Is the fresh the enemy of good canned food?

There’s that wise old saw that the best is the enemy of the good.  And I’ve been wondering recently if the drumbeat that fresh vegetables (and other foods) are the best, the very best, isn’t perhaps the reason for what seems to me to be the so-so quality of many canned foods in American grocery stores.

In Mexico (and when I was in Spain too) I loved many of the canned goods. People served them proudly on any occasion.

Canned broad beans

Habas Extra Finos (tiny broad beans in olive oil). La Europea.

On returning from a trip or on a night when a cold or an overload of work made me reluctant to cook or to go out to a restaurant, they were a godsend.

Quality canned goods

Alubias. Spain Gourmet

Open three glass jars: two tall ones, one of white beans, another of red peppers, and a squatter one of tuna.  A couple of minutes later, the tuna and beans were arranged on one plate, the red peppers on another.  If they were available, a bit of chopped onion went on the beans, a sprinkle of fresh cheese, or an anchovy or two, or a smidgen of chopped garlic and a little olive oil went on the peppers.  Dinner was served de la lata (from the jar).

I was delighted to see that Jeff Koehler, in his lovely and very well received book, Spain, devotes two pages to las latas (tinned delicacies).  Lovely pea-sized broad beans in oil, fine spears of asparagus, the peppers I mentioned, artichoke hearts, and clams, sardines, squid, cockles, mussels, anchovies, along with pickled partridge and chestnuts in syrup.

You can find those (or their equivalents) in the United States but it takes a hunt.  In Mexico I could get them in any of the deli chains such as Europea (thanks to refugees from the Spanish Civil War who contributed so much to Mexican life) but even in my local Walmart. Not all of these were the very finest artisanally canned goods that Jeff talks about but they were of uniformly high quality.

So I can only assume there isn’t much of a market for fine canned goods.

May be that will change. With Lou Amdur of Lou’s Provisions and Wine,   Russ Parsons at the Los Angeles Times just conducted a sardine tasting that picked out the better quality sardines available. And I was delighted today to see that Luigi Guarino of Agricultural Biodiversity posted on the canned goods of Poland, commenting on their unusual vegetable soups and berry juices.

Polish canned goods

Polish juice, blackcurrant by the look of it. Luigi Guarino.

So, questions. What are the good quality canned goods in the United States?  And what are your favorite canned goods from elsewhere? And what would you like to see more widely available?

 

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22 thoughts on “Is the fresh the enemy of good canned food?

  1. Jonathan Dresner

    As Jonathan Rees says, we are the Refrigeration Nation: our equivalent — quick but good quality foods — would be chilled and frozen rather than canned/bottled. Think of the fridge and freezer compartments at Trader Joes, or Whole Foods.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for this, Jonathan. I think you are probably right. I have to go back to Refrigeration Nation to see what Jonathan says about why refrigeration beat out canning. In Mexico, even in big cities and well-to-do areas, frozen foods are not liked and the frozen food aisles are tiny compared to the US.

      And since everyone in mentioning Trader Joe’s I have to go see one.

      Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Jan. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Imagine brand soups but now I shall be on the look out for them. Britain has excellent soups in cartons.

      Reply
  2. Mae

    I have a few thoughts on this issue:
    First, many so-called gourmet canned goods aren’t very good, just hyped in my opinion. They have that icky canned taste despite the price.

    Second, I suspect that only some foods are good when canned, especially including the ones you mentioned, tuna, sardines, white (and some other types of) beans, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, olives of course, and a few others. Maybe truffles. But this could be a personal opinion.

    Third, the more I think about it, the more I believe that love of certain canned or bottled vegetables is very personal or maybe national. Again, maybe truffles. Maybe the Mexican and Spanish examples you give. Some people/groups love canned peas, canned asparagus, canned green beans. The discussion in the book “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” is interesting in this respect. Are mushy peas a sign of British lack of taste? Or just a difference? Unknowable. Additional examples are easy to think up.

