Prior to the industrialization of the food system in the 18th and 19th centuries, people preserved their foods because they had to. When the bounty of summer and fall produced more food than was needed at the time, being able to extend the life of their food into less-bountiful times and prepare against unforeseen disasters often meant the difference between survival and starvation. The earliest methods of preservation centered on variations of drying, smoking, salting, and fermenting, while later innovations in canning provided new preservation options. Although we no longer have to preserve food out of necessity, in recent years canning has been making a comeback for a variety of reasons. This paper will examine the recent canning revival by giving brief background information on food preservation, followed by a discussion on the development of the canning process, and will end by examining the recent growth in popularity of canning.
One of the most common early methods of food preservation was drying. This method involved leaving out a piece of meat (often by hanging it up or setting it out in the sun) and letting the sun or wind change the texture of the meat so that it was “portable and lasting” (Shephard 2000, 30). This enabled the meat to be stored for later consumption or as sustenance when traveling. Different regions also employed different drying methods based on their climate. Going back to the fifth century B.C., early Egyptians were able to take advantage of their warm, dry climate by laying out fish in the sun, allowing them to be dried out by the sun and wind (Shephard 2000, 32). In the cooler climate of the Faroe Islands, located between Great Britain and Iceland, inhabitants built timber structures roofed with straw and dirt that allowed a flow of cool air to dry and preserve meat (Wilson 1989, 8).
It is hypothesized that in order to speed up the drying process, the use of the low heat of a fire was employed, which eventually led to the use of smoking as a preservation technique (Wilson 1989, 15). By both partially cooking and by drying, smoking was a useful method in areas where drying was not an option because of wet weather conditions. It also added an interesting flavor to the meat by creating a fire with different types of wood (oak, birch, hickory, etc.) or fuel (berries, green leaves, herbs, etc.), which could have made it more appetizing (Shephard 2000, 111).
Salt was also used to speed up the drying process by applying salt to the flesh, which helped to remove moisture from the meat (Wilson 1989, 16-17). By adding salt to water with a combination of other herbs and spices, a pickling brine was made that meat was then submerged into and was able to kept for longer than just salting alone (Shephard 2000, 66). The killing of a pig in the autumn and its subsequent preservation enabled families to eat “its way, from nose to tail, along the ‘mart ox’ during the ensuing months” (Robertson 1997, 115).
In areas were drying, smoking, and salting weren’t an option due to climate conditions, fermenting provided a viable alternative of food preservation. Partially fermenting meat before it was cooked helped to improve its taste, giving it a “heightened” flavor (Shephard 2000, 134). Fermentation though is primarily used as a vegetable-based form of preservation. By excluding air and allowing the food to naturally ferment, it promotes the growth of certain microorganisms while inhibiting the growth of others, which changes the flavor of foods and often creates new foods altogether; think of how cabbage changes into sauerkraut or how grapes turn into wine (Shephard 2000, 125).
The changes that food can undergo in fermentation are similar to those that can occur in canning; by promoting and inhibiting the growth of certain microorganisms, foodstuffs are altered and preserved. Place water, vinegar, salt, and spices into a jar with cucumbers and heat the jar until sealed and you have pickles. But how did the process develop? The story of the development of canning often goes like this: As with most food preservation methods, the desire to extend the shelf life of food and avoid starvation prompted Napoleon Bonaparte to offer 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a method of preserving food for his army and navy, stating that “an army marches on its stomach” (English 2010, 13). He insisted that these preserved food stuffs should be easy to transport, inexpensive to manufacture, and nutritious (ibid). The winner was French confectioner and chef, Nicholas Appert. It is an often repeated romantic story with Nicolas Appert as the canning hero (if there could be such a person). However, in her book “Pickled, Potted, and Canned,” Sue Shephard proposes a revised version of this story, which includes a little bit more international intrigue than one might expect.
Experimenting for almost ten years prior to developing his heat in a water-bath method, Appert campaigned for his bottles of preserved foodstuffs with local villagers, the Société d’Agriculture, and the French Navy and government, with all responding positively to his invention. It was after several trial runs with the navy and a special demonstration to a government commission that the French government decided to reward Appert with 12,000 francs for his efforts. His use of glass bottles proved problematic for the French Navy though and it was recommended that he find another container for preserving food that would be more convenient for long voyages.
