The battle to preserve
By Kelli Reutman
People have been striving to preserve food since our first days. Early techniques included drying, smoking, fermentation and packing in fat (a method now known as confit). Later came vinegar pickles, jams (often sealed with wax or more fat) and suspension in alcohol. Still, the masses couldn’t rely on any of these methods to consistently preserve foods. Spoilage and sickness as a result continued.
Muncie’s canning expert, Ashley Mann, walks us through a canning how-to.
In the late 1700s, Napoleon Bonaparte offered a cash prize to anyone who could invent a method to dependably preserve food for his troops. After 15 years of experimentation, a French cook named Nicolas Appert discovered the packing, heating and sealing technique that is essentially what we use today.
Home canning has been popular in the United States since the late 1850s, when John L. Mason invented the first reusable jar with a screw-on lid. Technology continued to improve, and the Ball Brothers introduced their own mason jar just in time for the food-preservation surge that came with World Wars I & II.
The War at Home
The First World War transformed food culture in America. All food was rationed and citizens at home were expected to help preserve and provide food to help the soldiers on the front line. Propaganda from the U.S. Food Administration built morale and ensured soldiers had the supplies and nutrition to needed to achieve on the battlefields.
American soldiers’ diets consisted of up to 5,000 calories a day, mostly coming from meat (fresh, when possible), bread and potatoes. The USDA, led by future-president Herbert Hoover, did not want to force citizens to ration these foods for fear of the toll it would take on them. Instead, they used $19 million of donated advertising space to encourage new eating practices.
Nationwide, the agriculture industry also took a hit when as farmers were drafted for the war. Families and communities sowed more than five million “war gardens” – called “victory gardens” after the First World War – to minimize reliance on the agriculture industry and food transportation. This resulted in an abundance of fresh foods at the end of growing season, and so the demand for home canning increased.
Food rationing became stricter as the war continued on. Metal was another item being rationed for war purposes, which affected home canning by limiting the number of pressure cookers produced. Families and neighbors were encouraged to protect and share their cookers to get as much use out of them as possible.
Community canning centers also became popular in rural communities out of necessity. Not only did the centers provide communal access to all canning equipment, they increased the safety of home canning by providing supervision and training by seasoned canners.
Ball Brothers join the movement
Enticed by a large supply of natural gas and courteous citizens, the Ball Brothers moved their manufacturing company from Buffalo, New York, to Muncie, Indiana, in 1887. After Mason’s patent expired in 1879, the Ball Corporation began to transition from making wood-jacketed kerosene cans to making the “perfect” canning jar.
Starting in 1920, the Ball family began publishing “The Ball Blue Book,” a collection of canning recipes and guides to encourage home canning. The books were sold cheaply at little profit with the goal of increasing interest in canning and sales.
Ball canning piqued in the 1930s, with the family selling 190 million fruit jars—approximately 1.6 jars for every man, woman, and child in the United States. When the region’s natural gas ran out in the 1900s, some industries left, while others—including the Balls—remained for the inexpensive land, water, and plentiful, hardworking workforce.
But by the end of that decade—with the Great Depression in full swing—sales for canning jars had plummeted, with the Ball’s achieving a profit of only $5,000 in 1938. The innovative Ball brothers responded to the needs of the age and survived, making ammunition shells for WWII and aerospace products.
The company realized its success was beyond Muncie’s boarders, and in 1962, the last Ball Jar was produced here. In 1998, the company moved its headquarters to Colorado.
Preserving food at home has experienced a resurgence, with the New York Times and other national media outlets reporting on the spike in canning classes, cookbooks, and Twitter-publicized can-ins. Although there are many popular blogs, we prefer our local canning expert Ashley Mann’s take on food preservation. Check out hers and other Minnetrista blogs.