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Canned food goes to war

"An army moves on its stomach," said Napoleon, lamenting the need for a food preservation process so his army could have good rations for everyday meals.
"An army moves on its stomach," said Napoleon, lamenting the need for a food preservation process so his army could have good rations for everyday meals.

Most of us don't think too much about the can our vegetables or spaghetti sauce comes in. We're more concerned with the brand or the price. But a love of cooking, and a love of history got this writer interested in where, and when the first attempt at canning food for preservation took place, and more importantly, why the process evolved.

Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with saying, "an army moves on its stomach."

Without a doubt, it was essential for ancient cultures to figure out how to preserve their food, just in order to survive. To do this, ancient man learned to use nature. Once people of the northern climes figured out that frozen meat didn't go bad, freezing was used. In the same context, people in sub-tropical climates discovered that drying meats in the sun kept their food safe for long periods of time.

Climate paid a role in the evolution of food preservation methods throughout history. With the development of an agricultural society, people sacrificed mobility for a structured lifestyle, and man was stuck with fewer food sources because of his dependence on crops that grew during certain seasons. It became necessary to find ways to preserve food items that could be eaten at other times during the year.

"An army marches on its stomach" - Napoleon

But as society evolved, and disputes over landholdings turned into grabs for other regions and countries, armies grew. From battles that took an army a few days march before engaging an enemy, campaigns lasting months, and even years came to pass, with conquering troops stripping the invaded country to replenish their own food supplies.

In 1795, Europe was in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, and with thousands of soldiers to feed, it was a difficult task. Being far from home, it was an insurmountable process getting food to the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, so money was given to the troops to buy provisions locally from the merchants in the country they had invaded.

This was a problem because just as it was in the American Civil War, invading Generals devastated the lands they drove their armies across, leaving little in their wake. “30-40 tons of food were needed to feed the soldiers in his Northern Italian army in 1795 on a daily basis.” – (To Feed An Army) When no food was available, Napoleon's army often stole, ate spoiled food or starved, and starving and sick men cannot fight.

In order to combat poor food supplies and sickness in the army, Napoleon decided to take the bull by the horns, saying "an army marches on its stomach," he offered a challenge, with a prize of 12,000 Francs to anyone who could figure out a way to preserve food to make sure his army was provided with their daily rations.

Napoleon's challenge and the prize of a lifetime

The challenge was taken up by Nicolas Appert of France. Between 1795 and 1809, he developed a safe method of preserving food in air-tight containers. Appert was to try several methods before settling on one that worked. The germ theory hadn't been developed yet, and although he could not understand the reasons behind food spoilage and exactly how he was able to overcome it, Appert published his results in 1810 received the prize of 12,000 francs.

Appert didn't know that his method was successful because it killed microorganisms that cause food to go bad, and it kept new microorganisms from getting into the sealed containers. He thought air was the culprit in contaminating food, and that heating the air inside the glass containers rendered it harmless. Just think, he was so very close to figuring it all out, wasn't he?

Since that time, the practice of canning using the boiling water bath eventually was to lead to the creation of metal cans that could store some foods for years. By the 1830s, commercial canning was well under way. It again increased dramatically during the Civil War in the U.S. because of the need to feed the armies on both sides. It is hard to imagine that something so devastatingly destructive as war could bring about an innovation so important to society, isn't it?

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