The process of a warm water bath that Appert used (with a few more primitive sealing methods) was not too far off from what modern canners use. In his article on industrial food preservation, H.G. Muller gives an example of processing peas (Muller 1989, 125):
The peas were placed into sturdy glass bottles which were then knocked on a stool to compact the content. The stool had been covered with leather and stuffed with hay. Corks were then inserted into the bottles and beating into place with a wooden bat. Next the corks were tied with wire and covered with a seal of quicklime and cheese which remained stable on heating. The bottles were then placed into canvas bags so that it was easier to pick up the pieces if they exploded. They were then heated in a water bath. After cooling to room temperature the corks were covered with rosen, a natural resin, and the seals and containers were inspected.
It is after the publication of Appert’s book detailing the canning process that the story gets interesting. The same year the book is published, an Englishman by the name of Peter Durand patented a tin can method of preservation, which included much of the same language used in Appert’s book. Some have made dubious claims about these similarities but Shephard contends that Durand and Appert were actually working together on refining the canning process with Durand acting as Appert’s agent. Because Appert had received money from the French government for publishing the details of his canning process, he was not able to patent the process and therefore make any money from it. Additionally, the English had developed a much more advanced system of tin-plate production than the French and it would have been too expensive for Appert to import the metal from England. With these reasons in mind, it seems logical that Appert and Durand could have been working together in order to secure money and develop a refined canning process. Whether or not the two were working together, the fact remains that their work, in addition to the work of others, proved to be revolutionary in the area of food preservation.
Once the canning process had been fully developed and deemed safe with advances made by Louis Pasteur, mass production soon followed (Robertson 1997, 120). The Civil War and subsequent World Wars further fueled the demand for portable, nutritious food and helped to spread the gospel of canned food to the masses (Shephard 2000, 254). But with this increased mechanization and the later availability of cheaper, more processed foods, there was a decreased usage of traditional canning methods. It was no longer necessary to can and preserve to the extent it had been done previously in order to survive (Hunter 1989, 134). By the mid-nineteenth century, cookbooks contained far fewer recipes for food preservation but many contained recipes on how to use canned foods (Hunter 1989, 144). Cookbooks geared towards working-class women were especially devoid of preservation recipes while cookbooks aimed at middle-class were not (ibid). This has been attributed to the cost of equipment, supplies, and ingredients as well as the investment of time and planning that goes into preserving food – all of which women in middle-class homes allegedly have more of in comparison with women of the working class (ibid). In an attempt to explain this relationship, Hunter says:
Exactly because it moved out of the mundane, or those things essential for everyday survival, [preserving] had nothing to fall back on to prove its necessity or relevance. Preserving, while attempts were being made to reclaim it in terms of nutrition, became fundamentally superfluous to daily needs. In a curious way the situation focuses on the fact that during the nineteenth century preserving in any but the most basic sense was beyond the poor, and the working classes: they were too impoverished to practice frugality and thereafter too impoverished to practice nutrition.
Despite no longer needing to preserve food for survival, canning and food preservation have seen resurgence in popularity in recent years. According to a recent Slate.com article, 2010 sales of Ball glass canning jars have already increased 10 percent over the previous year, which is substantial considering sales in 2009 were up 30% over 2008 (Dickerman 2010). Additionally, canning classes across the country are reporting increased enrollments (Campoy 2009) and the demographic seems to be skewing younger. Although there is a lack of significant, in-depth research on these new canners, according to the brand manager at Jarden Home Brands (the parent company of Ball brand jars) they are “women between 39 and 55 who live in more urban areas” (Weigl 2010), while a recent survey on AllRecipes.com revealed that “nearly half of [their] readers who can their food are age 40 or under and, of those, many were first time canners” (Mick 2009).
What has fueled this renewed interest in canning? Some attribute it to growing concerns about our industrial food system. With its increased use of petroleum based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, some feel that the industrial food system has left us increasingly vulnerable to shocks in our energy system (Emery and Edwards Forkner 2009, 4). When every one calorie of food requires ten calories of oil to produce, the industrial food system contributes nearly 20% of all fossil fuel usage (Astyk 2009, 3, 7). Documentaries like Food Inc. and King Corn have brought some of these problems within the industrial food system into the public consciousness by focusing on its effects on the environment, the American farmer, and consumer health. These issues are further amplified in popular books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” In her book “Independence Days,” Sharon Astyk (2009, 4) discusses how our food system is linked to our energy system:
Follow the lines of the major issues of today – energy, economy, environment, globalization, disenfranchisement, a growing sense of powerlessness among people – and most of lines track back to basic questions of food and energy. If all these issues are so tightly intertwined, might we also find that personal action in one corner reverberates throughout the system?
People are beginning to take small steps towards removing themselves from the industrial food system in order to make these changes that “reverberat[e] throughout the system” (Astyk 2009, 4). Part of that is buying local food and supporting producers who are good stewards of the land as well as taking on gardening projects in order to grow your own food (Mick 2009). And in order to extend the season and eat locally all year round, canning and food preservation offers a way to do all of the above by controlling what goes into our food.
