Pickling and Canning

Recent discussion about pickling and canning [stderr] reminded me that it’s time to more closely research the history of the technique. In its time, it was a tremendously important military technology.

Not only did Napoleon Bonaparte say “an army marches on its stomach”* he put his money where his mouth was – the Bonaparte regime funded the development of canning. For reasons that ought to be obvious. [wik]

During the first years of the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered a hefty cash award of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. The larger armies of the period required increased and regular supplies of quality food. Limited food availability was among the factors limiting military campaigns to the summer and autumn months. In 1809, Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner and brewer, observed that food cooked inside a jar did not spoil unless the seals leaked, and developed a method of sealing food in glass jars. Appert was awarded the prize in 1810 by Count Montelivert, a French minister of the interior. The reason for lack of spoilage was unknown at the time, since it would be another 50 years before Louis Pasteur demonstrated the role of microbes in food spoilage.

At that time, governments would often offer rewards for solving interesting problems, which was an idea that I wish would come back into vogue. The British crown had similar rewards for producing accurate clocks – to allow better calculation of longitude for navigation – and naval compasses.

Food preservation is a fascinating topic that I keep thinking “I should learn more about that” except every time I do, I get the eebie-jeebies really badly and tend to go on a diet. Hey, the “eebie-jeebies diet” could be a best-seller, what do you think? As you might imagine, canning and storing food also had its ups and downs – dunking the interior of a can in molten tin (after first etching it with acid so the tin would stick) is why we have the term “tin can” instead of “lead-soldered can” which turned out to have some serious problems. Aluminum, which was more valuable than gold until the bauxite/electrical extraction method was devised, appears to be one of the ideal substances for can-making. And then there’s plastic…

One thing I learned years ago, after I was stuck at a dinner party next to a “moonbeam” who asserted that all chemical additives “you know, BHA, BHT, guar gum, that kind of thing…” were bad in food – it got me wondering “what is BHA?” and much to my surprise it turned out BHA (real name: butylated hydroxyanisole) is a naturally-occurring oxidation blocker that occurs in apricots. Most of the fruit that dehydrate well, without going rotten? That’s why. And if you really want to make a moonbeam’s head explode, make sure you emphasize that BHA is an antioxidant because, you know, antioxidants are super good for you in general. Guar gum is a surfactant produced by beans. You can’t get any more healthy than beans, I rest my case! Where certain antioxidants become a problem is when they’re used to prevent fats from rotting, in the form of Nutella, Little Debbie Snack Cakes, and other fat-laden stuff that’s chemically altered to have a longer shelf-life.

As Jorma Kaukonen wrote on a Jefferson Airplane album cover: “I don’t care if my lettuce has DDT on it as long as it’s crisp.”

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Have any of you eaten irradiated food? I am not afraid of it, I just have never encountered any of it on my plate. But speaking of eebie-jeebie diets, someone was telling me about an irradiated ham sandwich that was perfectly fresh months afterward. When I was a kid I had food poisoning from a ham sandwich (I thought I was going to die, and then I wanted to die) and the words “three month-old ham sandwich” do not go together.

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Pickling and brining and drying and smoking and ${other food preservation techniques} predate canning. My favorite is allegedly “steak tartar” being salt-cured beef jerky made by putting it under a horse’s saddle blanket and letting it sweat on it. And then there’s that Icelandic thing where they bacterially poach a shark by loosely burying it in beach sand and letting it rot just the right amount… I have had that appear on my plate. My stock response when someone tries to feed me something like that: “I don’t like to eat for other people’s entertainment.”

The attribution to Napoleon may be incorrect. It may have been Frederick II. [qi]

Sun Tzu was there first with the quote:

Make forays in fertile country in order to supply your army with food.

A well-fed Napoleonic hussar (looks like chasseurs a cheval de la garde imperiale! I bet that guy had some stories)

One of Napoleon’s great innovations in warfare was a system of fast food redistribution behind the advance of scouts. For all that the hussars were dashing warriors, they were also tremendous chicken reallocators. Most armies since the dawn of armies have done this, but Napoleon’s army was comparatively huge (for its time in history) and had to invent new logistical paradigms – which famously failed in Russia. Marbot’s memoirs have several stories involving hussars and liberated pigs and chickens – not to mention the wine. Wine has always been liberated by the victors. “Vae Victis” Victuals.

“among the factors limiting military campaigns to the summer and autumn months” – not to mention the cold, if you find yourself walking back from, say, Moscow.


  1. says

    Virtually all chemical additives do occur naturally in many foods. The only thing we are doing is to find out what specific chemical makes some foods last/taste/smell better and add it to other foods.

    However many natural foods contain a mixture of healthy and unhealthy chemicals and as paracelsus famously said, dosis makes the poison. There are fruits that can kill you if you eat too much of them. Some foods can be very strong allergens for some people – for example I am allergic to raw vegetables from the carrot family, but cooked (i.e. unnatural) are fine.

    I have found out that most of the people who are obsessed with things being “natural” and with not using “chemicals” have no real knowledge about either nature, or chemistry.

  2. komarov says

    Not only did Napoleon Bonaparte say “an army marches on its stomach”* he put his money where his mouth was – the Bonaparte regime funded the development of canning.

    Hooray, humankind makes another technological leap in order to kill and / or conquer each other more efficiently. Because if you can’t get rich or powerful off of something it’s not really worth the investment. Lack of “practical applications”, that sort of thing. Needless to say I am shocked and surprised to learn about this, shocked and surprised. Actually, I’m neither but it is a good excuse to feign being depressed and go eat some chocolate. Hooray indeed!

