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At the beginning of the Covid pandemic I remember the utterly surreal experience of walking into a bank wearing a mask. It was surreal because no one reacted, I was not immediately confronted by an armed guard, and no one called the police.
Why did it feel surreal to me? Some states and cities in the United States have had laws prohibiting the wearing of face coverings in public. It’s illegal. Some of these laws have been on the books for 150 years. In the U.S.A. I’ve always just assumed that face coverings, masks, burqhas, etc. are illegal unless I learn otherwise. Wearing a mask in a bank is just asking for trouble.
In New York, it’s been illegal since 1845 for a gathering of two or more people in public to wear face coverings. What about the Ku Klux Klan? The KKK arranges for a court to temporarily lift the ban for their demonstrations and then re-instate the ban. Halloween masks are, apparently, ignored. Face coverings have been illegal since 1949 in Alabama. California had stringent anti-mask laws going way back. These laws were struck down by the court after the State of California was sued by Iranian-Americans in 1979. DC prohibits masks in public after 10 PM. There are many other examples.
What’s going to happen when the Covid-19 Emergency Declaration ends on May 11th? We’re still losing 500 people a day to Covid.
When I was a kid in the 1950s and 60s, my mother had the opinion that canned food was of low-quality and best avoided. I was young and took her word for it. I maintained this opinion myself into adulthood and sometimes shared it with others. But occasionally I wondered because my own observations and experience didn’t agree. In the late 1990s I became sufficiently curious and learned about it. But first some history.
A Real Short History of Modern Canning
The Dutch Navy were the first to seal foods like salmon in metal cans in 1772. For some reason, this process remained unknown outside of the Netherlands.
The rest of the story begins with French military logistics. In 1795, Napoleon offered a large reward to anyone who could develop a way to preserve foods so that armies could have better provisions when deployed, especially in summer temperatures. As you may know, logistics is what wins wars and availability of food was a major limiting factor in what armies could do.
Fifteen years later, Nicolas Appert won Napoleon’s prize after observing that food cooked inside a sealed jar did not spoil. The reason for this was unknown for another 50 years until Pasteur identified the role of microbes in the spoilage of food. The army worked on developing this process but advancement was slow and the wars were over before useful quantities could be produced.
Development of the canning process continued in Europe and the U.S.A. A process was developed for canning foods in hand-made wrought-iron cans, which worked. But the process was labor intensive and expensive. In 1824, Parry took canned beef along on his voyage to the Arctic. In 1829, James Ross took canned food to the Arctic as did John Franklin in 1845. Some of these provisions were found in 1857. One can was opened in 1939 and found to be edible and nutritious but was not tested for lead contamination from the lead solder used to make those cans.
By the mid-1800s, the wealthy began to see canned foods as a status symbol and novelty. By the 1860s, rising urban populations increased demand for canned food. Many inventions and machines were developed to fabricate cans rapidly. Improved processing methods reduced cooking time from six hours to 30 minutes.
Skipping ahead, a big step was the invention of the double-seam can in 1888. These provided a reliable perfect seal and were called Sanitary Cans. This is the type of can we use today. By World War 1, mass production of canned goods was perfected and large quantities of food, coffee, cigarettes, medications, and ammunition were packaged for the soldiers in cans by the British, French, and the U.S.A. At the end of the war, the companies equipped to make such foods like Nestle and Underwood turned to selling to the general public. Canned foods proliferated. It was now possible for European made foods to be sold in the U.S. and vice versa. Canned tomatoes and canned peaches were available year-round, regardless of the season. It was a whole new world.
Expiration Dates and Safety
I’m old so while I now expect expiration dates on foods, it still seems like a new thing for me. I remember when milk started to bear a date, then eggs, then meat. Before that you could write your own date with a grease pencil if you wanted to. And these were manufacturing or packaging dates, not expiration, best by, or use by dates. Food manufacturers soon realized that by putting “use by” dates on everything they could force supermarkets and consumers to donate or discard food that was past the date and sell a lot more product. Very quickly, manufacturers were all-in on putting dates. Customers began to expect dates.
Today, everything has a date. Even bottled water has a date and many consumers think dates are required by law. They are not. The only things in the U.S.A. required to have a date are pharmaceuticals and baby formula.
When use-by dates began to appear on cans, I just laughed. Cans are hermetically sealed and then heated to sterilization temperature or higher, as high as 130C. Most items are cooked in the sealed can itself. There’s no chance for microbial contamination unless the can leaks.
Modern double seam cans like we’ve used for the past 100 years almost never leak. When they do it’s usually visible. If a can isn’t damaged or bulging and passes the appearance and smell tests, it’s safe to eat.
In the 1970s, a trove of cans of freeze-dried food from 1865 was discovered and tested1. There was no trace of microbial contamination and the food was safe to eat. In the 2000s a trove of cans of various foods from the Depression Era (1930s) was discovered which were sent to a food lab for analysis. All of it was safe to eat. The worst case of degradation was the canned corn, which had lost 30 percent of its nutrient value, but was safe to eat.
Do canned foods last 20 years? USDA says “Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely.”
Back to My Mother
In short, my mom’s opinion about canned food was false. But why did she have this opinion? Thinking back on the stories she told me as I was growing up provided the answer. My mom grew up in a big city in Northern Germany in the 1910s and 20s. By the 1920s, a lot of the food on the table was canned because that’s all that was available. Her mother was an early health-food proponent and went to great lengths to seek out fresh fruits and vegetables, gather wild berries and mushrooms. This made an impression on my mother.
