Saturday, December 22, 2007

Pioneers of Packaged Food

Good, healthy and delicious processed foods come in many different kinds of packages and containers that protect the food from invading microbes and make them safe and available year round. This wasn't always true, of course. Either food was fresh or the food posed dangers, and the foods we've all come to enjoy whenever we want were only there when nature allowed them to be.

While several kinds of protective techniques, packages, and containers exist, the two most prominent methods of processing food are still canning and freezing.

The first acknowledged attempt at pressure cooking occurred in 1679 when French physicist, Denis Papin, who is most noted for his work with steam power, invented the “Steam Digester” in an effort to reduce the time needed to cook foods. This airtight cooking vessel used internal steam pressure to increase the boiling point of water, and as a consequence cooked foods faster.

Nearly 100 years later towards the end of the 1700's the Napoleonic wars raged. As Napoleon pushed forward into Russia, the retreating Russian army left a stripped and ravaged countryside. Food was nearly impossible to come by and as a result, Napoleon's army was suffering more casualties from scurvy, malnutrition, and starvation than from enemy muskets. The French government offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a method of preserving food.

Nicolas Appert, an obscure candy-maker, brewer, and baker took up the challenge. He had a theory that if fresh foods were put in airtight containers and sufficient heat applied, they would keep. After 14 years of experimentation, he won the prize--given to him by Napoleon himself.

Appert packed his foods in bottles, corked them, and submerged them in boiling water. Without realizing it, he sterilized them, stopping bacterial spoilage.
Before the Frenchman became known for his inventions, Appert tried his hand at many occupations. He began as a hotelkeeper, became a brewer, switched to chef and later was a confectioner in Paris.

The House of Appert became the first commercial cannery in the world. Remarkably, this was nearly 50 years before Louis Pasteur proved that heat killed bacteria.

The British responded directly to this development. If Napoleon's troops were able to extend their marches by carrying preserved nutritious supplies, His Majesty's forces must be prepared to do likewise. In 1810, King George III granted Peter Durand a patent for his idea of preserving food in "vessels of glass, pottery, tin, or other metals or fit materials." Durand solved the problem of bottles breaking in transit. Using tin-coated steel, Durand developed the "canister" with a soldered cover. Soon all over Britain people were eating "embalmed" meat, as they called it.

The can was born.
An ambitious young man in London, England, William Underwood was intriqued by the idea of canned food. He apprenticed at Cross & Blackwell's factory before moving to Boston in 1819 to open William Underwood & Co. In 1821 he established a canning plant overlooking Boston Harbor. Underwood canned all kinds of products: vegetables, fruits, and condiments. He produced grape and mushroom catsup, jams and jellies, and mustard. In 1828 he shipped milk to South America. In 1835 he imported tomato seeds from England, grew his first crop, and preserved it. This was the beginning of canning in the United States. In 1860 he purchased the rights to advanced sterilization methods, and during the Civil War he canned roast beef for Union soldiers. Underwood (as in "deviled ham") is America's oldest canning company.

Clarence Birdseye
Nearly a century later, a man named Clarence Birdseye was on an expedition in Labrador for the U.S. Geographic Service. While on the expedition, he noted that duck and caribou frozen in the extreme cold of midwinter were better than those frozen in the spring or fall. Knowing that mere freezing and cold storage would not preserve the quality and taste of the food, he concluded that the secret lay in rapid freezing at extremely low temperatures. He watched the Eskimos' rudimentary quick-freeze methods, a process by which items are frozen at such a speed that only small ice crystals are able to form, and noted that quickly frozen fish retained flavor and texture better than fish frozen slowly. In an early experiment in freezing vegetables, Birdseye, in order to provide fresh vegetables to his family in this remote area, froze cabbage for later use.

Back in the United States, Birdseye developed his "Multiplate Quick Freeze Machine" -- a crude operation. It consisted of a new garbage can of corrugated iron containing a layer of steel plates and fitted with coils carrying a refrigerant of sodium chloride brine. Food was placed between the steel plates, frozen at -40° F and kept there for five weeks.

By 1925 Birdseye was in the frozen food business. His first product was frozen fish fillets, at the business he called The General Seafoods Company. He experimented with the process of quick freezing food that he had learned while in Labrador. He later said, "My contribution was to take Eskimo knowledge and the scientists' theories and adapt them to quantity production." Birdseye then applied his quick-freezing principle to meats, poultry, fruits, and vegetables.

Birdseye made two major contributions to the concept of freezing food-the importance of freezing food so rapidly that there would be no damage to its cellular structure (affecting taste, texture, and appearance) and freezing food in a package that could be sold directly to the consumer.

Initially unsuccessful with consumers, frozen food has since become an indispensable part of the American diet. The Birds Eye operation now thrives as part of Dean Foods Vegetable Company.

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