Yes You Can (And Should) Appreciate Canned Food

Canned food, which has stormed back into our lives, originated in the 19th century. Nowadays it’s considered a useful recourse in a crisis, but the obsessive chef who invented the method saw it as the culinary achievement of his life

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Canned peas and carrots.
Preserved peas and carrots.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Nicolas Appert (1749-1841), known as the “father of canning,” believed that only high-quality vegetables, fruits and meat were worthy of being canned. He was a chef, and his workshop, which at the start of the 19th century had a staff of dozens, was situated adjacent to fields that supplied him with seasonal fruits and vegetables. Farms that provided meat and fresh dairy products were only a short distance away.

Like modern chefs of the farm-to-table movement, Appert declared that the vegetable patches should be very close to the place where vats of boiling water were heating food in airtight bottles sealed with cork and wrapped in canvas.

An 1803 report of the French navy, following its testing of samples supplied by Appert – clear meat broth and broth with boiled beef, beans and peas – stated that the beans and green peas “had all the freshness and flavor of freshly picked vegetables.” (Source: Bee Wilson, “Consider the Fork”). Grimod de la Reynière, the first restaurant critic in history, became Appert’s patron. He wrote, “In each bottle and at little cost there is a glorious sweetness that recalls the month of May in the heart of winter.” (Source: Sue Shephard, “Pickled, Potted and Canned”)

In 1810, following Appert’s publication of a book that revealed his technique to the world, the newspaper Le Courrier de L’Europe extolled him for having “found a way to fix the seasons; at his establishment, spring, summer and autumn live in bottles, like those delicate plants protected by the gardener under glass domes against the intemperate seasons.” (Source: Shephard)

An old can of preserved apple sauce from Israel.
An old can of preserved apple sauce from Israel.Credit: Dan Perez

Appert, whom contemporaries described as short, bald, with thick eyebrows and an energetic gait, was born in 1749 to a family of innkeepers and brewers in the Champagne region. By his account, he spent his childhood among pantries, wine cellars and food storerooms. He became a professional chef at the age of 22 and was employed by aristocratic families until he struck out on his own at 31 and established a confectionery business. French confectioners specialized in working with sugar and manufactured sweets, fruit preserves and various jams and marmalades. Appert, who lacked a formal scientific education but was endowed with the curiosity, ambition and patience necessary to foment changes in the world around him, began to take an interest in additional techniques for the long-term preservation of food.

Trial-and-error research

Like everyone in his generation who took up that profession, the young chef was familiar with traditional techniques of preserving food, such as drying, pickling in salt and smoking. However, those methods altered the taste and texture of the original ingredients, and not always for the better. Appert sought a method that would leave the finished product as similar to its natural state as possible.

The following decades in Appert’s life were devoted to systematic study and trial-and-error research. In 1795, he moved his workshop from Paris – the scene of destabilizing political, economic and social upheavals – to a nearby rural region, and threw himself intensively into his life project. At first, he made use of champagne bottles, and afterward of specially designed thick-necked glass bottles that were closed with cork and metal wires and hermetically sealed with tar and other mixtures. The glass jars were placed in water baths that had been heated on a fire source, to the temperature and for the length of time that had been found suitable for processing various fresh plant and animal ingredients.

The biological and chemical principles of the process, which are still used by modern food preservation industries, are clear in the 21st century: The heat kills the microorganisms that cause decay; and preserving food in a sterile, sealed environment prolongs its shelf life. Louis Pasteur, who discovered the principles of the heat treatment process known as pasteurization, did not publish his findings until the 1860s. Although Appert didn’t grasp the science underlying his method, he reached the desired result 50 years earlier and made the technical process public knowledge. The book he published in 1810, titled “The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances,” was translated into a number of languages, English among them, and was reprinted four times.

It is difficult to attribute to one person alone the invention of the technique of preserving food in sealed, airtight tin cans. Like most modern inventors, Appert relied on theoretical research studies and on practical knowhow accumulated by amateurs and professionals of his time and in the past.

An old Israeli can of green peas.
An old Israeli can of green peas.Credit: Dan Perez

However, researchers agree today that Appert, whose name was forgotten over the years, was the first in the Western world to publish a detailed description of how to preserve food by canning. The publication was part of an agreement between Appert and the French navy, which had assisted his research financiallyin return for making the information public. Appert did not patent his method; three months after the publication of his book, an English merchant, Peter Durand, registered a patent on the process that the French chef had described in detail.

The question of whether Durand knew about Appert’s method and drew on it became part of the perpetual clash between France and England. But Durand and his associates were the first to practice canning using tins. The English metals industry was more highly developed, having adapted to the Industrial Revolution more quickly than the French, which was still coping with the ramifications of a blood-drenched political revolution. From England the knowhow spread to the rest of the world. Within a short time, the preservation of food by sealing it off from air became one of the most widespread and inexpensive techniques of its sort in the world.

One way human history can be read is as an incessant attempt to preserve fresh food out of season, either in an effort to survive or to use the process to conquer the world. The invention of canning is only one of history’s fascinating chapters. During the Napoleonic Wars, Appert’s establishment was confiscated to serve as a field hospital. Appert, who was heavily in debt (the French navy did not pay him for the preserves he had supplied to its sailors), crossed the channel to try to claim recognition and economic compensation. He met with no success.

No preservatives

Not until the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty did the French authorities acknowledge Appert’s scientific and military contributions and help him, in 1830, when he was already in his eighties, to resume his research. With the aid of his nephew, he was able to establish a small food preserves factory, which survived him. He died in 1841, alone and destitute. Historians don’t know why his wife abandoned him or why he was buried in a pauper’s grave. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century (perhaps in the wake of the French attempt to claim the invention of gastronomy) that his name was cited alongside other culinary pioneers.

The image of canned food – which has become a symbol of siege, crisis and war – has taken a beating in recent decades. This is so although a perusal of the list of ingredients in standard canned food products shows that, to this day, artificial preservatives are not added to them – in contrast to bread, for example, which remains a symbol of healthful, nutritious food. In early 19th-century Paris, Appert’s preserves were a prestigious product, much in demand. In Israel’s first decades, too, locally manufactured canned food hadn’t acquired a reputation for being cheap, even if it was an integral part of a spartan culture of rationing, and even if writers of recipes don’t dare mention it today.

Gil Fento, a private collector of Israeli nostalgia who deserves the Israel Prize for preserving local everyday history, has captivating evidence about the local food preservation industry. His large collection includes a booklet of recipes published in 1963 by Asis, a manufacturer of fruit products established in 1930. Among the pamphlet’s inimitable recipes are one for a cheese pie with canned peas and carrots and another for sea fish with champignon mushrooms and tinned olives.

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