Hungry for a PB&J straight from a can? How about a whole chicken? Robert Rosenthal asks if you can still get a square meal from a round can—plus, view the most unappetizing products.
One of the latest food trends making its way onto your grocer’s shelves is a sandwich in a can. Cleverly called the Candwich, it’s available in peanut butter and jelly or barbecue chicken flavor. Like most canned foods, its primary reason for existence is a long shelf life and no need for refrigeration. Also, like most canned foods, it is utterly unappealing.
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It’s been a long, strange history for canned foods. Most of us can remember those awful “carrots and peas” in a can. Lukewarm and mushy, devoid of taste or texture, eating them was more like punishment than a meal. Other foods that came canned, including more limp, insipid vegetables, overly syrupy fruits, and sloppy stews were equally gross. I was never even a fan of childhood favorites like SpaghettiOs (“the neat new spaghetti you can eat with a spoon”). Even soup fails to inspire me, having been traumatized since the '70s by the curious case of Bon Vivant vichyssoise, when a botulism-filled batch killed and paralyzed a couple with an inexplicable taste for cold potato-and-leek soup.
Extreme conditions and a hearty appetite did little to change my mind about canned comestibles. On a hiking trip at summer camp, I vividly recall the severe midday hunger pangs from all that exercise and fresh air. It was then that the counselors broke open a huge can of something called Salisbury steak and heated it over an open fire. It somewhat resembled meat and was drowned in a gelatinous brown goop meant to approximate gravy. It tasted like industrial waste and smelled like that stretch of the Jersey Turnpike where all you can see for miles is factory smokestacks. To describe it as repulsive is being kind.
The idea of canned meat is particularly elusive. There’s something troubling about animal protein being incarcerated in airless metal containers. Spam may be the most well known, but there are hundreds of “potted meat products” available—Armour has an entire line. The “food product” designation alone should be enough to raise suspicion before raising a fork. A quick check of the ingredients reveals such fan favorites as beef tripe (the cow’s stomach lining), beef hearts, and “partially defatted cooked beef fatty tissue.”
Then there are Vienna sausages—billed as America’s favorite brand, they’re made to eat right out of the can. Unless you have a hankering for dwarf-size dirty-water dogs consumed cold, don’t bother. But they seem positively tame compared to the far more nauseating fare entrapped in metallic packaging. Take canned pork brain in milk gravy: Each can boasts 1,170 percent of your daily cholesterol. Or the canned whole chicken, a 50-ounce tin of chicken, salt, and water. Online photos and a Facebook fan page (200 members and counting) do little to stimulate the appetite. Removing a whole bird from a can that’s oozing a mysterious mucous-like liquid is roughly reminiscent of a newborn being expelled from the birth canal. Anyone hungry for lunch yet?
Other canned food products available overseas make us look tame. America would be the biggest loser in a game of international food Fear Factor. In Thailand, roasted scorpions out of a can are a delicacy. In Korea, it’s stewed silkworm. The Scots package their prized haggis in a can—a mixture of heart, liver, and lungs in the stomach of a sheep. The Japanese have been known to fry whale meat out of the can. One can also find an innocent-sounding cheeseburger in a can from Germany, which is prepared by heating the can—an act of true desperation. And the Brits sweetly combine flour and sugar with beef fat, stud it with raisins, top it with sticky syrup, and then cram this invitation to obesity into a can under the name Spotted Dick.
There is one relatively new innovation to the canned food market, a bit of brilliance called the Batter Blaster. This pancake and waffle mix that you shoot onto the skillet is like a cross between ReddiWip and Silly String. It’s quick, easy, convenient, and for all you food snobs out there, it’s even organic. Meet canned foods: the final frontier.