There was no island-wide electricity supply. However, it did have a tiny hospital staffed by one doctor and one nurse. Because they had to keep many of their drugs, ointments and serums cold, they needed a stand-alone generator for their fridge. It also powered hospital lighting for a couple of hours at night and allowed reliable illumination of delicate operations.
Now, because there was no electricity, there were no domestic refrigerators in which to store meat or fish. Sea food had to be eaten soon after it was caught or it would simply go rotten and become a health hazard. After all, Rotuma is located in the sultry tropics, halfway between The Equator and The Tropic of Capricorn.
For most islanders, eating meat was a rare treat. Small herds of pigs were reared in the bush and generally fed on coconut meat and vegetable peelings and whatever they found by rooting around. There were hardly any cattle but many families kept a few hens both for eggs and the pot. If a chicken was killed it was soon plucked and gutted and cooked. There were no fridges in which to put leftovers for later or the next day.
One day, there was great excitement. A cow was to be butchered in our village. This was to happen in the relative cool of the night.
It was duly tethered and shot in the head as its throat was cut. Then the butchering began. An older man from another village had been brought over to lead this process. It happened on a bed of banana leaves under hurricane lanterns. At first the carcass steamed as the hide was removed. There was the noise of slicing and cutting and raised voices that I didn't understand but it was an unusual event and there was much excitement.
Meat was weighed and wrapped into parcels. Men on puttering mopeds took orders away to other villages as the residents of Motusa walked home with their bundles of fresh beef. By daybreak the job was done. I have no idea what they did with the bones but they would not have been wasted. Local dogs feasted on what was left as dawn bled into another bright morning.
That day, in many homes, islanders tucked into beef stews or strips of grilled beef. By Monday all of the beef would have been consumed because, as I say, there was nowhere to store it safely.
This brings me to my main point. Here in the western world we have become used to the possibility of eating meat or fish every day but when you think about it that is entirely down to refrigeration. Ships bring frozen lamb from as far away as New Zealand and Argentina. Modern supermarkets have chillers and freezers and nowadays every home in the land has a fridge and maybe a freezer too.
We take these things for granted but it wasn't always the case. For most of our forebears, eating fresh unsalted meat was an intermittent treat. It did not happen every day. In that sense, they had a lot in common with Rotuman islanders. Refrigeration has had and continues to have a massive impact on our eating habits. It is an impact that has only really been felt for the last one hundred years. Before that it was all so very different.
I am sure that I have indeed considered that fact about refrigeration and our diet but not to a great degree. It would have been the same here where I live and indeed, when the house I live in was built- no electricity then. And it's hot here. Some meat was smoked, for sure and now that I think about it, that's probably why the south has such a heritage of using bacon and ham in our cooking. I suppose when an animal was slaughtered, there was a lot of meat-eating and when one was not, well, throw a bit of that ham from the smokehouse into the greens. Maybe go pull a few fish from the creek.ReplyDelete
Those imaginings are not wild. Probably very close to the truth> America was way ahead of the rest of the world when it came to domestic refrigeration.Delete
It also has had and continue to have a massive impact on the environment. Of course, there are many drinks I would never wish to have if they did not come well chilled, and pouring milk over my bowl of muesli every morning is also only possible because I have a fridge in which to store the one litre pack that lasts me all week.ReplyDelete
I wonder how the people on Rotuma see their lives in the past compared to today.
Once Rotuma would have been entirely self-sufficient but since first contact with Europeans in the 1790's that self-reliance will have diminished year after year. There is an airstrip there now and I believe there is an island-wide electricity supply which of course will not come free of charge.Delete
Interesting about your time in Rotuma, and point well made about the impact of refrigeration on eating habits. The resulting demand for meat has also stressed the environment, as has the freon which makes refrigerators work. Everything's connected, isn't it?ReplyDelete
You got it Jenny. Refrigeration has increased the demand for meat and the expectation that it will be there on the table.Delete
I would assume that modern Rotuman now have small refrigerators run by solar, wind or propane? As you may know, we have a large population of Amish among us who don't believe in electricity. I have yet to see any use solar or wind to power something, but they do have small refrigerators run by propane. At night, they still use kerosene lanterns for light.ReplyDelete
I wonder how many pure, strict Amish are left. It cannot be easy for them living alongside the modern world that the rest of us occupy.Delete
They are actually thriving in our area and increasing in population. A lot of that has to do with no contraception and thus large families.Delete
A few years ago we visited the Canal Museum in London, housed within the former Victorian Ice Warehouse at Kings Cross. It tells a fascinating story of how ice was hacked into huge blocks and shipped to London from Norway to be stored in the ice wells.ReplyDelete
19th century refrigeration.
