Let us now praise ... canned food

By James Parker
September 13, 2009

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For the lover of produce in New England, the countdown to fall is a gilded time. Appetite sharpens. The carrot itches in the cooling earth. The feverish fruits of summer recede - the tomatoes, the peppers, the zucchini - and the cauliflower shows once again her enigmatic face. Seasonal dishes recommend themselves; the climate solicits a culinary tribute. So what’ll it be - a pumpkin and chestnut soup? A wild mushroom risotto, with persimmon chutney?

Or perhaps... some nice Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli?

Let’s face it, we can’t all be cooks. And for those of us unattached to the soil, amicably divorced from Nature, to whom the seasonal tang and the fibrous crunch of freshness are matters of indifference, civilization has made a single marvelous provision: canned food.

I could speak of the can’s particular moods and flavors - the boisterousness of canned chili, the dankness of canned lentils. I could praise the extraordinary industrial effort that has made these foods available to us, year-round, at the exact moment we need them. But what I really want to say, in this time of farmer’s markets, and local eating, and general exhortation to live at the end of one’s garden, like a donkey, is this: The can is an instrument of culture.

We owe it to a modest Frenchman, a chef who in another age might have been an alchemist. Nicholas Appert, at the tail end of the 18th century, divined through long experimentation that a careful process of heating and sealing permitted certain foodstuffs to be preserved indefinitely. He bottled soups, fruits, stews. He gave samples to the French navy, to help in the fight against scurvy. The industrialization of his method was left to the Brits, who built the first canning factories, and indeed it was a Brit, William Underwood, who introduced canning to America in 1817. He canned seafood - in Boston, actually.

That the can preserves food, we know. But on occasion it does more: it preserves life itself. In 1829 Captain John Ross, with his ship the Victory, made his second attempt to break through the ice packs of the Arctic Ocean: the British government had offered a prize of 20,000 pounds to the first navigator who could locate the legendary Northwest Passage. Ross’s expedition came up short; the Victory’s fancy new steam engine gave out; supplies ran low; things looked grim. But at Somerset Island, where an expedition led by William Parry had ground to a halt five years earlier, Captain Ross and his crew had a joyful encounter with Parry’s abandoned supplies - a mountain of canned meat and vegetables (Parry, a pioneer in the use of canned goods at sea, had taken 26 tons’ worth on board his vessel the Fury) that was untouched and as edible as ever.

The drama of this story, for which I am indebted to Sue Shephard’s fine book “Pickled, Potted & Canned” (Simon & Schuster, 2006), is of course played out microcosmically in American kitchens every day. Your stomach is growling, the fridge is empty, in despair you fling wide a cupboard door and - yes! A can of B&M Baked Beans! (The Only Brick Oven Baked Bean!) With what joy do you fall upon it. Distantly you hear the wild historic sea-shouts of Captain Ross and his crew, as they came across that virgin trove of cans. One particular can - a can of boiled meat, as it happened - returned with the Victory to England, its contents remaining sealed until 1938, when a Professor Jack Drummond opened it, tested it, and pronounced the meat unspoiled and still nutritious, if slightly metallic from its long confinement.

So much for the can in the age of exploration. At the dawn of modernity the can was an agent of dietary democracy - bringing peaches to the peach-less, and plums to the unplummed - and thus quintessentially American. “Why, the tin can is as much an emblem of our country as the American eagle!” exclaimed James Collins in the opening pages of his 1924 boosterist text, “The Story of Canned Foods.” Collins hailed California as “the world’s kitchen garden,” whose fruits were enjoyed equally by “the London merchant, the West Indian sugar planter, the Argentine vineyardist, the Malaysian rubber grower, and the Eskimo seal hunter.”

Quite a montage. But there is a humbler and lonelier scene that is far more potent: the scene of the solitary person in his or her kitchen, monkishly dumping a can of Progresso Clam Chowder into the saucepan, mind on other things. It’s mid-afternoon, or 3 in the morning. The can in this situation has a philosophical value - it stands for asceticism, separateness, lack of nurture, the dignity of the mental life.

The great essayist Edward Hoagland, in his memoir “Compass Points,” writes stirringly of the cans he consumed as a young man, living cheaply in New York: canned tuna, he claims, “has more of the real aroma of sex and life than fowl or pig or steak (though bacon, smoked, comes second).” I’d argue that canned tuna smells brainy. And canned sardines, to me, smell like literature.

It’s healthier to eat a grapefruit, of course - but so what? Is health the highest virtue? Aristotle would have approved, deeply approved, of cream of mushroom soup. Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, name your sage - he would have been an expert with the opener. Or Emily Dickinson, out in Amherst, dipping into a can of vanilla pudding... We have come too far to fall back into mere creatureliness: Rodin’s Thinker sits on an invisible plinth of canned food.

So enjoy your autumnal dishes, by all means. Munch your way obediently through the produce of the hour. I and millions like me will be standing quietly apart, outside the stream of mutability, thinking our thoughts, eating our baked beans. Unheated. Straight from the can.

James Parker writes regularly for Ideas and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.