I Can Can. Can You?

It was the promise of 12,000 francs that first inspired French chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert to experiment with food preservation methods in 1795. Napoleon Bonaparte astutely realized that keeping an army fed was a good way to ensure its success and offered the pretty substantial (my very rough calculation suggests maybe around $150,000 in today terms) reward.

It took fifteen years of effort, but Appert eventually claimed the prize with his method of sealing food into glass jars with cork and wax and boiling them. He then went on to produce the world’s first recipe book focused on canning preservation. It’s called L’Art de Conserver les Substances Animales et Végétales, in case you speak pretty good French and don’t mind a good case of botulism.

When I read that Appert was a confectioner by trade, I pictured this, although it would take a lot more than a sealed lid to preserve candy in my house.

Even though his method heated food to flavorlessness and is no longer deemed entirely safe, Appert was onto something, and earned himself the title of “Father of Canning.” He believed the enemy of food preservation was air exposure, but along the way discovered that it was actually heat that prevented spoilage, a good fifty or so years before the “Father of Microbiology” Louis Pasteur explained why.

While Appert was busy jarring up fruits, vegetables, and in one case the meat of an entire sheep, Englishman Peter Durand translated the process to less breakable tin cans, which only two years later spawned the canned food industry in the United States as well.

Initially slow to produce, and hard to open since the can opener wasn’t invented for another forty years, canned foods eventually lined grocery store shelves. That is until March of 2020, when canned goods became almost as difficult to find as bread and toilet paper.

Ladies at a home demonstration meeting learning that they can can. By Cornell University Library. No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81522280

There are still a few quirky products that don’t seem to get restocked, but food supply lines in my corner of the world have pretty much stabilized by now. I don’t think they were ever seriously threatened, except by the fear of the average hoarding consumer. Still, the combination of barren canned soup aisles and more time spent at home with more people out of work and fewer places to go anyway, has led to a growing interest in food preservation skills.

My local stores now contain plenty of mushy canned peas and spring water packed tuna, but there’s not a Ball Mason jar or Kerr sealing lid to be found, nor can you order a set for a reasonable price from Amazon.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think this is a huge problem. I don’t live on a homestead out in the middle of nowhere and have to rely on my own homegrown preserved veggies and my root cellar to get me through the long winter. But we do have a few prolific apple trees and last fall, my husband canned a whole lot of applesauce, something neither of us had ever done before. It’s been nice to have it throughout the year.

It really is excellent sauce.

It’s been so nice, that I even decided this summer that I would give it a try with some excellent sauce made from our garden tomatoes and some pickled peppers as well. I admit, it’s kind of made me feel like a bit of a superwoman, or like maybe I could live out in the middle of nowhere and rely on my homegrown preserved veggies and root cellar to get me through the long winter.

Home canning surged in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then fell off when refrigeration became more prevalent. The skill enjoyed a brief resurgence in the DIY movement of the 1970s, and it seems to be experiencing a similar resurgence now.

As long as home canners are carefully sanitizing and following recipes and boiling times exactly, I think that’s great. It does maybe concern me just a tiny bit that historically, cases of botulism rise whenever the prevalence of home canning does, and that in 2005 a USDA survey found that 57% of home canners weren’t using safe methods.

And I’m a little saddened that now that I know that, it might take the modern-day equivalent of 12,000 1795 francs to motivate me to trust myself enough to eat my excellent tomato sauce. Maybe it’s not so bad that I can’t find all the lids and jars I want. It’s possible I’m not quite ready to move to a homestead in the middle of nowhere after all.

5 thoughts on “I Can Can. Can You?

  1. I do a lot of canning – not because I live a long way from shops – but because it’s in the garden and I enjoy it. The only things I don’t do is tomato sauce (no one eats it – even bought stuff) and apple sauce. I cannot make and can apple sauce. It goes off faster than anything. So congrats on the two things I find most difficult! The tomatoes now get thrown into a box in the freezer and we have billiard-ball tomatoes for cooking all winter!

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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