A display of canned food from the early 20th century.
Theodor Horydczak/Library of Congress
q&a / science

Canned Food History

A conversation with Anna Zeide about her book, “Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry.”
Emily: To start, how did you come to this project? What got you interested in food history and canned food?

Anna: I grew up on forty forested acres in rural Arkansas, where my Russian Jewish immigrant father had moved in order to live in the woods and grow his own food. For many reasons (that I hope to explore in a future project that connects history, biography, and memoir), my dad ate no salt, oil, meat, or processed foods, creating a really unusual diet that I quickly understood marked him — and my family by extension — as strange. My mom, in contrast, cooked elaborate, beautiful, diverse meals for us and especially for guests, covering every inch of the tablecloth in dishes, as any Russian host should.

From these beginnings, I was fascinated by all the ways that food could tie into broader values, so when I realized there was a way to actually study “food history” in graduate school, I was all in. From there, my interests in environmental history and the contemporary industrial food system sent me searching for a topic that could both help me understand Americans’ changing relationships to nature, seasonality, and consumerism, and offer an origin story for the rise of processed food. Canned food emerged at that interesting nexus.

Emily: As you demonstrate so well, the early history of canned food engaged anxieties that were about the can itself and the making of a national, industrial food system: opacity and transparency, modernity and tradition, science and nature, artificiality and purity, suspicion and trust. How do these interrelated concerns function as both literal and metaphorical issues in the history of canned food and in our current foodscape?

Anna: Yes, among my starting points of interest in canned food was that I began this project in Madison, Wisconsin, a total DIY foodie town, where friends grew, canned, and gifted their own fresh produce. I couldn’t help but compare those beautiful glass jars of salsa or dilly beans with the commercial cans standing next to each other on my pantry shelf. The former were so transparent, both literally, in their glass jars, and figuratively, in that I knew exactly where they came from, whose hands had sown the seeds, harvested the fruit, boiled the jars.

The industrial cans were the exact opposite. The opaque metal walls concealed the contents, the industrial food system concealed the story. So, that image was on my mind the whole time I worked on this book about how canned food helped to build this opaque food system, which I learned consumers have been suspicious of from the beginning.
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