Food Preservation: It’s in the Can

Food Preservation: It’s in the Can

Whether boxes, bags, or cans, food needs some sort of protection from the environment, and cans tell a story of multiple technologies, not all of which came together at the same time.

Nicholas Appert, a self-taught chemist who was a cook, chef, and confiseur in Paris experimented in his shop while the citizens of his city marched on Versailles over the price of bread. Times were tough if you were hungry and not the aristocracy.

Access to food was a concern for more than just the Parisians during the Revolution. When Napoleon began his sweep across Europe, he was aware that his army traveled on its stomach. So Napoleon challenged the citizens of France to come up with a way to make food last longer while the navy was at sea and his armies were assembling his empire. Appert responded with a way to sterilize food in glass bottles. His idea, he said, was a response to the general concern about over-consumption of sugar, which was used as a preservative. He saw his technique as a way to lessen the amount of sugar in preserved food. (Yes, that was in 1810. Our current concern about eating too much sugar apparently has a history of about 200 years.)

“When Napoleon began his sweep across Europe, he was aware that his army traveled on its stomach.”

Appert won the cash prize but not the patent. Almost at the moment he published his work, several British engineers and entrepreneurs scooped up the idea and received a patent, soon turning Appert’s invention from glass to tin.

Tin Can

Bryan Donkin’s tin can, based on Appert’s sterilization technique

Though Appert would die poor (no patent, no money), his discovery of sterilization as a way to preserve food was a foundational innovation. Cans and can production technologies followed as inventors experimented with heat, metal, and machinery to process food for longer durations before consumption. Of course, it wasn’t until 50 years after the can appeared that it became openable. The can opener didn’t arrive on the scene until 1866.

“Of course, it wasn’t until 50 years after the can appeared that it became openable.”

The idea of preserving food in tin cans attracted the attention of entrepreneurs in Britain and the U.S. during the Civil War. Like France, both sides of the American conflict wanted to feed their armies so they could remain in the field. Experiments for condensing food, like milk and soup, emerged as a way to package food without the additional liquid weight.

Food technologies that not only preserve food but also lessen its weight must relate in some way to the cost of transport. The connection between lighter food and lower fuel costs may have been an incentive for these early inventors.

There’s a lot more to explore about canning and other food packaging technologies. It’s intriguing to note that when canned food appeared, it became mysterious. Consumers began to demand labels and certification that would verify the contents of the can. The loss of transparency in the food supply chain may have begun with the tin can.

No Lunch Pass

No Lunch Pass

Not a day goes by when we aren’t told how Big Food conspires to make us fat while exploiting our environment. Is this really the end of our debate about the state of our food system?

Tyler Cowen’s book, An Economist Gets Lunch (2012), offers an alternative view, one that might spread the blame rather than give us all a pass. He suggests that regulation, television, war, and changing demographics in the 20th century shaped a food system that looks industrial and often tasteless — and in some cases, harmful to our health.

Cowen’s view is this: First, Prohibition in the 1920s put many restaurants out of business, since they relied on revenue from alcohol sales to financially sustain them. Many of the restaurants that went out of business were serving more creative, gastronomic meals to their customers. So culinary innovation left the American food culture with the closure of their restaurants. The restaurants that survived were those who catered to customers who did not drink alcohol with meals and were less discriminating, happy with diners, coffee shops, and less inventive cuisine. (Europe, on the other hand, had no Prohibition Era, so they kept their creative juices flowing, keeping culinary standards high.)

World War II kept culinary standards low with the onslaught of rationing, the disappearance of quality ingredients, and the entry of women in the workforce. Women moved their families to convenience food and stopped creating an American food culture while burying home economics in schools. More preservatives appeared in food as households relied on meals made in advance of the workweek. Long distance supply chains developed to enable more food to travel through a more industrialized system so that Americans could have low-cost, easy to make food while women disappeared from the kitchen. Convenience food arrived. Big Food, as it’s called today, was created by the consumer as the consumer changed, eating habits changed and American food culture stalled.

“Big Food, as it’s called today, was created by the consumer as the consumer changed, eating habits changed and the American food culture stalled.”

