Call Me Pickled

How well does pickling work for meat, a reader has been wondering. The answer is: pretty well. There are all types of pickled fish in the world (herring and the like), and then or course the famous Irish (or at least American-Irish) corned beef. The word “corned” actually refers to the pickling process here, not the cereal grain. How is that? Because up until about 1900, “corn” simply referred to a small piece of something. Today we say a “grain” of sand or a “grain” of wheat. In days gone by, English speakers would have called them “corns”. So, “corned” beef was cheap meat that had “salt corns” applied to it, either whole or more typically dissolved in a brine. There are other cuts of meat out there, bacon and ham among them, that are immersed in brine, only when meats are treated in this way they’re usually said to be “cured” and not “pickled”.

All of which begs the question (at least as far as I’m concerned) as to whether pickling techniques have ever been employed to preserve people. In a manner of speaking, yes. Admiral Nelson, having been killed by sniper fire at the Battle of Trafalgar, was immersed in a barrel of brandy for transport back to England (most Naval casualties were buried at sea, but a man of Nelson’s stature was special).

Not really pickling, but interesting nontheless, was the pre-revolutionary French practice of salting and preserving people to keep them from escaping prosecution. Suicide was illegal in France (as it was all over the Christian world) in those days, but how to punish people after the deed was done? The solution they came up with: salt the perpetrator and make’em stand trial anyway. French court records dating to the 1670’s show that salting was a fairly common practice in those days, done in cases of suicide as well as with accused persons who’d died in prison. I’m not sure how effective a deterrent it was against crime, but I guess you have to give them points for trying.

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