Sweetened Condensed Milk

Black and white illustration shows a can od sweetened condensed milk: an indestructible food.

“Thou shalt not abuse nor worry thy cow…”

Milk is good for a lot of things: feeding babies, pouring over cereal, giving people mustaches…but it is REALLY good at going bad. Raw milk only keeps for a couple of hours at room temperature before it starts to spoil, and once it takes that turn, drinking it is a very dicey proposition. So for the 6,000+ years that humans have been drinking animal milk, we’ve also been trying to find ways to ingest it before it’s rotten enough to make us sick. 

First came a fermented milk product that was something like yogurt. Later, people figured out how to make cheese (Hurrah!), and after that, butter churns started chugging along. These transformations stabilized some of the nutrients of fresh milk and gave folks more access to dairy, but milk in its original state was still an extremely fragile commodity. 

By 1795, canning maniac Nicolas Appert had developed a technique for preserving milk in its liquid state. This involved boiling the milk, which reduced it to one-third of its original volume, putting it in a glass jar, corking it, and heating it again. This produced milk which tasted terrible, and had few remaining nutrients, but, hey, it lasted quite a while! It was a step in the right direction.

In the mid-19th century, things had reached the curdling point. Raw milk was still a dangerous food that spoiled really quickly. It was hard to transport safely. It turned into a glass of germs within hours, yet people were being told to feed it to the youngest, most vulnerable members of the population. It was a recipe for disaster! Compounding the problem, several distilleries in NYC hatched a money-making scheme by which they fed their spent grain to secret dairy cows kept in nearby barns. So in addition to the regular dangers of raw milk, we add undernourished, diseased cows and unclean, overcrowded conditions. The milk these cows gave was so bad (and blue!) that it had to be disguised with the addition of chalk and sweeteners. 

The milk wasn’t just gross, it was killing people. Especially kids. 

With pasteurization still a few years off, and kids dying by the thousands, the race was on to create a preserved milk that was shelf-stable and pure. That’s where Gail Borden comes in. In 1851, he was coming home to the U.S. on a ship from the London Exhibition, where he had been drumming up enthusiasm for his latest invention “meat biscuits.” (I would never lie to you.) The ship had a couple of cows to make milk for the passengers. The cows got sick. The milk was contaminated. The kids who drank it died. 

That was it for Mr. Borden. Meat biscuits be damned, he had a new problem to solve. He spent the next few years experimenting with condensing milk in a vacuum, removing 60% of the water content, and adding sugar to prolong the shelf-life. He eventually earned the patent for his innovations in 1856. Around this time, he also formally abandoned the meat biscuit…which was about as popular as you might expect. 

Borden’s first two milk factories were a flop, but he did something super important during these early, milk-filled years. He wrote the “Dairyman’s Ten Commandments” which was a set of rules farmers needed to follow if they wanted to sell him their milk. This document was filled with great advice: Always wash udders before milking! Keep barns swept clean! Scald and dry strainers morning and night! It also reads as a love letter to cows, “Thou shalt not abuse nor worry thy cow–thou nor thy maid servant, nor thy dog, nor thy mischievous boy who drives her up, but thou shalt at all times treat her with gentleness and allow no one to molest or make her afraid…” It was widely adopted among dairy farmers, and many of the rules within are followed to this day. 

The milk Commandments were improving safety at dairies, and in 1858, Borden’s third condensed milk factory proved to be the charm. The kinks had been ironed out. He had a great partner/investor. He was now shipping safe, stable milk that needed no refrigeration. (It stayed fresh for over 2 years!!!) Eagle Brand, as his milk was called, was gaining a reputation for being clean and pure. Kids who drank it did not die. 