When my mom came to the United States in the 1930s, she was astonished at the abundant fresh foods available in markets everywhere, even in big cities. And like most immigrants, she had the idea that everything was better in the U.S.A., which led to her deprecation of canned foods as inferior.
The truth is it’s not a matter of inferior or superior, it’s a matter of cooked versus fresh. If you want raw or lightly steamed broccoli, that’s not going to happen with a can. On the other hand, the can of broccoli will be there waiting for you years into the future without power-consuming refrigeration or freezers. Canned foods tend to be cheaper not because they’re lower quality but because it’s usually prepared near the farm, doesn’t need refrigerated transport, and doesn’t have to be rushed to the market before it spoils. There’s also less waste that has to be refrigerated and rushed to the market. How much of a broccoli head’s mass amd volume do you actually use? A third? The rest goes in the trash but you paid for all of it to come to you fresh.
If you consider the can itself, it’s made of steel, which is cheap, abundant, and non-polluting in a landfill. Unlike plastics, steel is easily recycled but hardly anyone does because steel is so cheap. If you look at the big picture, canned foods make a lot of sense.
General William Tecumseh Sherman is an important name from the U.S. Civil War. He was a distinguished military man and master of military strategy. Sherman was also a successful author, teacher, and businessman. When General Grant became president in 1869, Sherman succeeded him as Commanding General of the U.S. Army.
Sherman was born and raised in Ohio, but had many friends in the Southern States and enjoyed being there. In fact, he was in Texas when South Carolina seceded from the United States. He was so upset by this event that he cried and wrote the following letter to his friend, Professor David F. Boyd in Virginia, who was strongly in favor of secession. The letter proved to be an accurate analysis of the situation and visionary forecast of the final outcome.
“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization!
You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it.”
“Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors.
You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”
The celebration of birthdays is common and taken for granted today. But for common, ordinary people this is a relatively recent phenomenon, a product of the Industrial Age. There are several reasons for this.
There are instances of birthdays being celebrated since ancient times, but mainly by important people. The oldest known birthday celebrations took place in Egypt about 5,000 years ago. When a prince was made pharaoh, that moment was considered the transformation of a man into a god and was considered his “birthday”.
The Ancient Greeks
The ancient Greeks observed birthdays, not as a celebration, but because they believed that a spirit is present when each person is born, and that this same spirit was nearby around the same time each year. They also believed that a person was susceptible to evil spirits around the time of their birthday. Family and friends would gather and light candles to ward off the darkness, and make loud noises to frighten off evil spirits. Dates were not precise by modern standards because an accurate calendar had not yet been invented in Europe.
Birthday Celebration for Commoners
The Romans were the first to create holidays to honor famous persons, usually around the approximate date of their birth. The Romans were the first to create a birthday celebration for commoners. When a Roman man reached the age of 50, he was honored with a cake made with cheese and honey. Birthdays of women were ignored for another thousand years.
Birthday Celebrations Prohibited
For hundreds of years, the early Church frowned on the observance of birthdays. It was seen as a pagan practice, something done by pharaohs and heathens. Birthday celebrations were considered evil. Needless to say, the birth of Christ wasn’t celebrated either. Nobody knew the date anyway. From the information in the Bible one can guess it was during tax time in the Roman Empire, which was in the spring.
Common folk found this prohibition easy to abide by. Most didn’t know their date of birth. Common people didn’t have access to calendars and the modern Gregorian Calendar wouldn’t be invented for another thousand years. If a person was baptized, the Church would sometimes record the date, but such dates were approximate, like “the second week of harvest AD 532”. Nobody celebrated their date of baptism. Birthdays were just not a thing.
Creation of Christmas
The Church’s ban on birthdays came to an abrupt end when it was decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus coincident with the ancient pagan celebration of Saturnalia.1
The plan was to use the existing celebration of Saturnalia to recruit people into the Church. This is how the date for Christmas was chosen.
Modern Birthday Cakes
Turning the clock forward 1,300 years, the Germans came up with the idea of celebrating children’s birthdays with a birthday cake decorated with one candle for each year of life.2
This celebration, Kinderfeste, was only for young children. The idea of blowing out the candles and making a wish appeared at the same time.
The Industrial Revolution
Another 50 years brings us to the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, about 160 years ago. Several things happened that resulted in the popularity of birthday celebrations for all ages.
The most important change was that people began to have fewer children. Children were seen less as an economically valuable army of working hands and more as emotionally valued members of the family. More attention and emotional energy was invested in each child. Celebration of birthdays became important.
Before this time, the price of the materials needed to make birthday cakes, like sugar and butter, were expensive. Fancy cakes were something for the well-off. The Industrial Age brought prices down and birthday cakes became affordable.
Previously rare clocks and printed calendars became affordable and commonplace. People became more focused on time and dates because in the Industrial Age people worked shifts and needed to know the date and time to be at work. Education improved and common people learned to tell time and read calendars. People knew their birth dates. Doctors started to record the age of patients as an important parameter. Schools began to group students by ages. All of these changes and much more came very rapidly over a period of just 40 years.
Together, all of the factors above resulted in widespread celebration of birthdays that continues today. Some people resisted, arguing that celebration of birthdays was self-centered, materialistic, and took attention away from God. But this didn’t become an important point of view.
Fun Fact: The Greeks were the first to put candles on a cake, but it wasn’t to celebrate birthdays. A crescent shaped cake was made and decorated with candles to honor the goddess of the hunt, Artemis, who was closely associated with the Moon. Blowing out the candles while making a wish was seen as sending a prayer to Artemis.