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Grim's Grub: We 'certainly can can-can'

The life or death invention: canned foods

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I'm sure everyone has heard Ethel Merman's classic, "Heat Wave," about canning freshly grown garden produce. Why, what did you think the song was talking about?

It's obvious if you look at the lyrics:

"We're having a heat wave,

"A tropical heat wave.

"The temperature's rising,


"It isn't surprising.

"She certainly can can-can."

The song even talks about making the mercury jump. Clearly this could be about nothing else but canning fruits and vegetables with a reliable thermometer.

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The song was written in 1963, by which time canned foods were all the rage in art. A year before, Andy Warhol had painted a Campbell's Soup can. Yes, it was a more innocent time.

It's almost easy to ignore the fact that easily accessible canned items have been literal lifesavers for more than 100 years. Food preservation has come a long way.

In pre-canning days, there were options. Smoking, salting, curing, dehydrating and fermenting have been popular options for a long time. But for a long time they had a fatal flaw. Many of these methods produced a product with little or no vitamin C because of its destruction during the processing steps.


For human beings, who depend on outside sources for this vital nutrient, this could spell the end of the line by scurvy - not only during long winters, but especially during seafaring trips.

After all, living on land in the winter, people could still have a root cellar. When the fruit down there went bad, they might still be lucky to be blessed with evergreen needle tea, which the Native Americans used to save the lives of many a scurvy-infested trailblazer in our early days.

Refrigerated transport, ships included, was first invented in 1901. Before then, they did everything they could to get vitamin C on a long journey, as well as other foods. Tricks included smoking fruits with burning sulfur or "potting" meats by placing meats in small containers and covering them with a fat that would harden overtop of them.

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The solution was first made possible by the Preservation Prize, a 12,000 franc reward Napoleon offered for anyone who could improve the process of preserving food for his armies. In 1810, Nicolas Francois Appert won the award.

Appert is also the inventor of the bouillon cube and several other food sciences. Appert came up with a bottle or jar method of preservation in which the jars were filled, corked, sealed with wax and then pasteurized to kill microbes. But this method was kind of finicky.

A more commercial, tin can option was developed in 1810, when Englishman Peter Durand introduced unbreakable tin cans to the commercial canning world. Sadly, early iterations of this preservation method actually made history in a bad way.


Tinned fruits at the time were considered a priceless commodity to making arctic exploration possible. So it was that Sir John Franklin in 1845 proudly carried a store of canned fruit to ward off scurvy on their long journey only for all 129 members of the crew to die - 23 of them under mysterious conditions while trying to march to safety across the ice.

It wasn't until 1984 that lead poisoning from the tinned foods was pinpointed as a fatal contributor.

History was made in home canning in the 1850s by a tinsmith named John Landis Mason, of New Jersey. They patented threaded screw top jars made from aqua glass. Mason mistakenly forgot to patent the rubber sealing ring until 1868, and other companies - including one owned by Edmund, Frank, George, Lucius and William Ball, of New York - got in on the craze just as soon as the patent on the glass jars expired in 1880.

Pressure Canned Stew Meat

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Recipe courtesy of the "Ball Blue Book"

Cut meat into 1 1/2- to 2-inch squares and trim all fat and gristle. Brown the meat in the smallest possible amount of fat and salt to taste.

Pack hot into hot canning jars, leaving one inch of head space and then just cover with boiling water before adding the lids. Process jars at 10 pounds of pressure for one hour for pints or 1 hour 15 minutes for quarts.

Dilly Beans

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  • 2 pounds green beans, trimmed
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 4 heads dill
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 2 1/2 cups vinegar
  • 1/4 cup salt

Pack the beans lengthwise into four hot pint canning jars leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. To each pint add 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 clove garlic and 1 head dill. Combine remaining ingredients in a pan and bring them to a boil. Pour the boiling brine over the beans, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Add the caps and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Best if allowed to stand for two weeks.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

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