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Pitch Me a Dwayberry

August 02, 2000|CHARLES PERRY

In earlier times, preserving food was a necessity, not a hobby. A high proportion of the "delightes" in Sir Hugh Plat's "Delightes for Ladies" (1609) were ways of keeping stuff from spoiling.

Many are still familiar--pickles, jams, jellies, dried fruit, fruit leather. Platt recommended preserving quinces by covering them with ale, and walnuts by packing them in the dry solids left over after pressing crab apples (whose sour juice was used pretty much the way lemon juice is used today).

He gave instructions on barreling oysters with salt and vinegar, a method that survived well into the 19th century. It's how it was possible for a Gold Rush-era chef to invent a sort of oyster omelet called Hangtown fry. There were definitely no local oysters up in the Gold Country.

But Platt also gave recipes with a weird, desperate ring to them. Veal preserved up to 10 days by burying it in bran. Lobster wrapped in damp cloth and buried in sand. Pomegranates covered with wax and hung from nails in your bedroom closet. Supposedly they would keep this way until Whitsuntide, seven weeks after Easter.

He wrote that you could preserve dwayberries by dipping them in pitch and hanging them by the stalks from your ceiling for up to a year. (What are dwayberries? They're the ripe fruits of the deadly nightshade plant. They're edible; only the unripe fruits are poisonous.) Perhaps there were 17th century dwayberry freaks who yearned for them out of season.

Platt humbly offered a suggestion for preserving beef for sea voyages without turning it hideously tough and salty: dragging it behind the ship in a barrel with holes drilled in it. Bad news, Sir Hugh--there are countless little sea creatures that would be able to get at that meat. Better just stock up your ship's freezer with TV dinners.

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