Then the Civil War began, and keeping the soldiers fed was a nightmare. They were sustaining themselves mainly on hardtack and salt meat. Morale was terrible. The U.S. government placed an enormous order for Borden’s condensed milk, and used it–not as an everyday ration–but as a celebratory treat for the soldiers. The canned milk also got a lot of use in military hospitals, where it was mixed with brandy or whiskey as a tonic for fever. In time, soldiers could buy their own sweetened condensed milk at a cost of 50 to 80 cents per can. That was a lot of money, so many soldiers wrote to relatives, asking them to “send condensed milk!!!”  Eagle Brand milk was such a success that the company could not keep up with demand. 

As sweetened condensed milk made its mark on the US, it was also picking up steam globally. A Swiss company began making it for most of Europe. A Dutch milk company moved into Hong Kong and launched the Longevity brand. Wars and colonialism spread canned milk just about everywhere. It was safe, reliable, and delicious at a time when raw milk was anything but. 

Eventually (although it took WAY too long) pasteurization became the norm, and milk’s safety was less of a concern. For the first time, sweetened condensed milk had to work to stay relevant. “It doesn’t kill kids!” was no longer a unique selling point. Luckily, the product was also completely delicious, so it had a lot of fans. Eagle Brand held recipe contests where they paid $25 for the tasty ideas of homemakers. Ads touted a million ways to use sweetened condensed milk, often with the tag “no added sugar–which is hilarious, because let’s be real: it’s a can of sugar. Around the globe, sweetened condensed milk found its way into drinks and desserts and dinners, much to the delight of pretty much everyone. 

In closing, I’ll just say that if you’re looking to have a sweetened condensed milk revival at your house, here are some bright ideas, brought to you by my insta pals: Key Lime Pie. Fudge. Flan. Vietnamese Iced Coffee. Halo Halo. Fruit Dip. Spanish Lattes. Hot Chocolate. French Toast. Banana Pudding. 7 Layer Bars. Smoothies. Carnitas. Shave Ice… 

Vienna Sausages

Can of Vienna Sausage in from of a mountain range flanked by two Austrian buildings. This is another indestructible food.

The littlest link…

It’s hard to find a food more ubiquitous than sausage. Every country has their versions, because sausage was developed to do something important: save food from being wasted. Got a pile of tiny trimmings left over from slaughter time? Got a length of spare intestine? You’re in business. Sausages all around! They can be smoked or cured, steamed or grilled, but they always turn a pile of scraps into a meal.

Sausages should have been a low-class food. They are, after all, made from leftovers. Richer folks could afford to eat big pieces of meat like hams and pheasants and roast beef, but they wanted sausage. It’s not hard to understand why. The balance of fat, protein, and salt in a sausage made it a perfect comfort meal. Soon, butchers and delis and families and whole countries were working to make fancier sausages. They experimented with novel spices and processing methods. A pile of scraps no longer, sausages became a source of pride. 

Not to be outdone, the United States threw its hat in the ring with a product called Vienna Sausage. Bursting upon the sausage scene in 1903, these short lengths of forcemeat were smoked and canned in aspic or chicken broth. They had almost nothing in common with European vienna sausages which were long, thin hotdog-like creatures. American Vienna Sausages were their own thing, man. Made of beef, pork, and chicken (the turducken of sausage?!) they became a phenomenon. 

Advertising did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to promoting these little links. A 1904 Libby’s print ad shares that “Vienna Sausages are served extensively at home and abroad, on transatlantic ships and in dining cars.” In 1954, the ads had shifted tone considerably, now claiming the little sausages to be “a real wife-saver.” By 1990, the ads were talking about ingredients, informing the public that the links were ALL meat. NO filler. So, whether you were a traveler, an overwhelmed housewife or just completely obsessed with meat, Vienna Sausages were for you. Luckily, recipes were everywhere, encouraging creativity and innovation with these canned wieners. Pigs in a blanket! Tiny Corndogs! Wieners with Sauerkraut! Hors d’oeuvres! The possibilities seemed truly endless.

But if canned Vienna Sausages were a uniquely American invention, they certainly did not stay here. We talked about this a bit in relation to Spam, but it is worth repeating here. Vienna Sausages spread as many indestructible foods did: with conquest, colonialism, and war. Elaine Castillo frames this beautifully in her article, Colonialism in a Can. What often started as survival food for interlopers in unfamiliar settings, was enriched and elevated by locals who made it part of their cuisine. 