    Finally, the best source for good canned foods I know is Trader Joe’s. I don’t think I’m alone in this opinion.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Mae. Agreed that many “gourmet” canned goods are not good. I’m not making an argument for all canned foods, just for ones that are widely regarded as good in certain countries. As I said to another commentator, Mexicans (and I mean Mexicans who can afford whatever they want) tend to regard frozen foods in the same way the Americans regard canned foods.

      I think on the mushy peas issue, they fit into the dried peas/pease pudding slot not into the fresh pea slot. Just a guess.

      And I have to get myself off to Trader Joe’s.

      Reply
  3. Anna Z.

    Thanks for this post, Rachel! I actually just finished my dissertation on the history of the canning industry in the U.S., and am beginning to think about looking globally for the next phase of research. So, this reflection is a good starting point for some of my questions–how did this disparity come to be? I’ll report back if I find compelling answers!

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Anna, So good to meet you and congratulations on the dissertation. When I was writing Cuisine and Empire, one of the things that struck me was how quickly canning industries were set up in different countries around the world, at least once some of the technical problems of making and opening the cans/jars had been dealt with. And i don’t have to tell you that every country has its big canner, or so it seems. I was hopping with curiosity to investigate this but life is short so I look forward to what you come up with. Mexicans, as I’ve said to several commentators, don’t like frozen foods which they regard as flat and uninteresting. Anyway, I’m looking forward to following your blog.

      Reply
      1. Anna Z.

        Also glad to make a connection with you! My Dining and Opining blog has fallen off some in the way of regular posts, but I look forward to writing more in the near future. Let me know if you have particular information you’d like to see, or any responses to posts you read. I enjoy your posts! Thanks!

        Reply
        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          I’d love to see all the bits and pieces on canning that didn’t make it into the thesis or wont’ make it into the book. I’m sure there must be some.

          Reply
  4. lambsearsandhoney

    You have me thinking more about canned goods now , Rachel. Not a topic I have previously given much time to although the largest (and possibly only?) canning company here in Australia has been much in the news of late and has only just been saved from sudden death by the state government.
    As Mae says about the US, many of the gourmet canned goods here in Oz are a little second rate, with the best ones coming from Europe, and when it comes to green beans or asparagus here we always go for frozen or fresh – largely the latter in the case of asparagus. White beans and garbanzos are a very popular canned vegetable as they are hugely convenient and of reasonably good quality, but generally we have a distinct fondness for fresh or frozen products here.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Amanda, Only one canning company? That’s amazing when you think of the produce in Australia. There must have been a number at the beginning of the twentieth century that subsequently went bust. And Mrs Beeton was quite taken with the canned parrot and canned wallaby of Australia, at least in her imagination. Frozen does win in many places.

      Reply
  5. sanscravat

    The evolution of food preservation is geared, today, to reproducing — as closely as possible — the flavors and textures of the original foodstuffs. Older methods always altered their organoleptic properties, often in ways that made them into new and different foods (sauerkraut and kimchee are different from cabbage; wine is no longer grape juice).

    The problem, I suspect, is that we’ve forgotten that those differences are not necessarily faults — and that the preserved foods should be judged on their own merits, not whether or not they taste “fresh.”

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Absolutely, Gary. And founded on so many assumptions about natural tasting better, being better for us. Lots of work to be done.

      Reply
  6. mae

    The more I think about this blog post and my first reaction to it, the more I feel that liking one or another type of canned food is _completely_ a matter of taste and what one grew up with, as suggested by the ethnic examples in the post. I don’t think it’s a matter of the perfect as the enemy of the good, just a matter of personal, ethnic, socio-economic, and national availability and preference.

    Every judgement of canned food I can think of seems based on individual and social identity choices, not on some reproducible standard. I hate canned carrots, especially the ones in canned soup — but as I think about it, I see no reason why that’s an absolute judgement. I liked canned asparagus when I was a child, but transferred my preference to freshly cooked spring asparagus. Again, other eaters feel the opposite way, and prefer the taste or texture of the canned variety, or simply hate all asparagus. I can’t really see that French canned peas are any different from those we get here, but many French people — whose taste in food is highly developed — really like them.

