Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A History of Canning

Unbeknownst to me until later, Miland was considering changing the channel earlier this week when I suddenly said “I don’t know why I am interested in this, but I am.” The topic that caught my attention was canning. Sound dull? Miland thought so. I realize the subject is not nearly as fascinating as the topic in Sex with the Queen, but the show kept my interest for the whole hour. It reminded of a segment of Mr. Fred Rogers children’s show where he’d pop a tape into “picture, picture.” These segments would reveal how everything from crayons to toilet bowls is made.

Growing up, I’d often get a front row seat (helping, actually) in seeing how food was preserved. My mom avidly canned and froze food in the summer and fall. Back in the eighties she called home canning “a lost art.” She felt like one of a few who kept rows of Mason and Ball Jars containing green and yellow beans, peaches, pears, beets, whole tomatoes, tomato juice, apple butter and several kinds of pickles (butter, sweet, and dill) on old wooden shelves in the basement. My favorite, though, was canned beef (which needed to be processed in a pressure cooker). I’ve never seen anything like my mom’s canned beef at a store. Mixed with milk and spread on toast or served with mashed potatoes and noodles, the beef was divine.

I know how to can, but I don’t do it. There is a reason home canning is becoming a rare phenomenon. It’s hard, hot work. There is also the slight risk of serious food poisoning (botulism) caused by improperly preserved food which has discouraged me from my late mom’s hobby.

However, Modern Marvels on the History Channel, the show I watched, did not focus so much on home canning as canning for the masses. The image that first caught my attention was rows of shiny metal cans whizzing along conveyor belts in a factory. In a factory, canned goods are produced with a lot less effort and in a lot less time than at home.I never thought of canning as a modern marvel, but come to think of it, it is. Knowing Miland, he would probably point out that Roman emperors did not have access to canned peas, green beans and spaghetti sauce like we do. All we have to do is go to a grocery store and pick up a can of say veggies costing at times as little as a quarter (when on sale).

According to Modern Marvels, we can thank Napoleon Bonaparte for the privilege of having access to canned foods like peaches and peas during the off-season. He wanted well-preserved food of a higher quality for his army and offered a monetary prize to whoever could come up with a method of preservation. Nicolas F. Appert won in 1809 for developing a method of vacuum-sealing food inside glass jars. It was soon discovered, however, that glass jars were not suitable containers in terms of transporting the goods to battlefields.

In 1810 Peter Durand patented a process for preserving foods in wrought-iron (must have been really heavy) cans. Later, tin cans became the preferred container. Ezra Warner, of Waterbury Connecticut patented the can opener until 1858. Until then, the ends of bayonets, knives, chisels or even rocks were used to open the tinned goods. I’m not sure what Warner’s version looked like, but now we are fortunate to have numerous ways to open cans from pull tabs to electric can openers to those incorporated into pocket knives.

New inventions such as the can opener helped to keep preserved goods in the civilian market. Further, Soldiers, (many from the working class) from major wars like the Crimean War, American Civil War, and Franco-Prussian War helped to create a demand for canned items after the wars were over. Fast forward to the early twentieth century and one can find items such as spaghetti sauce (often in glass jars), canned pineapple, chili beans and all sorts of safely-preserved food in the typical contemporary kitchen cupboard or pantry. In the end, I understood why I was so fascinated with that show. It helped me to realize how much I take factory-produced canned goods for granted. Mr. Rogers would approve.

1 comment:

Ally said...

Hello, I am a ninth grade student researching the global impact canning had, specifically on the army/war/anything to do with battling.

In the last paragraph of your blog, you mention that soldiers helped to increase the demand of canned foods AFTER wars. Can you explain HOW it did, or reference to me a source that would explain something like that? [Or any sources on canning - from 1800-1930 - would be extremely helpful, as there aren't many sources addressing my topic. Everyone seems to take it as a given that canning helped soldiers and do not have the need to explain further on how.]

If you can, many thanks, even if you can't, thank you anyways, because your blog gave me another topic idea.

[I realize this is a little over a month after you posted, but I'm hoping you will still be able to get back to me.]