Added to this was a move toward nativism during the mid-19th century, depriving American cuisine of the lusty, creative, and diverse favors brought to the table by immigrants. That’s changed now, but in the 1920s and 1930s, restrictions collided with war, Prohibition, and the Depression. And the arrival of television, which, as we know, brought TV dinners, endless gawking at cheesy shows, the demise of family meal times, and the emergence of children as the arbiters of taste. Families, even now, allow kids to determine the food on the table. Usually, that’s not kale and brown rice, salads or vegetables.

Tyler Cowen offers us an opportunity to look in more places for the source of (and solution to) our current predicament. Maybe Big Food is an easy target, but our curiosity can be fed by a more diverse range of topics by diving into American culture, finding how to change our media addiction, being curious about new ingredients and cooking a meal in our own kitchen.

The Return of Home Economics

The Return of Home Economics

Long before STEM initiatives came about, home economics programs may have done more than we know to bridge the gender gap in science.

A colleague of mine at The University of Texas at Austin invited me to peer into some locked bookshelves located in a conference room in the School of Human Ecology. The bookshelves, hidden from view by wood cabinets that line the perimeter of the room, contain stacks of musty books that have been neglected since the school was renamed during the 1980s, when university administrators, flummoxed by feminists, scuttled home economics departments.

The books and magazines inside the wooden cabinets once stood proudly on the bookshelves of the home economics department. Now the books lie in disheveled stacks, enshrouded in a past of denial and self-deprecation. Most have names of students or faculty inscribed on their flyleaves. They all reveal a past in which we believed students should know how to cook, make and repair everyday tools and operate within a world that considered personal responsibility to be a life skill.

Looking up from your latest, Pinterest-fueled attempt to make artisanal bread, you note that those books sound like something you’d like to read. I say UT’s hidden books should come out of the closet, and so should all former home economics departments, declaring a new, informed purpose more relevant than ever before.

Some of the books are about topics that would be familiar and celebrated by admirers of Michael Pollan, David Chang, Mark Bittman or Marion Nestle. Authors who wrote about food science, chemistry and the science of nutrition could have been muses to modern day molecular gastronomists such as Heston Blumenthal, Nathan Myhrvold and Homaro Cantu.

UT’s hidden books should come out of the closet, and so should all former home economics departments, declaring a new, informed, purpose more relevant than ever before.

Take, for example, A Laboratory Course in Physics of the Household, written by physics professor Dr. Carleton John Lynde. Published in 1919, the book was for high school students preparing for their College Entrance Board exams.  The author points out that his book contains experiments and exercises — it is essentially a book of physics principles along with experiential learning activities. He also points out that any kitchen would serve as an adequate physics laboratory, equipped with standard weights and measures, both metric and non-metric.

Sure, it’s a guy writing for gals, but consider the times: Before 1920, American women did not even have the right to vote. But they were considered capable of understanding the principles of physics, a subject many women dismiss today. Barely 20 percent of all doctorates in physics are given to women, and our government has to develop programs such as STEM to encourage women to consider science as a course of study. Lynde’s book makes no apologies for his readers as it covers the principles of physics in 135 pages.

“Barely 20 percent of all doctorates in physics are given to women…”

The book is divided into the common categories of physics: mechanics, heat, electricity and magnetism, light and sound. You can see from this photo that a reader learns about the principle of levers by making a fulcrum with a yardstick and several weights made out of cotton bags filled with sand or shot. (Shot wouldn’t be something you’d find in a book today….) The reader becomes familiar with the scientific method and the careful processes required to create an experiment.

In setting up each experiment, Dr. Lynde encourages the reader to write down the expected results and, later, to compare what actually occurred with the imagined results. I wonder how many of us think in such constructive ways, allowing for imagined outcomes and then taking the time to carefully learn from the real outcomes of any endeavor we may undertake.

The author says, “You will get a great deal of pleasure out of this work at home, because you will find it very exhilarating to make experiments of your own; you will get a great deal of profit also, because when you have planned and made experiments of your own on a given subject, you will find that you know it in a way you never could simply by making the experiments in school.” Never has an experiment about levers promised such exhilaration, pleasure and satisfaction.