Many grand country houses still have ice houses or ice pits. I have seen a few.Delete
Have you got a listening device in my living room?ReplyDelete
We had this very conversation yesterday evening.
Freezers and fridges have certainly changed the way we shop, cook and eat.
Personally I use my freezer daily, whether storing bargin cuts of meat from the supermarket or freezing home grown veg. I'd be lost without it.
No listening device but there is a microscopic camera hidden in your bathroom Christina. As for freezers, they are also useful for grey squirrels.Delete
Our eccentrity/leccy bill is going up 25 percent YP. Perhaps it time to⁴ salting our meat again? My Irish grandparents use to salt theirs.ReplyDelete
With all the sunshine you get on The Irish Riviera, I am surprised you haven't invested in solar panels Dave.Delete
Refrigeration has had a massive impact on life even in my lifetime. On the other hand my grandmother's house had below ground level cellars for cheese and meet as well as for storage and washing etc.ReplyDelete
In our old terraced house there was a big stone table in the cellar - specially for keeping things cool.Delete
You've had such wonderful adventures Neil. When I was a child, milk was wrapped in a muslin cloth and put in a bowl of cold water - a method that was effective in the cooler months, but less so in hot weather. We had a meat safe for cooked meats, which attracted the attention of every fly in the neighbourhood. Animal carcasses were salted and hung from hooks in the ceiling - something that I'm quite sure, on a sub-conscious level at least, ensured I never ate meat from a very early age! Soft fruits and many vegetables had to be jammed or preserved as soon as they were ripe, and whilst most people enjoyed ice-cream in the sweltering heat, for us it was a 'treat' that mum made when snow was on the ground! Everything was such a labour-intensive rigmarole, but there was also a gentle rhythm to the year as each task was done. I suppose what I'm saying is that it's a matter of balance, and weighing life quality and enjoyment against environmental issues is never going to be an easy task. Do I worry about the negative effects of refrigeration? Yes, I do, but I certainly don't want to go back to an era where you sit having tea with half a pig swinging its backside over the table.ReplyDelete
(Elizabeth - I still can't fathom how to change the address to my site on your set-up!)
Sounds like you were raised in the Victorian era Elizabeth! Sorry I cannot help you with the address/name problem. Thanks for calling by once more. I hope you are good and well.Delete
I've never given refrigeration all that much thought, although like Mary I was aware that it's the reason that smoked and salt-cured meats have historically been so popular here in the south. Of course, we do have some cold and sub-freezing weather in the winter (at least in South Carolina) that would have made it a little more feasible between December and March. In a tropical climate I'll bet fresh meat really WAS a treat, especially things like beef that would take a lot of people to eat up immediately. I suppose that prior generations all over the world had to adapt their diets to whatever was readily available and safe to eat in their climate. For instance, peoples of the far north were able to get all their vitamins from the fat of cold blooded marine animals (like seals and whales) thanks to the algae stored in it. That's amazing to me. Humans are very adaptable creatures!ReplyDelete
Glad to have sparked some thought and speculation on this topic in the Barlow brain.Delete
In many ways, we live in a soft, coddled world. I'm not sure many of us would know what to do if thrust into the ways of the past. I didn't get your comment above about freezers and gray squirrels (private joke?), but I'll share this with you... there are beaver tails in my freezer. You probably don't want to know more.ReplyDelete
We have a lot of American grey squirrels in England - they are a real pest. As for your beaver tails... do you mean real beavers? Aren't they protected?Delete
No, actually the opposite. Our state game & fish offers a bounty on them. They are widespread and can cause hundreds of dollars of damage to property. They are edible and their pelts can be sold/used for a variety of things.Delete
We watched a documentary about refrigeration and freezing in particular. It was very good and very illuminating. I was raised with both and never gave a thought to what came before.ReplyDelete
Our generation and succeeding generations in the west have lived a charmed life in the sense that refrigeration - both domestic and industrial - has been ever present.Delete
My mom and dad grew up in an era when refrigerators were more like ice boxes. My mom still gets rid of meat way before I think she needs to for fear that it's gone bad. I have to remind her about the advantages of modern refrigeration. Mom also got undulant fever from raw milk. She still remembers how ill she was.ReplyDelete
You are right to suggest that living without reliable refrigeration could at times be hazardous to health.Delete
And I know that undulant fever is from lack of pasteurization, not lack of refrigerator. It does illustrate all the modern ways that we're kept safer.ReplyDelete
My partner tells me how his mother used to shop daily before they had a refrigerator. It was harder here where not everyone lived close to shops and so we had meat safes, open enough to the air, but not open enough to allow flies to enter. The safe would be draped in wet hessian and hung is a cool place preferably in a breeze and the hessian kept wet. But I don't know how long meat would last in such a safe.ReplyDelete
In our more populated areas, the ice man would deliver large blocks on a regular basis but that of course was after refrigeration was invented to make ice, unless it came from an iceberg towed from the Antarctic?
