other cultures. Sugar or honey is required, plus a cooking pot. Simple syrup recipes also require water.   The canned preserves are the most recent technological development in this area, and the most complex. Glass jars with screw-top, sealable lids are necessary, along with a pot to heat, sterilize, and seal the jars. Rubber is more effective, less permeable, and lasts longer than wax for this purpose. Vinegar, sugar, or a variety of warming and preserving spices may also be required.
Discovery
The problem of food preservation has plagued sentient races for millennia, especially in the past several hundred years of space travel. As a result, the technology to make foods last longer has been invented independently by almost every sentient species.
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Cover image: Jar Filled with Dried Herbs by Kathy Zinn

Comments

Author's Notes

A few notes about the development of food preservation technology:   Much of my information about what happens under a red sun, and what happens with freeze drying in space, is extrapolated from various experiments that have been conducted by NASA and others. We have indeed extensively tested drying food with infrared heat, which is the primary radiation of red stars, whether red dwarves or otherwise. We have also sent just about everything into space to see what would happen. I even watched a video where some guy with a drone on YouTube sent a cake into the far reaches of the atmosphere and then ate it when it came back down.   In our world, the Incas invented freeze drying with the production of Chuño, which is exactly as described: freeze dried potato matter. Industrial freeze drying was invented by Richard Altmann in 1890, but received little attention until the 1930s, and started seeing widespread use in the 1940s. My credits to the Balorian orcs and starfarers in general in this world are because I believe that when it's steam-engine time, you steam-engine, and if the conditions, need, and technological foundations are similar, then other cultures will come up with the same inventions (as proven by the multiple times writing was invented in our world.)   Also in our world, Mason jars (which of course are the screw-top and sealed jars I'm describing) were invented by John Landis Mason in 1858. This puts it pretty close to the Napoleonic Wars (1803 to 1815), which is the inspiration for the technological/industrial base (and much of the politics) I'm using for this setting. It's a bit of a stretch, but with gnomes and goblins being such innovative cultures, I figured it wasn't an unreasonable stretch, and the need is perhaps even greater for my starfarers than it was for the sailors of the Age of Sail, who at least could usually find fish if they were hungry.


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