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The Last Can of Food on Earth
Chef LaFond's Post-Apocalyptic Kitchen
© 2012 James LaFond
It will be barely a month before the ghosts of the Mayan astronomers begin hurling comets at us. In that case, it is a about time that I finally test my oldest surviving retail food ration. Now, when one thinks of eating after the coming apocalypse, visions such as Mel Gibson grubbing around in a can of dog food while his pet dog whines in the background, or of Denzel Washington roasting an irradiated cat in an abandoned farmhouse, come to mind.
What will it really be like?
The Ghetto Grocer as Archaeologist
As a grocer for these past three decades I have gained some renown as an archaeologist of sorts. My first foray into store resets was in 1980, when, as a grocery clerk, I reset the granola bar section to make way for new arrivals. As I was cleaning and adjusting the shelf backing I discovered a grim morsel, a discontinued type of granola bar from the mid 1970s. A raw seed in the mix had sprouted, and a small tree was busting through the cardboard box, reaching for the florescent lights above. After tossing this rare find, and being stricken with guilt for dashing the hopes of that overoptimistic seedling, I decided to save the next ancient discovery I made.
My next chance was the winter of 1984 when chunky soups came out, and we had to make room. During the course of the canned soup set I discovered a can of Campbell’s Cream of Onion condensed soup. It had been produced in 1978 and had gone out-of-date in December 1981. I still have this can. It has served as a bookend/science experiment ever since. Fortunately, a year ago, just in time for my preparations for the coming apocalypse, my X returned it to me—why, I have no idea.
The dates on these old solidly built cans were 4 years. An expiration date on a shelf-stable grocery item is not supposed to be when something goes bad, just a way for the manufacturer to be able to lay the blame on the retailer if the thing does morphs into a lycanthrope under a winter moon and attacks grandma in her pantry. The new zip-top cans only come with 24 to 18 months on them. Everything else on the dry shelves is pretty much guaranteed for a year to 6 months. Interestingly enough pasta has about the longest declared shelf-life.
I am no stranger to old canned goods. In the late 1970s, when I made $60 per week, I shopped at the military surplus store. I routinely dined on such Korean War vintage delicacies as beef with gravy [very stringy], beans and franks, and chocolate nut roll; the later being a bit dry after 27 years in a can. If you have not stocked up for the End of Days you might want to know that supermarkets rely on 2 to 7 shipments weekly. That means when a disaster hits and everyone in the area descends on them, they have from 2 to 3.5 days worth of what people want on hand.
Assuming, that years from now, you are still sitting on a stash of canned goods, ducking into your hidey hole to munch away as the cannibal caravan scours the neighborhood, what are the chances that it will still be any good?
I sit wondering the same thing, as I gaze suspiciously at this little morsel of milk, wheat and onion, hermetically sealed on some long-retired canning machine in New Jersey. Setting aside the advisability of eating something flavored by balding chemists in New Jersey, would this really be edible? If so, would it be palatable?
According to everyone I know I am not to be trusted where palatability is concerned.
…My roommate once left a fast food burger in the lettuce crisper for five days. I tried microwaving it. The thing just became more desiccated, impossible to cut. You see, I can’t get my mouth around a sandwich due to an old boxing injury. I was looking forward to dining on some emaciated Brazilian cow, and was not to be denied. I had purchased a pouch of out-of-date black beans and ‘sauce’ and decided to use that as a softening agent. After 3 more minutes in the countertop nuke I had a steaming repast in my hands. I sat down to watch the Geek Chanel and barely had to saw with my butter knife! The roll had been marginally reconstituted, kind of like a biscuit. The ‘beef’ did yield to my attempts at mastication. The black beans and ‘sauce’ went down easily enough. I would have to say however, that the microwave had not done the tomato and lettuce justice…
Today, in our time of plenty, you might not want to share my version of dinner, living as I do on $15 of food per week. Ten years into the End of Days, however, you might just think I’m the next best thing to Paula Dean, and invite me in to garnish your potted meat food product stew.
Now, to the can in question: Cream of Onion condensed soup is no longer a shelf item, and is only produced as a food service item. A can should be good so long as no air gets in. This will cause a growth of bacteria and a swelling of the can. I am sorry to say, that sometime early this week, my can began to swell—the long arm of the extinct astronomers being longer then even I thought. So I will not be eating this stuff. However, in the name of culinary science I will test the contents in the confines of my roommate’s kitchen—which is a lab of sorts.
So, having declared this item unsafe to eat and hazardous to store after 34 years, we have established a base-line shelf-life of 33 years for an old school canned good with a 4 year shelf life, eight times the declared shelf-life. For modern canned goods reduce this to 6-times the shelf-life, and, for zip-tops, 3 times. This results in a life-span of 6 to 12 years for the modern canned good. Now, my work as a scientist done, I advance to my role as a doctor of culinary forensics…
…Here it goes. Any moment now I shall amble downstairs, simulating my emergence from a hiding place after the passage of the cannibal caravan [or Zombie horde, whichever you prefer] and crack open, The Last Can of Food on Earth!
I sit now with the tin corpse before me, and is not smelling too good. There was a slight, barely perceptible, swelling of the can—first stage. When I punctured the top with the can opener a milky foam emerged with a hiss; a pathetic geyser about two millimeters in height. This was enough to quash any thought of taking an experimental taste.
The contents were a thick yellowish paste that looked very much like sweetened condensed milk in a can. After scooping the can-shaped mass into the trashcan I had every intention of retaining the can as a bookend, if only a flyweight guardian of my evangelic religious comics collected at ghetto bus stops. The can did have a vestigial onion smell, like that onion rack I cleaned out twenty years ago in a city supermarket. The bags of onions had gone so long without being rotated that those on the bottom were reduced to brown ooze seeping from their net bags.
As I scrubbed I noticed the smell growing worse—abort, abort; danger of contamination! There was also a brown film, like an oxidized gruel, covering the interior of the can. Extreme janitor that I am, I remained fully confident that I could banish this muck, but at what cost?
That is right antique Americana geeks: to save the can I must kill the label. And what is a trophy can without its label?
Out he goes, after 34 years of service, discarded.
Now, for the sake of our post apocalyptic extrapolation, we should close this out with a mental image, of you and I watching the rearguard of the cannibal caravan prowling off into the sunset. The realization that our last can, our last edible vestige of pre-apocalyptic life, had been rendered inedible must dampen our mood—“Wait, was that a cat I saw dart behind the burnt out conversion van on the lawn? Get the wrist rocket! I’ll get the soy sauce. That couldn’t have gone bad; it was made in Japan.”
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