    Preference for fresh vegetables is definitely limited to only some Americans, obviously, or there wouldn’t be huge aisles of canned vegetables in every supermarket, whether Safeway or Whole Foods. Are they really mediocre to bad quality? Or is this too a matter of individual and group tastes?

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Mae, I agree and disagree with your post. I entirely agree that there are no absolute standards of taste. It’s why I don’t talk about foods tasting good or tasting bad in Cuisine and Empire. And it’s why I have just posted on SPAM. So thanks for prompting me to do this.

      On the other hand, I think the usual dismissal of SPAM shows that lots of tastes depend on emotional or scoial factors. SPAM is lower class, for example. So I do think the current enthusiasm for freshness counts against the creation and sale of expensive canned foods. And there are some canned foods that are going to be expensive because they start with expensive ingredients. I hope that’s coherent.

      Reply
  7. NiCk Trachet

    I made a point of remembering Nicolas Appert in articles and lectures in 2010, the bicentenary of his invention, so it’s a bit of a “dada” of mine.

    Appert was a true genius who tested his first canned produce (milk, peas and carrots, artichokes, wine… ) with the French navy (who was blockaded by the British at the time, so had nothing else to do). Of course it takes a naval officer (trained in the XVIIIth century), to appreciate the value of canning as a source of variation in the ship’s rations. The navy staff was very enthusiast. So was Alexandre Grimod de la Rainière, by the way.

    I might guide you to the fenomenon of “vintage sardines”, that is now a bit hyped in France, but probably originated in Portugal. Tins of sardines in oil were kept for years (decades!) in order to improve, just like wine. In these modern times, tins are coated on the inside but the practice must predate this safety measure, There must have been an interaction between fish, oil and tin which the Portuguese found irresitible.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Nick. French chefs in the nineteenth century loved canned food and I would argue that French food could not have had the global impact that it did had they not used canned food. And I must remember that line–the irresistible flavor of fish, oil, and tin.

      Reply
  8. Gunnar Rundgren

    I see canning and similar as an act of “cooking” in a wider sense, just like fermentation. So the trick is not to make it taste the same as fresh. Instead you create out a new food. And here I think one can’t compare with freezing which in my view is a method to keep food fresh, or as close as fresh as possible. And for me that is why freezing of most food is such a disappointing (although practical) thing. Because very few things taste fresh when taken out of the freezer (I still use it quite a lot our of convenience) Canning your own is a real pleasure, and not just canning, but pickling fermenting and putting in oil (I am afraid I don’t know the exact term for that). My favourite is to roast mixed roots and dry them down in the oven to a spongy texture. Then just put them in jars with a bit of salt, perhaps some chilli and fill the jar with an oil, trying various mixture. I often serve home canned green beans and most people like them a lot.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      We’re of one mind, Gunnar. I can see no sharp or interesting distinction between cooking and processing. They are both, for me, terms that we apply to the amazing range of activities that humans undertake to turn raw materials (plants and animals) into food. BTW, I don’t think there is a technical term in English for preserving in oil. Funny that. I will have to try your method with roots. And I love the way you always try to do calculations on your blog. Gives so much more punch and meaning that simply pontificating.

      Reply
      1. Gunnar Rundgren

        Thanks Rachel. I wonder if you have a suggestion for another generic term for “food processing”. While that is perhaps what parts of the industry is busy with, it does sound very industrial and void of life, flavor and pleasure….

        Reply
        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Yes, food processing is a dreary word. It’s why I called my book Cooking in World History not Food Processing in World History. Can you imagine what that would do to sales? The only problem is that calling it cooking means that SERIOUS people–academics and industry–tend not to look at it.

          Food preparation is another possibility but it’s almost as dreary as food processing.

          Reply

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