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Vienna Sausages are part of the rich tapestry of preserved meats. They might not have the panache of prosciutto, but they have kept folks filled and earned some fans along the way. Not too shabby for a tiny canned sausage. 

Fruit Cocktail

This Indestructible Food illustration shows a can of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail within a decorative border. The image is black and white.

The snack that started as trash.

Fruit has always been beloved. Folks ate it fresh, dried it for later, or put it up in jars to sweeten dull winter dishes. By the late 1800s, California canneries were working to make fresh fruit commercially available year-round. Canned peaches were a favorite, but processing them was a huge pain. Peaches bruised easily and spoiled quickly. That led to a ton of waste.

Food waste at an industrial scale is a tricky thing to deal with. It represents lost profits, but it can also lead to serious environmental issues. It turns out that you can’t pump enormous piles of rotting peach guts into your community without causing major repercussions for wildlife and waterways. The United States government was not going to let a love of canned fruit ruin the countryside. The amount of garbage canneries were allowed to throw out was restricted, and food scientists began working on ways to divert organic waste. Peach pits could be sold to companies that made things like beauty creams or charcoal briquettes. And those little pieces of perfectly good peach between the bruised or rotten parts? Those could be chopped up and combined with other fruits to create an edible and delicious fruit cocktail. It was an incredible way to repurpose what would otherwise be trash. (As a side note, “complying with environmental regulations” is a very cool reason to invent a new product. Way cooler than “making more money” or “reaching new customers.”)

Since consistency was key when it came to mass produced goods, canneries got together to hammer out a recipe they could all agree on. Later, the USDA wrote regulations mandating that anything called fruit cocktail would include peaches, pears, pineapples, grapes, and cherries. Not only was the ingredient list limited, but the proportions were dictated as well. You must have at least a certain amount of each ingredient, but no more than a certain amount. For instance, pears make up between 25-40% of the drained fruit volume of any can labeled “Fruit Cocktail.” You can buy some and check! There are plenty of pears! Cherries, however, are more elusive. They make up just 2-6% of any can. Most reasonable humans agree that it isn’t enough. 

In addition to their scarcity, color is the big reason that fruit cocktail cherries are so popular. They are brilliantly red. Unnaturally red. Completely artificially red! And according to the USDA, the cherries are the only thing in a fruit cocktail that is allowed to be red. The syrup cannot be red. The other fruits cannot be red. Only the cherries can be red! Unfortunately, most red food dyes bleed. Touch anything you own with a maraschino cherry (Red Dye No. 40) and you’ll see what I mean. If fruit cocktail cherry dye were to bleed, the fruit cocktail would no longer legally be fruit cocktail. Everything would be red. It would be a nightmare! Luckily, there was a red food dye that stayed exactly where you put it, and that was Red Dye No. 3

Red Dye No. 3 had a problem. It was shown to cause thyroid tumors in lab rats. After that finding, the FDA banned its use in cosmetics and non-ingestible products, but somehow, it was still ok in cough drops, toothpaste, those weird red pistachios, and fruit cocktail cherries. “Why?” you ask. “If we knew that this was a questionable ingredient, why would it still be allowed?” Lobbyists, of course! The Fruit Cocktail Lobby is a surprisingly powerful entity that successfully campaigned to keep Red Dye No. 3 on the table (and in your fruit cocktail) for much longer than it should have been. Industry studies found that without those bright cherries, Fruit Cocktail sales would drop by 40%, which would apparently result in a negative impact on the economy as a whole (if you find this hard to swallow, you aren’t alone). Those lobbyists bought the fruit companies some time, and although some of them still use Red Dye No. 3, many of them are now going with carmine. Carmine is made from beetles, and is not shown to cause tumors at all. It still makes cherries very red. It also makes them much less vegan. You really can’t have it all. 