By the eleventh experiment, you learn about Boyle’s Law by setting up experiments that use a fire extinguisher and a vacuum cleaner. Boyle’s Law explains how the volume of gas varies inversely as the pressure on it. The fire extinguisher comes in handy as an illustration of how the contents behave under pressure, and the vacuum cleaner is a rough example of how air pressure creates a vacuum.

This book is only one of many chestnuts rumbling around in those wooden cabinets in the School of Human Ecology. Aren’t Michael Pollan and others making the same call to experiment by making things — even promising  “exhilaration” in much the same way as Dr. Lynde did in 1919? Perhaps it’s time to shine some sunlight on their covers and recognize how science education was reaching women even before initiatives like STEM, even if they were still confined to their kitchen laboratories.

So let the efflorescence of home economics begin. Let’s take home ec back, men and women, making useful stuff and learning about science and engineering along the way.

“You will get a great deal of pleasure out of this work at home, because you will find it very exhilarating to make experiments of your own; you will get a great deal of profit also, because when you have planned and made experiments of your own on a given subject, you will find that you know it in a way you never could simply by making the experiments in school.”

— Dr. Carlton John Lynde

An Art Tour of Food Logistics

An Art Tour of Food Logistics

If you want a new experience while visiting an art museum, try going as a food logistics nerd.

Recently, I had this pleasure at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the home of such luminaries as John Singleton Copley and John Singer Sargent. The two ladies at the front desk, each sporting particularly colorful eyeglasses — one in flamingo pink and the other in cerulean blue — slowly warmed up to my request and began sketching a path through the museum on the printed floor plan. “Go to the Americas room and look for jars. Then go to the Classical Art rooms and see if you can find amphorae,” they offered, visibly surprised that they had discovered something.

For my part, I wanted to hunt down Winslow Homer’s images of fishermen lugging halibut.

Here’s what I found.

The Fog Warning, Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning, is the dark, foreboding image of a solitary fisherman looking over his shoulder at the oncoming fog bank, his boat weighted down in the stern by two huge halibut. Does he make it home? There’s a schooner on the horizon in the distance. Does he know the ship? Does he reach them? His boat is a fishing dory, a flat-bottomed rowboat that was designed to carry large loads of fish caught at sea.

Salem Harbor, Fitz Henry Lane

Fitz Henry Lane, an American painter known for his ethereal use of light, lived in Gloucestershire, Massachusetts, where images of ships and the fishing industry surrounded him. Salem Harbor, painted in 1853, was the center of the China trade that brought not only silks but also tea from halfway around the world. Square-rigged schooners and other working boats fill the harbor, unloading cargo into the Salem warehouses.

Whaler in the Ice, Chopping Out, William Bradford

You can feel the chill of the Arctic wind in William Bradford’s Whaler in the Ice, Chopping Out. The black and white charcoal image illustrates the slow, cold journey whalers take as they hunt spermaceti and other whale oil to fuel American households and their cooking stoves.

The Wreck of Ancon, Loring Bay, Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt, the master of romantic, heroic American landscapes, recorded the demise of the ship Ancon, which was stranded on a ledge in Alaska with its cargo of canned salmon. This 1869 oil painting, The Wreck of the Ancon, Loring Bay, captures the fragility of 19th-century food logistics with ship’s cargo at risk of weather, ledges and pirates.

Greek Vessels

The rooms filled with Greek antiquities included numerous jars and amphorae that held food, water and wine for various purposes — some for rituals, others purely utilitarian. One two-handled amphora from the Archaic Period (540-520 BC) gleamed from one case, displaying figures and grapes all the way around its midsection. As with most Greek vessels, the surface tells an elaborate tale of gods and humans. On this amphora, you see Dionysus (the Greek god of the grape harvest and winemaking) drinking wine while satyrs make more. The amphora illustrates the process of winemaking, including each of the various steps between the vine and your plate. Other, less ornate amphorae transported oil and wine across the Mediterranean in ships’ holds.