Decreasing dependence on the industrial food chain also offers a more sustainable alternative for some canners. Most supermarkets only have “three days worth of food on the shelves” (Astyk 2009, 9) and the US has a “very little food available for a crisis” (ibid). By preserving the food grown in your own garden or purchased from local producers, and reducing your dependence on the industrial food system and the vulnerability that comes with it, you are creating a more sustainable alternative in what could be an unpredictable system.
For others, food preservation, and canning in particular, is a way to save money in uncertain economic times. According to the Ball Jar company (who makes jars used in the canning process), canning can help to reduce a family’s grocery bill (Ball Jar Online 2010):
Burpee Seed Company (www.burpee.com) estimates that for every $50 spent on seeds and fertilizer, a gardener can yield $1250 worth of produce. As it’s not feasible for a family to enjoy all of that fresh produce all at one time, home canning allows you to preserve that fresh, home grown flavor from your garden for use all year long, and saving on your grocery bill.
The Wall Street Journal published an article that examined the cost for one canning session. After paying a $100 fee for a canning class and $33.42 for cucumbers and canning supplies, eight one-pint jars of pickles were produced with a final cost of $2.14 each. In comparison with $2.43 for a jar of pickles from the supermarket, there appears to be a moderate cost savings in canning (Campoy 2009). Although the exact amount of savings can be debated considering the up-front investment of jars, equipment, food, and the like, in the long run canning and food preservation do offer for those willing to take up the sometimes daunting task of canning, a reward for their investment, particularly for those willing to grow their own food.
If done properly, the reward of canning can be delicious and for some, that is reason enough. Experimenting with flavors and trying out non-traditional recipes like Rhubarb and Amaretto Chutney (English 2010, 109), Basil Banana Pepper Jelly (Kingry and Devine 2006, 132), or Lemony Pickled Cabbage (Ziedrich 2009, 204), gives canners the license to express creativity while at the same time, have food to eat later or to give away as gifts.
The concept of canning is one that is very personal to me. Growing up in rural Kentucky during the Depression and World War II without many conveniences, my grandparents’ grew their own food and preserved it as a means to feed their families – if they didn’t, they didn’t eat. Even after many modern conveniences were available, they still grew and canned their own food. Whether this was done to ensure a steady food supply throughout the winter, out of habit, or just for the pleasure of doing it, I don’t know but I suspect it was a little bit of all of the above. During many of my summers, I would go to my grandparents’ small farm and help plant corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans. After harvesting, I would help my grandmother with canning – breaking beans and shucking corn for pickling, using a neighbor’s grapes to make jelly, putting up quarts of tomato juice, slicing cucumbers for pickles – all to be stored in “the smokehouse” to enjoy over the winter and spring until it was time to start again the following year.
Originally taught how to can by his mother (my grandmother), my father has carried on the canning tradition. During the summer of 2009, he put up an estimated 500 quarts of tomato juice, spaghetti sauce, salsa, pickles, sauerkraut, pickled corn, pickled beans, green beans, pork sausage, burgoo (a meat-based stew that has origins in Kentucky), peach jam, and peppers. In discussing why he cans, reasons ranged from the quality of the food (it’s delicious and healthy) to its cost-effectiveness (at an estimated $0.32 per quart, it’s cheaper than traditional grocery stores). But the most compelling reason was in an example he gave. In the rural part of Kentucky where my parents’ live, it’s not uncommon for a winter storm or severe weather to knock out power in the area for hours or days at a time. To my father, knowing that he has quarts of delicious, healthy food readily available for himself and my mother that won’t spoil without refrigeration, there is comfort and security in that knowledge.
For me, as a novice canner, my desire to can comes from a similar place. I like knowing that I’m taking part in a more sustainable food practice by canning food that has been grown in an environmentally-conscious way by farmers I know, having pride in knowing that I can provide food for myself and others that I’ve worked hard to create, and being secure in the knowledge that there is food no matter what disaster may (or may not come). As previously discussed, many of these reasons are shared by many modern canners as well. These ideas lend themselves to a sense of self-sufficiency and an awareness of your place in the world at large that is as timeless as the art of canning itself.
Astyk, Sharon. Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation. Canada: New Society Publishers, 2009. Print.
Campoy, Ana. “Putting Up Produce: Yes You Can.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 15 Oct. 2009. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.
Dickerman, Sara. “Can It: At-home preserving is ridiculously trendy.” Slate. Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC, 10 March 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.