I was incredibly surprised by the importance of the government in the creation and perpetuation of fruit cocktail. Federal regulations led companies to hide their food waste in salable products. The USDA outlined the exact recipe of fruit cocktail so consumers would know what to expect. And finally, the FDA made damn sure that those cherries could stay a shocking red…even if there weren’t enough of them. 

Canned Oysters

A can of oysters sits in a decorative ocean teeming with schools of fish. They are truly an indestructible food.

A Valentine’s post about oysters and sex…

You can feel however you want about love and sex (“Yes, please!” “No, thanks!”) but the relationship between food and desire is pretty interesting. Since the beginning of civilization, folks have been looking for ways to have more sex. Foods, rituals, love potions… anything to grease the wheels of love. In the second century AD, the Roman physician Galen wrote that certain “warm and moist” foods had an aphrodisiac effect. Which kinda makes sense, I guess. But he also thought that foods that caused gas were good because somehow that’s how erections worked. (This hypothesis slays me, and I could make a ton of sexy fart jokes but I will not.)

The list of foods thought to be aphrodisiac is long: Chocolate, asparagus, figs, caviar, carrots, chiles, honey, onions, okra, sausages, and yes, oysters. Oysters fall squarely into the group of foods thought to be desire-inducing because they resemble genitals. They are wet and foldy and salty, and we’ll leave it at that. In an earlier post, we talked about how Italians eat lentils at New Year’s because they “look like coins” and will make them rich. The lesson to learn here is that eating foods that look like the things you want will maybe help you get the things you want.

It used to be a fortunate few living near the coast that had access to oysters for sexy reasons or otherwise. But in the 1820’s factories started canning them. Over the next several decades, oysters became a huge fad, were over-harvested, caused environmental destruction, and there is no evidence that anyone’s sex life improved. In fact, there has never been any scientific evidence that aphrodisiacs work at all. Which is kind of a bummer because food superstitions are way cool. 

If you want to have better/more sex, communication is good. Consent is key. Self-esteem is rad. And hey, a can of oysters can’t hurt. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. 

Deviled Ham

Go west, young man, and eat deviled ham: A story of innovation, war, and spicy meat.

The Underwood brand began selling preserved foods in 1822. Ketchup, Mustard, Cranberries… You know, the basics. As time went on, the offerings expanded to include seafood. This was important for all those folks in the USA moving west in the 1840s-1860’s. Because no matter how inspired you were by Horace Greeley, you still had to eat. And a lot of these settlers had very little experience with farming/food production. So a can of oysters would come in handy.

As the United States government was giving away land that didn’t belong to it, another storm was brewing, the Civil War. And as always, the problem of getting food to soldiers was a pressing one. The Underwood company stepped in and sold its canned goods to Union and Confederate soldiers alike. (Capitalism!) And as those soldiers were eating cans of mackerel, so were the Southern folks at home. Their food supplies had been choked by blockades, and canned fish became a staple.

Deviled Ham surfaced after the war, in 1868. It was a spicy ground ham spread, and folks loved it. (Deviling, by the way, is just making foods spicier. And the logo for Deviled Ham is the devil. Because hell is hot. Obviously.) Deviled Ham was a huge success because it was delicious, they spent a ton of money on advertising, and it could be used in a boatload of ways. Keep in mind that canned foods were special. They were not second best to fresh foods, but a novel invention that let people enjoy foods that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

Speaking of inventions, the canned good was not without its flaws. Often the cans would bulge and explode, resulting in a tremendous amount of food waste. And injuries, I assume. So in 1895, the grandson of old Underwood went to the biology department of MIT and was like, “Let’s get to the bottom of this.” The worked on it every afternoon, and eventually discovered a time/temperature formula that would work to stabilize foods.

Sometimes a canned good takes us from the American West, to the halls of MIT. From a wartime encampment, to a suburban sandwich. It is a messy history that is bigger even than Deviled Ham.

Spam

A can of Span sits surrounded by flowers and decorative elements.

In which Spam becomes a global phenomenon.