In England, winter ice was often stored in pits or ice houses which slowed melting very significantly. Many grand country houses had their own.Delete
I'm glad you mentioned salt meat. They wee also very adept at drying and smoking meat for preservation. Aboriginals here new how to dry the meat and store it. there's also the famous pemmican which actually lasted for years. Dried meat was mixed with fat and berries and them encased by clay. For the tropics all bets are off for these methods.ReplyDelete
Thank you for your Canadian reflections Red.Delete
My Relatives in North Wales, where my Mom was from, only had a small Icebox and never owned a full size Fridge that us Americans took for granted. Mostly my Nanna walked to the Butcher or Bakery daily and Milk was delivered by a Milkman still to the front Door.ReplyDelete
Before refrigeration there would have been more dried and preserved food and as you suggest more shop visits - just like your Nanna.Delete
When I was a child we lived in A Victorian house, so always a cellar full of fruit from the garden and a pantry with marble slabs for keeping things cool. In my daughter's house there is also a basement of small rooms, one with hooks for meat? and coal bunkers. Someone mentioned the rythym of the seasons when we ate what there was at a specific time of the year, fridges have taken that place sadly.ReplyDelete
Refrigeration ignores seasonal rhythms and makes food expectations far wider than they would otherwise have been.Delete
I'm going to have kippers tonight for a change. They have come from Scotland (FROZEN) and purchased here in Perth from Burswod Seafood, a vendor of frozen fish. Go figure!ReplyDelete
The answer is refrigeration!Delete
I remember the Icebox we had before we got our first fridge. The coldest shelf was directly below the top section where the huge block of ice was put in, so any meat was kept there and after a day or so when the block of ice had shrunk, Dad would bring home a small cardboard "brick" of ice cream and put it in with the ice and we would all have some after dinner, with Dad finishing it off after we kids were in bed. Vegetables and fruit were kept in baskets in the cupboard furthest away from the door and window where any summer heat came in and we didn't buy large amounts of anything as it would soon go bad. Then we got something called a "meat safe" which was a frame cabinet with wire mesh sides and front, supposedly to keep meat where flies couldn't get to it, and was supposed to be kept cool by hanging a soaking wet hessian sack over it. We used ours for bread and fruit instead. I don't remember what happened to the baskets we used to keep the fruit in.ReplyDelete
Anyway, these days I'm very glad to have a fridge/freezer combination, not for gigantic amounts of meat, but to store individual serves of meals I have cooked so I don't have to cook every day. Just take out a frozen portion, thaw, heat and eat.
Refrigeration is something we take for granted these days but you can recall a time when this was not so. Interesting. Did you grow up in Adelaide River?Delete
only the early years. Born in Germany, arrived in Australia before my first birthday, spent time in Bonegilla migrant camp in Victoria, then we moved to South Australia living in a couple of places before getting to Adelaide, then moving to Port Pirie when I was five. I left at 16/ 17 and went to Murray Bridge where I worked in a milk bottling/cheese making factory until I married at 18.Delete
I think refrigeration greatly reduced the work of the housewife who had to go out daily to get fresh items. Now we can do a big shop once a week or even less often than that. It has meant women can go out to work and earn money and become liberated.ReplyDelete
Now I think much of our food -- the produce, anyway -- is grown for its tolerance of shipping and storage rather than for flavor. So we have food that lasts longer but it doesn't taste as good as it did for our forebears, when it was hybridized for the best flavors and then eaten fresh.ReplyDelete
Shall we not return to the days of the Old Butcher Shops?ReplyDelete
Gore-encrusted sawdust on the greasy floors.
Bluebottles engorged with blood, settling sluggishly on ribbed carcasses.
Pig's head in the window, a frozen grin as its throat was being cut.
Brains, liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, pancreas, gullet, thymus, tongue, trotters, ears, intestines, oxtails ... to an industrial carnivore these were like chocolate truffles.
Housewives were sick as they fried liver for their husbands along with fatty rashers of bacon, bubbling in a black pan like the devil's supper.
Or veal meatballs with spaghetti, cooked in breadcrumbs like the do in Italia?
Never mind that the calf was traumatised as it was dragged mewling from its mother.
Horse, hare, rabbit, venison. Mutton pies a-plenty.
*If you knew what went into a pie,* someone said, *you'd never eat one.*
I went out with a butcher's daughter, a handsome girl with a high-blooded complexion.
*I am an only child,* she told me, *so I am a good catch for the some man.*
She ate sirloin steak five nights a week.