Food for the Dead

And finally, food transported to the dead is a food supply chain familiar to cultures that believe in an afterlife. The Egyptians assembled elaborate kits for those who departed from their world to the next. These stone containers, often depicting the food encapsulated within, contained the necessary sustenance to survive the next world. Called “food cases,” they were filled with provisions such as beef ribs and bread, sometimes wrapped in the same materials as the individual embalmed inside a sarcophagus. Notice that this one has a duck carved on the exterior, suggesting that a duck breast awaited the departed.

Imagining a museum as a repository of food logistics stories turned up some surprises and even more reminders that transporting food around the world has been going on at least since the Egyptians packed food for the afterlife. Whether in this life or the next, the movement of food can be a combination of art and science, utility and aesthetics. I can’t wait to visit another museum with food logistics goggles.

The Meat Business, Inside and Outside Ft. Worth

The Meat Business, Inside and Outside Ft. Worth

The Kimball Art Museum portrays a side of the meat business many visitors to Forth Worth, Texas, don’t see. If you only toured the Stockyards outside the museum, you’d miss the preceding centuries of carnivorous history.

In the late 1580s, Annibale Carracci painted two canvases that give us an idea of how meat fit into urban landscapes during Italy’s colorful Renaissance. By the late 16th century, Renaissance art entered the period of Mannerist painting, which led to the Baroque period, when the ideal proportions of High Renaissance art became exaggerated and even distorted. In the early 1580s painting, The Butcher’s Shop, Carracci’s two butchers and their gory background are examples of less-than-idealistic settings and out-of-proportion humans. The animal bodies outweigh the human bodies, and heads become dwarfed by torsos.

Called genre paintings, these images of everyday life stand in sharp contrast to the mythic portrayals of religious figures that hung in the Italian churches. Carracci, in one of his two paintings of butchers (the other, larger butcher scene is in the Christ Church Collection, Oxford, England), shows us one day — any day — in the life of a 16th-century butcher. He knew their lives because several of his family members were butchers in Bologna. 

“One looks directly at you in defiant confrontation, as if he’s daring you to accept the reality of his profession with all its gore.”

There are two butchers in the Kimball Museum painting. One looks directly at you in defiant confrontation, as if he’s daring you to accept the reality of his profession with all its gore as he holds out a cut of meat for consideration. The other, eyes cast downward toward his knife, is preoccupied with the work of the day. Carracci studied with Titian in Venice, and the latter’s iconic red spills onto the canvas. There’s no blood on the floor — it’s not that messy — but the hanging carcasses are almost like stage backdrops surrounding the two men as they display their art and prepare for the next animal to slay. Nothing glorified here, but everything to see.

Beef Cuts

The carcasses suspended from sturdy meat hooks above the two figures appear to be from sheep. One sheep’s head lies at the feet of one of the butchers, one of its eyes cast in the direction of another sheep hanging above, eviscerated and waiting to be skinned.

A beef carcass dominates the left-hand side of the painting, cut in half as is still the custom for wholesale cuts of meat, which today would include all eight primal cuts. (Those are chuck, rib, loin, round, flank, short plate, brisket and shank.)

We can’t tell from the painting if these are retail or wholesale butchers, but both existed throughout Europe at the time.

Outside the Kimball

Outside the museum are the Fort Worth Stockyards, whose story is more familiar for Americans who know about the role that Forth Worth played in the history and development of the U.S. meat industry. The names of Armour and Swift, written in the embankment that surrounds the Stockyards, tell visitors who made Forth Worth the largest feeder of cattle from the Western ranges.

The entrance to the Fort Worth Stockyards, from

In their new incarnation as a tourist site, the Stockyards entertain visitors with twice-daily reenactments of cattle droving. Texas Longhorns plod silently down the street attended by cowboys located in the traditional positions of a droving team.

Inside the surrounding buildings, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, packing houses practiced the art of butchering in much the same way as those Italian butchers in Carracci’s paintings. Now, in Brooklyn and other foodie destinations, shops like those in the paintings are few but gaining more appeal as consumers demand more transparency between their food (meat in this case) and their plates. Perhaps it’s time for a contemporary painter to record those new Brooklyn butchers — pristine white aprons and all.