  3. Raucous Indignation says

    I’m certain all of us have eaten irradiated food. Just as most of us have already been irradiated numerous times. Sometimes by the medicasl. But also in every plane ride or trip to modestly high altitude. To say nothing of the great but shrinking hole in the ozone in the Southern hemisphere.

  4. cvoinescu says

    What Charly says.

    I have several potential objections to stuff added to food, even if it’s a naturally occurring substance. These are not blanket objections; they are just things to look for and think about.

    First, it may be natural, but I may not want more of it in me than I otherwise get. Trans fats are a prime example: they occur naturally in a range of fresh and especially cooked foods, but they’re bad for me in larger quantities, and I don’t want to have any more of them added to my food. Even though they make my fries nice and crisp and tasty.

    Second, the pure stuff may be fine, but the way it’s extracted or made could also introduce impurities that are be bad for me, aren’t necessarily controlled or tested for, and definitely aren’t listed as ingredients. I have no idea whether this is even a problem, but it could affect something completely innocuous, like citric acid. One major production route is to ferment a cheap source of sugar with Aspergillus niger, filter the mold out of solution, treat with calcium hydroxide (yielding insoluble calcium citrate), then use sulfuric acid to liberate the citric acid from that. Sounds fine, but what else does A. niger make that gets through? Is there anything else growing in the solution? Could the sugary solution also start with bad stuff in it that the process lets through? Is the calcium hydroxide contaminated with lead? That sulfuric acid is 99.5% purity, but what’s the 0.5% made up of? There are standards for many of these things, and competent people making sure they’re met, and that they’re reviewed every now and then and thought about afresh — but I still wonder, is it really just citric acid we’re adding?

    I also had a third point, but I got carried away with the citric acid and forgot what it was.

  5. Curt Sampson says

    Oh, that bacterium has an unfortunate name.

    For more on the longitude prize, I recommend Dava Sobel’s book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. It’s a great read.

    I love looking into commonplace things in our society that turn out to be quite sophisticated. Our world is built on sophisticated technologies and ideas – some hidden, some right in front of our faces – that we don’t think much about. More books covering these things include Ninety Percent of Everything,
    Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk
    (which I’ve previously mentioned in a comment on this blog), How Engineers Create the World (unfortunately rather a lightweight book due to length limitations, but provides good starting points for further Internet exploration), and The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.

  6. says


    Is the calcium hydroxide contaminated with lead?

    In this instance, I would not worry about that overmuch. Firstly, “contaminated” implies very low dosis. Secondly, even if that were the case, even smaller dosis would be carried throught the process because of the sulphuric acid – lead sulphate has very low solubility in water so in this case it would mostly remain in the precipitate because it would be outcompeted in the solution by other things.
    So in all likeliness, the dose of lead that threatens you from thusly prepared citric acid is actually lower than one you get from an “organic” apple grown on soil with heightened lead content.

    Sounds fine, but what else does A. niger make that gets through?

    Some strains of this mold are known to produce carcinogens, so any spoiled food with black mold growing on it should be tossed away, do not try to cut/scrape/scoop the mold. However, the mold needs certain nutrients and chemicals for that to happen, and not all strains are equal. Further, many foods you are eating, both conserved and fresh, are actually conaminated with the fungus, only you do not know it yet because it is not visible. So again, thusly produced citric acid is unlikely to be more dangerous than juice squeezed from lemons.

    Contamination of foodstuffs with dangerous chemicals can happen in artificialy synthetised ingredients just as well as on an “organic” farm. That is why both industrial food production as well as “organic” food production both must have rigorous checks to test for said contamination in order to minimise it.
    The word “organic” is in quotation marks intentionally to signify it is used in its woo sense, not its real sense.

  7. cvoinescu says

    I know danger is low, and “natural” and “organic” things are about as likely to be harmful (if not more). I picked citric acid as an example because I know how it’s made; the same slight worry applies to all processes and methods.

    Remember Dasani? Coca-cola sold “pure” water under that brand. Purified with ozone and reverse osmosis. They started with tap water, put it through reverse osmosis, added calcium chloride (because pure water tastes like shit), then ozone for good measure. The problem is, the calcium chloride contained some calcium bromide (fine), which the ozone (fine) oxidized to bromate (carcinogen). Oops.

  8. jazzlet says

    It’s odd what puts people off a food, I had a boyfriend at university who, despite liking it, never ate yoghurt again after discovering that it contained live bacteria, he just couldn’t get his head around the idea of ‘good’ bacteria.

    I get slightly frustrated with the common narrative on the preservation of food as it almost always excludes the work that women have done for centuries. To take part of your quote Marcus

    In 1809, Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner and brewer, observed that food cooked inside a jar did not spoil unless the seals leaked, and developed a method of sealing food in glass jars.

    who had developed this method? Almost certainly some unknown woman/women back in a time where such developments were not recorded, it’s definitely a technique that is recorded in some of the earlier cook books. Although they were mostly written by well off men and they were often writing of what the men in control of their kitchens told them, the techniques were almost certainly originally developed by women as only the richest of households would have had a chef.

    As for irradiated food I agree that most of us have probably eaten some, most likely dried herbs and spices, that was what I taught was irradiated most often when the process was introduced low bulk high value foods.