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.
A “moist cabbage side dish” for a modern lifestyle…
It’s New Year’s Eve. And we need to talk about Sauerkraut. Because apparently it’s good luck to eat it today. Cabbage is green and that means money. (You will be rich!) The long strands mean your life will be long. (You will be old!) It is a perfect New Year’s Eve food. A note: Kimchi brings this luck, too! But that post is coming soon, so…
Sauerkraut is a German word, but rumor has it that China was making suan cai a LONG time before Europe was making sauerkraut. The idea was that if you took cabbage and layered it with salt and let it ferment, you could have nutrients when you had no fresh food on hand. (Bye, scurvy!) During WWII, American Sauerkraut makers renamed their product “Liberty Cabbage,” to avoid any associations with Germany. (Take a seat, “Freedom Fries.” Americans are old-school uncool.)
These days, sauerkraut is known as a popular “moist cabbage side dish” worldwide. You can find it atop pastrami sandwiches and hotdogs, inside pierogi, or dunked in soups. It’s even served with Thanksgiving turkey. What people used to eat out of necessity, they are now consuming on purpose. Brilliant.
The only real downside to sauerkraut is flatulence, and even that will not offset the good luck you’ve accumulated by eating it. So Happy New Year, friends. I wish the best for you.
Eggs were not always a year-round food. It used to be that you had eggs when your chickens were laying. Which was generally when the weather was warm or mild. When you had eggs, you probably had a LOT of eggs. And when you didn’t, you might have wished you did. Pickling was the solution to all of that. (That was a pickling pun, albeit a weak one.)
As far as history, some people say that there were pickled eggs on the Mayflower. Some say that they originated in Germany in the 1700’s. They were certainly around England by the 1830’s. But everyone agrees that pickled eggs were a great idea and a useful snack in saloons and taverns. And that makes sense, because eggs contain an essential amino acid that promotes liver function. Which you’ll need if you’ve been drinking enough to think that fishing an egg out of that giant jar is a good idea.
Potatoes are a celebration food, and they became popular, in part, because they take so long to go bad. But during WWII, the government was greedy, and they decided to push for an even longer shelf life by dehydrating potatoes into granules. Which were then made into extraordinarily gummy and awful mashed potatoes for the soldiers. Like many wartime innovations, there was in interest in making these reconstituted mashed potatoes into a consumer product. They just had to be a little less terrible.
A major turning point was the realization that “flakes” beat “granules” as far as mashed potato texture went. A government facility in Wyndmore, PA developed a process called “The Philadelphia Cook” This involved precooking potatoes, cooling them, cooking them again, and then drying them. Into flakes. Obviously. These new instant mashed potatoes were less terrible than before and saved the hassle of peeling potatoes forever and boiling a towering cauldron of water. A big win!
I hope you are celebrating this season with special foods. And if Christmas is your kind of holiday, I hope it’s a jolly one.