Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Canned Meats

Finished reading James A. Michener's book, Journey, about the Klondike Gold Rush from the Canadian side. In it there was some business about five tins of canned meat. In this case, canned meat meant tinned meat which began in the early 1800's. The time of this novel is set in 1897-99.
Now, tinned meat means something different, often Flakes of something or bits of meat such as escargot. Rarely does can meat mean hunks of meat cooked in a liquid and that is all.

There is a description of them splitting open the cans and cooking with the meat in a pot with some chopped onions. This is the description that got me going. My dad used to can beef or venison using the standard canning jars. It was chopped up hunks of meat with a good amount of salt then canned using a hot water bath. Those jars would wait until late winter and early spring to make an appearance when he was laid off from working in the bush. The snow would be high and the fish wouldn't be biting.

Out would come the jars. First, onions would be sliced and fried in butter or fat. When the onions turned translucent, a quick turn flick of a knife would break the seal on the jar with a quick hiss and  a sharp pop. In would go the meat, liquid and all, to warm. While it was warming up, a quick slurry of flour mixed with the already warming broth would be mixed, ready to thicken the mess when it was time. This salty, gravy based onion and meat dish would be served with boiled potatoes and white bread and butter.  I suppose if there was homemade bread, it would be more welcome but during those cold spring days, my mother would be working and she was the one known to occasionally bake bread and buns.

Another dish, that was similar to this, was taking hamburger, adding it to the fried onions instead. There was many times that the burger meat came straight from the freezer because we always bought extra when it was on sale. There would be steam coming from the pan as you turned it over and over, to scrape the cooked meat away to let the heat get at the frozen parts. Once it was browned, sometimes frozen peas or carrots were added and the gravy was made the same way as on the canned meat. Served over boiled potatoes with bread, it differed only with the addition of ketchup. Us kids would sometimes ask for mashed potatoes and mix the whole bunch together. It is something that I miss sometimes.

If we are serious about eating in season and ending our reliance on factory farming there may be a return to these type of dishes. We have a ready supply of meat that is rarely finished on grass but rather grains. If you want a grass finished cow in the middle of winter, you will; have to transport it, pay for the keeping of the feed, or have it from frozen. In  "simpler" times, you would can when you had excess.

Canning has some advantages over freezing. Aside from the availability of fresh meat, another reason that this art is rarely practiced is due to the dangers of canning. I wonder at how much this is oversold. Yes, canned meat is at a risk of botulism but does the modern mass market protect us from food borne diseases any better? The Maple Leaf and Costco food recalls and illnesses are still fresh in my mind.

Not that I am suggesting that we all make sure that we get free range food and only eat seasonally but consider it next time you are eating fresh beef in February. There are sometimes that I wished I had a jar of beef hidden in my back cupboard. It makes a quick meal too.

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