Spam was invented in 1937 as a way to use pork shoulder, a cut of meat no one wanted at the time. It had some popularity in the US, but it spread widely during WWII. Getting fresh meat to soldiers was near impossible, but Spam was shelf-stable and lasted forever. Problem solved! And as soldiers were eating their Spam (Hormel kept a file of military complaints about it) so were an awful lot of civilians. WWII brought Spam to the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Japan, Great Britain… and the list goes on.

In the coming years, Spam would continue its march around the planet (aided by American colonialism and various wars). And an interesting divergence occurred. In some places, Spam was a temporary food staple. It surfaced in response to an urgent need, and receded when the need was gone. But in other places, Spam was more tenacious. People experimented with it and came up with smart ways to use it. They made the product an ingredient. Spam wove itself into these cuisines.

You may ask “What caused the difference in Spam uptake? Why is Spam popular in some places and ridiculed in others?” Good questions. And complicated ones. One answer I’ve seen is rooted in economic circumstance. In places where economic hardship was widespread for a short time, Spam was tolerated. It was a food of necessity, and folks tended to want to (and be able to) distance themselves from it as soon as possible. In places where economic recovery came slower, cooks found ways to use the ingredient to its best advantage. It was around long enough not to be associated with any particular economic trauma. It was food. And if you prepared it well, it was remarkably good.

Each country has its own story when it comes to Spam. You’ll see stories about hardship. And war. And colonialism. And family meals. And silly merchandise. And comfort foods. This post is not long enough, nor am I knowledgable enough to cover all of the complexities of Spam. There is a whole lot to learn. 

Corned Beef Hash

There’s nothing like leftovers for breakfast…

Corned beef hash does what the best recipes do. It stretches food for longer, serves more people, and wastes nothing. You know how some people like leftovers better than the original meal? Well, corned beef hash is leftovers. From a New England Boiled Dinner, of all things. See, hacher is French for “to chop,” and that’s how you make hash. You chop your leftovers. And fry ‘em.

The New England Boiled Dinner has Irish immigrant roots. But not in the “corned beef came from Ireland” way that you might expect. Corned beef WAS made in Ireland, as a cheap export of questionable quality. And as cheap as it was, most Irish could never afford to eat it. But after the Great Famine (caused by the potato blight in 1845) Irish immigrants came to the US, and made enough money to be able to afford corned beef occasionally.

And where did they get this corned beef? Well, in NYC, it came from Kosher butchers, of course! Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were making high quality corned beef brisket, and Irish immigrants were buying it, boiling it with potatoes and cabbage, and making hash out of the leftovers.

The ideal hash ratio is 1 part potatoes to 1 part beef, but you have to assume that most hash consumed by the poor had a lot more tater and a lot less meat. But it was delicious. And it spread across the US. And today they sell it in a can. Don’t worry, it’s still leftovers, but of industrial food production instead of your home kitchen. Waste not, want not!

Manwich

An illustration of a can of Manwich sauce sitting in a peaceful meadow.

Another kind of loose meat sandwich…

In the late 1920’s loose meat sandwiches came on the scene. First in Montana, and shorty thereafter, Iowa. As you might suspect from the name, these were hamburger buns piled with ground beef crumbles. You might have ordered a “Maid-rite” or a “Nu-Way” or a “Tavern Sandwich” but you were always asking for the same thing: a loose meat sandwich.

Loose meat sandies were, and are, so good because there is way more surface area of the beef to brown. And season. Condiments can mix right through the pile of beef instead of just sitting up on top. And then there is the challenge of keeping your pile of crumbles on your bun as you bite it. We just love challenging foods.

The next evolution, the “Sloppy Joe” began popping up in the 1940’s. Remember how we talked about loose meat sandwiches being awesome because the condiments could mix in with the meat? Well, some folks took it even further, binding the loose crumbles with a thick tomato-based sauce. Amazing.

