Most everything Americans eat today comes out of cans. Some of it emerges from the iconic steel cylinders and much of the rest from the mammoth processed food empire the canning industry pioneered. Historian Anna Zeide
, in Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry
(University of California Press, 2018), carefully traces how canners convinced a nation of consumers who ate little but seasonal, fresh food to dare to crack open an opaque container of unknown origins and put its contents into their bodies. The feat required reshaping everything from federal regulatory practices and the makeup of academic faculties to the way food was advertised and the genetic composition of peas. When the canning industry has seen its hard-won reputation for providing a wholesome staple of American pantries come under attack from consumer groups and environmentalists starting in the 1960s and 70s, it has doubled down on its techniques of obfuscation, brand burnishing, and regulatory capture. For those endeavoring to reform the American food system, the book is a sobering presentation of just what they are up against.
Anna Zeide is Assistant Professor of Professional Practice in the Department of History at Oklahoma State University.
Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin---Madison where he is researching African American environmental history in the nineteenth-century cotton South. He is also an editor of the digital environmental magazine and podcast Edge Effects.