In 1815, explorer and botanist Sir Joseph Banks wrote to a tinned-food manufacturer raving about the canned two-year-old veal he’d just eaten.
He called canned food “one of the most important discoveries of the age we lived in.” He also requested a supply of concentrated consumme, as it was better than the soup he usually ate “at home or abroad.”
At the time, commercial canned food was practically brand-new — nearly the same age as Bank’s veal.
Finding a reliable means of preserving food was essential for colonizing and warring nations. That included Napoleon Bonaparte’s France.
The search for food preservation methods
Napoleon witnessed the effects of hunger and thirst as he led his army through the Egyptian heat in 1798.
When Napoleon took over France, he elevated scientists and doctors to power positions to help solve such problems.
Those men then formed organizations and “supported research related to food preparation and preservation that might benefit France’s armies and navies,” historian Jennifer J. Davis wrote in “Defining Culinary Authority.”
In 1809, one such organization, the Societe d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale, held a contest searching for food preservation methods.
Nicolas Appert, who has been sealing food into corked jars and experimenting with food heating and bottling for more than a decade won the contest.
The Appert method of food preservation
Appert had been in the food industry practically since childhood. His father was an innkeeper and brewery owner, and he’d worked in distilleries and wine cellars before opening his own confectionery shop.
The heating process needed to make candy as well as the bottling process for wine and beer may have influenced his method for preserving food. He described himself as reared “in the art of preparing and preserving” and “having lived, as it were, in pantries, in breweries, in store-rooms, and in the cellars of Champagne.”
In 1795, he started trying to preserve different foods. He used empty Champagne bottles, then specially made glass containers. He sealed them and then boiled the bottle with its contents.
Appert wasn’t precisely sure why his method worked, but he believed limiting its contact with air and the water’s heat were “both indispensable.” He was correct on both counts.
Appert bottled vegetables, fruit, such as asparagus, peaches and cherries. He also heated and bottled some of the dishes he had partially prepared. Appert made bechamel sauce, egg, mutton, and seasoned eel.
To ensure that his food maintained the right color, smell, and taste he tried different temperatures and times for heating. Many probably wouldn’t pass food-safety inspections, like the beef jelly that only needed heating for 15 minutes.
Each preserve could cost the equivalent of a full day’s wages. For those who could afford it, they could open the can (which was actually quite a chore until the can opener was invented decades later) and enjoy almost-fresh green vegetables in the middle of winter.
Why Appert’s method didn’t catch on
In 1810, the French Ministry of the Interior paid Appert 12,000 francs to print a description of his preserving process “to spread the knowledge.” His book, “The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances For Several Years,” sold thousands of copies.
“Appert has found a way to fix the seasons,” according to one paper. His process was praised by elite cookbook authors.
Folklorist Danille Elise Christensen noted that the “sugarless water-bath procedures” appeared in cookbooks written by women as early as the 1680s. Stories that focus on Appert while ignoring Mary Mott, Sarah Martin, and others “valorize ‘scientific’ over and against ‘domestic’ knowledge,” Christensen wrote.
Appert was able to scale up his method, employing at one time fifty cooks in order to make his preserved foods.
Other processes, including drying and using salt and sugar to preserve foods, endured after Appert published his book. His method was “not used widely on a scientific or industrial level” outside of his own factory, according to Davis.
Though the French navy had trialed Appert’s preserves before he wrote his book, his fragile glass bottles weren’t practical for sea voyages. In a matter of years, Philippe de Girard went to London, and through an intermediary, he patented the idea of a tin-can.
From glass bottles to tin cans
Bryan Donkin purchased the patent for PS1,000, and it was he and his partners who made the consumme Banks so enjoyed. The cans could weigh as much as 20 pounds, but they were hardier than Appert’s bottles.
The industry began spreading almost instantly. By the 1820s, the US had a few canneries, and the country’s first patent for tin cans was granted in 1825.
This was all decades before Louis Pasteur developed his pasteurization method and realized bacteria caused contamination. He was able to reduce the amount of bacteria in food without sterilizing it completely.
Botulism has been called “a disease of civilization.” Sausages and smoked ham have both caused deadly outbreaks. Improperly canned food can also harbor the bacteria.
It’s one of the many reasons commercially sold canned goods have waxed and waned in popularity in the centuries since Appert’s first experiments.
Despite his early success, Appert struggled with debt. He wrote the Ministry of the Interior when he faced eviction in his later years, saying, “I have given my life to the science of mankind and the advancement of knowledge.” You’re taking away the premises I thought ought to be mine.”
Though he was evicted from his lab in 1824, the Restoration government eventually paid him 4,000 francs annually for ten years “in recognition of his service to the nation,” according to Davis.
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