Public attitudes toward the food we eat are constantly changing and evolving in unexpected ways. In an era of demanding jobs and 60-hour-a-week workweeks, we may rely more on frozen and canned foods than we wish. Canned foods also provide an extraordinary range of items that might otherwise be completely unavailable. You have probably seen expensive French paté in tins in your local supermarket, but did you know you could buy Reindeer Paté in a can? Well, you can indeed! And how zbout curried crickets? That too! As the Romans wisely said, "in matters of taste, there is no argument."
The canning of foods long preceded freezing them. Canning was invented by a Frenchman hired by the Napoleonic Army to preserve for military cooks food for long marches and war campaigns, like Napoleon's year-old invasion of Russia, which had a supply train miles long.
The concept was revolutionary at the time but is really quite simple: The idea is that you seal any food product that you want to preserve – whether soup, meat, vegetables, fruit – anything, really, in an airtight container made of metal or glass and then heat the contents to a sufficiently high temperature to destroy any living organisms, such as bacteria or mold spores, that may be present in the container.
Since the container is sealed airtight, once the heat treatment is completed the contents should remain "fresh" or at least edible and free of contamination, for months or years thereafter. These days, factory cans are so well made that leaks or cracks almost never occur. In the early days, welding was used to seal cans and leakage problems were more common.
In the eons since Napoleon we've become more sophisticated about fine-tuning the canning process. Vegetables, for example, that contain a few natural acids, need to be sterilized at much higher temperatures, often with high-pressure steam, than acidic foods like fruits, tomatoes, or pickled products, which can be safely sterilized just by putting them in bath of ordinary boiling water. That's because the natural acids present help polish off the unwanted germs.
So in today's modern households, canned foods provide a convenient and cheap way of storing food longer-term without the expense of freezing or refrigeration. And because canning operations are large, mass-production enterprises, pound for pound canned products are often much cheaper than fresh alternatives in the supermarket. And those canned products have the added benefit that they can safely sit in your cupboard at room temperature for several years before you use them.
So much for the science of canning. But how about it's cultural acceptance, especially by elite chefs and consumers of food? Despite the scientific progress, it would be very hard today to find a gourmet chef who would tout canned products as superior to fresh. Canned foods are almost always looked down upon, especially by elite cooks and connoisseurs of food.
Yet this was not always true. A century ago, Sarah M. Williamson, a San Francisco socialite and writer, highly regarded in California as a food expert in 1916 when she was 38 years old and at the peak influence as a popular newspaper writer, began a minor crusade in favor of using canned products for gourmet dining. Canning in those days, of course, was still relatively new, and it had taken off commercially in a major way in her native state of California, even then the agricultural market garden for the growing United States of America. Canning made it possible to double or triple the amount of produce the state could export.
Sarah Williamson wrote that she often heard her friends tell her that "I loathe canned goods – never use them, indeed I fear them." But Sarah Williamson had a different perspective, and since she was a well-known authority on food, people listened.
"Thus I have hard many a housewife exclaim," she wrote in 1916, referring to the quote above.
"But why ban canned products, especially in California, where the most delicious fruits, vegetables and meats come in cans? Wonderful dishes can be concocted from cans! People who have not experimented with canned goods, or who consider them unwholesome, make an enormous mistake. Most excellent meals can be gotten up from cans. With canned peas, beans (string) and asparagus, one can make a perfect salad, and the sliced canned tomatoes are also fine in salads.
"A can of oxtail soup," Williamson added, "used for gravy stock metamorphoses a second day cut of meat into a stew or fancy roast that an epicure would enjoy. Tomato soup can also be used for gravy, either on hamburger steak or warmed Over meat. The chili-tomato is nice on spaghetti or rice or ravioli. A Mexican dinner can be arranged in two seconds with canned tamales or enchiladas, the encased ones used for garnish; canned spaghetti and chili con carne . Then, with a salad of string beans and a little fresh lettuce, the dinner is a joy throughout. Canned sausages are always tasty, and can be combined in all sorts of ways with vegetables. Canned mushrooms may not be so good as fresh, but are tasty in sauces. A can of boned chicken with a can of mushrooms can be turned into a remarkable pie, with creamed gravy, and a biscuit crust. "
And so the use of canned goods in the First World War, which is about the time Williamson was writing, enjoyed something of a revival on the West Coats as a result of her widely disseminated writings about them.
In the near-century since, the argument over canning versus fresh has continued unabated, though with the introduction of high-quality, specialty food markets, especially in high-income urban areas, fresh food products continued to be prized by America's elite foodies. But canned products aren't going away, as a trip to any Krogers, Safeway or Albertsons will show you, and they continue to serve us well.