And then in 1969, Hunt’s introduced “Manwich,” a sandwich made of men. No! I’m kidding you! It was really a can of tomato sauce to mix with your waiting skillet of beef for a fast-and-easy at-home Sloppy Joe. This seems like a manufactured want, but it caught on, and we are still eating Manwiches 51 years later.

Brown Bread

An illustration of a can of B&M brown. bread on a hearth, flanked by two pots of beans.

It’s bread, but in a can…

If you haven’t eaten a can of bread, you haven’t lived. You just open both ends and push out a loaf. It feels awfully novel for a 100-year-old idea.

But this brown bread itself (sans can) came about much earlier. Remember those British colonists we talked about in our last article? The ones who made all those beans? Well, they also needed bread. So they tried to grow their grain of choice, which was wheat. But the poor soil in New England made that difficult. In the end, they fell back on the tradition of mixed-grain loaves, which had been made by the lower classes in Europe for ages. They used a mixture of wheat, rye, and a new-to-them grain: cornmeal. Then they added molasses, because they were already becoming American, and Americans like sweet foods.

The bread was originally baked, but some folks liked to prepare it as a steamed pudding. Which lead to a steamed loaf. Which lead to the steamed-in-a-can bread emerging in the 1920s. And the tradition of a Saturday evening supper of brown bread, baked beans, and hotdogs.

All history aside. It’s a can of bread! If you haven’t had one, it’s worth a try.

Baked Beans

This illustration shows a giant can of beans sitting in a park. A man and his dog look on.

A journey of beans…

It’s Boxing Day, so I’ll talk about a British fav: Beans.

Native Americans were baked bean experts: baking them underground with bear meat and maple syrup. The result was predictably delicious. Then British colonists said, cool, we’ll make these, too. Let’s use pig meat and brown sugar, instead. And maybe we can cook them over a fire for a while before we bake them. That was also tasty. But due to British taxes on sugar, the colonists changed the recipe again to use locally produced molasses as a sweetener.

In 1895, H.J. Heinz Co. started producing canned baked beans, which were not baked at all, but rather blanched and steamed in the can. Those beans were the first convenience beans to be sold overseas. To the United Kingdom, of course. (See how this story keeps looping back on itself?) Anyway, British folks were like, why are these beans so sweet, you weirdos? So the recipe was altered again. Now the British beans had a firmer texture and were nestled in a tomato sauce. They were no longer sweet.

Today, baked beans are available in a ton of varieties. You can see ‘em with BBQ or at a picnic or in your Full English. And you can even buy that British version of Heinz baked beans. In the international section of your grocery store.

This is a long story, but a pretty good reminder that all food is political. It’s never just a can of beans. 

Minced Clams

A can of clams sits in a tranquil undersea scene. A submarine drifts by.

A feast of fishes…

Today’s the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It used to be that on the eve of a feast day like Christmas, people were supposed to fast. Then Roman Catholics were like: Ok, you don’t have to fast, but def don’t eat red meat. But then southern Italians were all: Let’s make it another feast day, but it’s all fish, so it’s still alright. They literally rewrote the rules to add more eating. Which is incredible.

“Seven” Fishes is an American thing. And it’s not even necessarily 7. Sometimes it’s 9. Or 13. But it all makes sense, because it’s all eating with friends and family. You all get together and prepare 7 or more fish dishes and holler and hug and tell each other stories, and I’m depressing myself, because 2020 is nothing like that.

I hope you are all leaning into tradition in whatever way this year allows. Whether or not there is any fish.

Beef Stew

A can of beef stew sits in an outdoor setting at night. A camper and his dog walk nearby.

Lumberjacks need stew

Dinty Moore Beef Stew was invented by a lumberjack named Dinty Moore. For a while, he put his thumbprint on every can, but his thumb got tired and he quit. We can take some consolation in the fact that the label is still plaid.

There is also a “recipe” for a roast beef sandwich on the internet which is just a can of Dinty Moore poured onto a submarine roll. I don’t feel super great about that. (This blurb has some truth and some fiction, but that bad recipe is true.)