Bully for (Good) Canned Beef

At one time, canning technology was prized as a brilliant solution to excess kitchen drudgery. Today, canning companies are under the gun, cowering under weight of competition from whole foods and organic producers.

I’ll set aside whether the fresh food of our day, particularly fruit and veg as shipped to cold-climate countries, is always superior to canned and frozen versions.

But canned food, whose history thekitchn.com summarizes neatly here, proved in any case a lifeline, or at least a high convenience. To harried families with two parents working, or even one, it saved time and provided nourishment at an acceptable cost.

To persons in remote areas, not easily able to procure fresh food, or those living in circumstances where running a “scratch” kitchen was not feasible, likewise. Nay, some people actually liked the taste of these foods.

I was just reading a memoir of the novelist Jack Kerouac by his first wife, Edie Parker, daughter as it happened of Grosse Point, MI grandees. She explained how their favourite quick meal (early 1940s) was canned tomato soup. His mother was a French-Canadian whom it can be assumed kept a master kitchen. This did not prevent the enjoyment of foods easily kept and prepared so people could get on with other things in their life.

Yet today, the iconic Campbell’s is closing plants here and there, one in Toronto recently… Did that Warhol start all this?

Really it’s a question of fashion, of yin and yang. The prosperity brought by the industrial and technological revolutions has enabled people to react against some of the things that made it possible.

At the extreme, familiarity breeds contempt, and the cycle starts anew, except in this case, the food technology that created tinning, freezing, and other labour-saving miracles is keeping the new wave going too, more subtly; it’s another story.

But there’s no question: ever since the 1960s prompted the green movement, Alice Waters, and similar phenomena in the U.K. hungering for the natural and unprocessed – that Jaime fellow – a mass movement has demanded food authenticity. And superheated meat or veg entombed in a can doesn’t qualify.

What once was expensive and chic – canned food – became viewed as downmarket – not worthy of the attention of foodies and the self-aware.

In fact, some canned food actually created a new taste. Even Elizabeth David acknowledged this, well, she or Jane Grigson, in regard to deluxe tinned fish specialties of west European coastal canners. The kind of fish they chose, the olive oil, the canning process, created a new and inviting taste, different from fresh sardines or pilchard, but as good in its way.

And I refuse to see what’s wrong with canned pineapple, for example. It tastes good!

Today, many peoples, not feeling or being able to afford the need to flaunt credentials in green-clean eating, unabashedly enjoy some canned food. Tinned corned beef is appreciated still through the South Pacific. The attachment to Spam continues famously in Hawaii, Philippines, and other parts of the Pacific.

These foods were brought by sojourning seamen or army personnel, locals had a taste and decided they liked it. They had a better life with such preserved foods than before – they thought so, anyway.

With immigration from these areas and the Caribbean too where canned foods (e.g. ackee) are still popular, Canada offers many of these items in supermarkets. Apart from these markets some other Canadians buy them too, to make corned beef hash, for sandwiches, or in some other way they remember from their youth.

And I buy a little, because I like the history, and the taste of a good brand. Pictured is the Grace brand popular here, a top-rate corned beef from Brazil. It’s a low-salt version and just 10% fat (per label).

An index of the salt that went in to the original formulations is that the low-salt one, as ditto for Spam, is pretty salty! It’s more than enough salinity even for fans of the salt kick.

I sliced a few pieces and lightly browned them in a no-stick pan. Served it with a boiled potato – okay, microwaved. And a small salad to accompany. Okay, I lost the salad. Didn’t forget the ketchup though.

Excellent! The meat was not fat at all, a nice rosy-pink, tasty, digestible. The connection to a deli corned beef sandwich was quite evident.

This was probably much better than the Anzac and other Allied troops marched on in two world wars. There was no off-odour, nothing muttony as I recall from some brands 30-40 years ago. Dare I say it’s a cheap luxury food?

Is it for everyday, no, probably not for every week. But it was good, and convenient, pace the food monitors out there. I love you all, but give me a break, sometimes.

In due deference though to the parlous rep this comestible has for those resolute in their greenness, I cite a good one from an Australian food website.

… one story tells of an Anzac soldier throwing a tin of bully beef into the Turkish trenches, perhaps in disgust, maybe thinking it would do more damage than the usual grenades. But the can was soon thrown back with the note: ‘Cigarettes yes, bully beef, no.’

Oops, no cigarettes today either. And those Allied chocolate rations – made at England’s Deptford victualling yard for HM ships – were laden with sugar presumably. Better kept in our old kit bag. Not sure what else would, um, fly.


5 thoughts on “Bully for (Good) Canned Beef”

  1. It is hilarious and fascinating to look at old cookbooks put out by canned food companies and other makers of prepared foods.

    You can see the gears of marketing departments grinding, because they were clearly trying to push the ideas that canned food not only meant simplicity and easy cooking, but also could be used in ridiculously complicated dishes that must have taken hours to assemble.

    So you will see not only recipes that say nothing more than take a canned pear half and top it with a scoop of cottage cheese, you will also see recipes involving five different kinds of canned fruit, multiple types of jello made with different fruit juices, cream cheese, fake whipped cream, sherbet, and so on, made in different molds, then carefully assembled and tediously garnished.

    I’d be stunned if many people tried to make those things, and fewer actually succeeded. It’s pretty clear the point of recipes like that from a marketer’s perspective was less about directly selling units for making those dishes, and more about branding the canned goods as something of high enough quality and refinement that they weren’t just something that showed up in school cafeterias but could be used in fancy food.

    • Thanks, good points. In fact most canned food seems best to me on its own or with one or two non-canned foods. Where the canners went wrong imo was not reducing salt and making other improvements earlier, and now they have to catch up. Still not too late though.

      • For what it’s worth, canned Italian tomatoes are highly respected as a base for high end food, as are top quality canned anchovies.

        “Canned” food in jars can get a lot of respect, especially when it comes to fruit preserves, pickles, condiments and sauces. I think metal cans have an undeserved reputation for giving a metallic taste to food, which is probably more a result of how it was processed while being canned. People are finally getting over that belief for beer cans.

        Jars obviously have the advantage of being resealable, and looking nicer than cans, so there is also a benefit for food in that sense too from a marketing perspective.

  2. Am certainly aware of the nitrites issue, one that has been discussed for many years. Few activities in life are risk free. People need to make judgements for themselves what they permit in diet, based on information such as this and others. I permit processed meats as an occasional indulgence for me.


  3. I fear the rosy-pink hue of your bully beef (corned beef in the UK) is likely to be from an added ingredient, and rather less than appealing when you learn what that ‘induces’.

    Coincidentally this has just popped up:

    ‘Decades of research proves that chemicals used to make bacon do cause cancer. So how did the meat industry convince us it was safe?’


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