Canned Food History: A Conversation with Anna Zeide
Recently, I had my students in Food in American Society and Culture try their hand at drafting dietary guidelines. While every group recommended consuming fruits and vegetables, one group specifically called out “fresh and frozen, not canned.” Their dismissal of canned fruit and veg caught my attention as I was at the time reading a new book, Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry by Anna Zeide, Clinical Assistant Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. Through the histories of canned condensed milk, peas, olives, tomatoes, tuna, and Campbell’s soup, Canned tells the story of how the U.S. food industry won and lost consumer trust in processed food. Luckily, I had the chance to chat with Anna more about her book and what this history reveals about today’s food system.
Emily: To start, how did you come to this project? What got you interested in food history and canned food?
Anna: I grew up on forty forested acres in rural Arkansas, where my Russian Jewish immigrant father had moved in order to live in the woods and grow his own food. For many reasons (that I hope to explore in a future project that connects history, biography, and memoir), my dad ate no salt, oil, meat, or processed foods, creating a really unusual diet that I quickly understood marked him — and my family by extension — as strange. My mom, in contrast, cooked elaborate, beautiful, diverse meals for us and especially for guests, covering every inch of the tablecloth in dishes, as any Russian host should.
From these beginnings, I was fascinated by all the ways that food could tie into broader values, so when I realized there was a way to actually study “food history” in graduate school, I was all in. From there, my interests in environmental history and the contemporary industrial food system sent me searching for a topic that could both help me understand Americans’ changing relationships to nature, seasonality, and consumerism, and offer an origin story for the rise of processed food. Canned food emerged at that interesting nexus.
Emily: As you demonstrate so well, the early history of canned food engaged anxieties that were about the can itself and the making of a national, industrial food system: opacity and transparency, modernity and tradition, science and nature, artificiality and purity, suspicion and trust. How do these interrelated concerns function as both literal and metaphorical issues in the history of canned food and in our current foodscape?
Anna: Yes, among my starting points of interest in canned food was that I began this project in Madison, Wisconsin, a total DIY foodie town, where friends grew, canned, and gifted their own fresh produce. I couldn’t help but compare those beautiful glass jars of salsa or dilly beans with the commercial cans standing next to each other on my pantry shelf. The former were so transparent, both literally, in their glass jars, and figuratively, in that I knew exactly where they came from, whose hands had sown the seeds, harvested the fruit, boiled the jars.
The industrial cans were the exact opposite. The opaque metal walls concealed the contents, the industrial food system concealed the story. So, that image was on my mind the whole time I worked on this book about how canned food helped to build this opaque food system, which I learned consumers have been suspicious of from the beginning.
Emily: Your history of early canned food actually dives into the history of medicine quite a bit, as developments like germ theory, the new public health, and bacteriology significantly influenced the safety of canned food produced on a mass scale. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been pondering the points of intersection, overlap, and co-production between the histories of medicine, nutrition, and food. How do you consider these thematic and disciplinary connections in your work?
Anna: Bringing a wide range of historical literatures into conversation with one another, this book speaks to the history of medicine and public health alongside histories of consumers, business, agriculture, environment, technology, and science. Among the central reservations that consumers held about canned foods before the mid-twentieth century was the fear of contamination, of how spoiled canned food might affect their health. As a result, one of the chief sets of partnerships that canners built was with bacteriologists, public health officials, and others who could both help them to solve their spoilage problems and to convey an external stamp of approval and safety.
My last chapter explores a new public health concern about canned foods in the present — BPA. In contrast to 1920, when canners responded to fears about botulism by changing their practices to try to rid their products of the offending bacteria, today canners seem less willing to accept consumers’ and scientists’ fears about BPA, and instead, want to manage this as a public relations issue. This has partly to do with the contentious nature of modern scientific practice and government regulation, and partly with the processed food industry’s confidence that they can continue with business as usual.
As for the nutrition side of things, I think there’s a lot more work that can be done, as I leave relatively unexplored the connections among canned food, nutrition science, and home economics. Although I am now working on a short essay that connects Marion Harland, a leading domestic science expert of the late nineteenth century, to the early canning industry.
Emily: In Chapter Two, you tell the fascinating history of how canners were in fact “an actor in agricultural change” in the 1910s and 1920s, as they enlisted “farmers and researchers to grow a pea better suited to industrial production” (43). As you write, this pioneered the now quite common practice of businesses funding university research. What does the history of the canned pea teach us about these complicated flows of funding, ideas, innovation, and influence?
Anna: At the University of Wisconsin, where I began this work, and now at Oklahoma State University, I have been keenly aware of the complicated and critical roles that major land-grant universities have played in the development of our intertwined systems of business, agriculture, and science. Universities have really never been these independent institutions, pursuing knowledge for the sake of intellectual truth, especially at land-grant colleges, which were established with the explicit purpose of serving the public, and especially the country’s farmers.
What’s interesting about the story of canning pea agriculture in Wisconsin is that it wasn’t just the well-established farmers who benefited from this state interest in agriculture — it was also the canners and food processors in that middle place between producers and consumers. And, in turn, the canners’ direct engagement with agricultural science — both in funding it and in breeding new varieties, addressing pests and blight, working out contracts with farmers — reshaped agricultural science and farming practices more broadly.
Emily: In Chapter Four on grade labels and tomatoes, you examine a key turning point in the way that canned food producers worked to foster consumer trust. They shifted from supporting government regulation and labeling as “the knowledge of quality” toward branding and advertising as “the illusion of quality” (134). How monumental was this change in the making of our modern food system?
Anna: One of the lessons that my book offers is that canners are and have always been keenly interested in consumer preferences. When consumers express their desires, food processors listen. But how closely they listen has been largely a function of the vulnerability the industry has felt over time. The 1930s case offers a moment of transition when canners were feeling their relative strength and used it as a platform from which they could reject the New Deal suggestion of grade labels. They hoped that brand names and advertising campaigns would be enough to win consumer trust, without actually conveying quality directly.
As I write also on page 134, “They tried to make the opacity of the can a positive attribute instead of a negative one, offering consumers fantastic visions of what was inside, rather than a more realistic window into the can.” Our modern food system expects us to buy packaged foods for much the same reasons — out of complacency and an inability to imagine any alternative. They are able to keep consumer devotion so long as they maintain that “illusion of quality.”
Emily: You compellingly argue at the end of your final chapter on BPA in Campbell’s soup, “To change what we eat, we must change the institutions that feed us” (185). What lessons does the history of canned food offer about our current food system, how it works, and how it might be transformed?
Anna: Even though I’m committed to individual action myself, a study that I cite in that chapter served as a major wake-up call. It found a group of consumers who ate no canned food and ate a local, organic diet actually ended up with higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in their blood than a control group on a standard American diet, for reasons outside their control. No matter how much we might do to protect ourselves from the ills of a modern food system, there are far too many variables (and far too many people hurt besides ourselves) to make change only at the individual level.
The story of Canned shows that systematic, regulatory change has been possible in times past, and that the food industry actually welcomed it when they believed it would help them win over consumers. So, this gives me hope in the power of consumer (and voter) direct action. If we can make the food industry know that it is threatened, if we can make it feel its vulnerability, perhaps there is space for real change. At least I hope so.
Emily Contois is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. She is the author of Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture (2020) and co-editor of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation (2022). She completed her PhD in American Studies at Brown University and holds an MA in American Studies from Brown, an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University.