Wednesday, November 17, 2010



"1749: Nicolas Appert is born. He will invent the modern food-canning process while trying to help Napoleon conquer Europe.

By 1795, France was in an expansionist mood and quarreling with its neighbors. As the army and navy found themselves increasingly embroiled in foreign entanglements, the realization that an army travels on its stomach began forcefully hitting home. Looking for a way to efficiently provision its troops in the field, the revolutionary government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to whoever could devise a way of doing just that.

Nicolas Appert, an experienced chef living on the outskirts of Paris, took up the challenge. More than a decade later, he had the solution.

Through experimentation, Appert eventually concluded that the best method of preservation was to heat the food to the boiling point of water, then seal it in airtight glass jars.

Appert’s principles were tested successfully by the French navy, which found that everything from meat to vegetables to milk could be preserved at sea using his method."

Appert's invention of canning is one of those little moments in history that we don't think about. In an age where frozen and freeze dried foods, fast food and junk food surround us we forget just how much effort the average person expended every day in the quest to fill his belly just a century ago. Until the modern era most people produced the food they ate on their own land and hunted for the meat they consumed.

Butchering usually happened in the late fall when the weather was cool. It had to because they needed the cold air to help keep the meat from spoiling while it was processed. Meat was either smoked or salted, maybe both, to preserve it. Anything not cured into submission had to be consumed in short order so it wouldn't spoil. Ever wonder why churches always have sausage suppers in the fall?

Vegetables could be dried during the growing season or stored in root cellars. Eggs would be abundant through the spring, summer and fall and become fewer in the winter. Eggs could be stored to with the use of salt.

Are you starting to understand why salt is so valuable?

So what happened was that during the summer diets were heavy on fresh eggs and vegetables with a little meat thrown in and during the winter heavy on cured (salted and smoked) meats and progressively lighter on green veggies. Root crops store well so there would be potatoes, squash and the like from the root cellar.

By late winter many people were down to the last of the salted meats and a few root crops, often living on the edge of starvation. Maybe you've heard of "ramps"? These are the root vegetables that come out of the ground first in early spring. These were highly prized by people because they were the first fresh vegetables available to keep them from dying from scurvy and other diseases that were caused from a pure meat diet.

Maybe now you can see why Mr. Appert's little invention is so important.

The ability to preserve food in it's natural state, more or less, along with the nutrients it provides, over long periods of time is akin to very few other human advances in its effect on our lives. We are healthier and live longer. More importantly, this invention helped to break the bond to the land, allowing the rise of urban centers and the industrialization of the world, bringing with it all the other conveniences we've come to accept as normal.

So, I raise a cold, canned peach to you, M. Appert. and I thank you for your invention. Hopefully some day you'll receive the recognition from a grateful world that you deserve.

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