Napoleon Bonaparte had a significant role to play in the invention of canned food. While the self appointed Emperor often affectionately called the Little Corporal by his soldiers may not have directly invented the system of preserving food, he had apart in it coming into fruition.
Well let me start by saying that there is rarely a subject with so many differing points of view and opinion as there is with the invention of canned food. This too goes for the can opener, of which the food would remain eternally trapped inside without one. So what makes the chronological order in the timeline of canned food such a debatable topic, and where does Napoleon fit in?
There’s a great deal of dispute as to the actual date in which canned foods made their entry onto the market. As we have seen, canned food was first used by the Dutch Navy in 1772. They used this method of food preservation, but failed to patent the idea. Talk about a bit of a mistake. The next bit of confusion comes along in 1810, when Englishman Peter Durand patented his method of preserving food using tinned cans in 1810. For most, this is the date most commonly accepted as the birth of this particular method of food preservation. But in between the two, at a time of massive social and political upheaval, Napoleon Bonaparte had a part to play. But how?
In a statement that is often attributed to Napoleon himself, “an army marches on its stomach,” it implies that an army is only as reliable as the food quality and supply. He understood the importance of nourishing his troops, and as the frontline extended further from his home base, the reliability of supply and the quality of the food diminished. There had to be a way to get half decent food to his troops.
Sure, there were methods used at the time that preserved food. Ice was often used, but was a little difficult to come by, especially during summer. Salting food was an effective method, but was restricted to meat, and also changed the taste. I mean, have you ever tried beef jerky? Personally I think that it tastes like salted leather that has been licked by a stink beetle. Realizing that his army needed something better, in 1800 he offered a reward of 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a better way of preserving food.
Enter Nicolas Appert, the one man with a working solution. As a chef and former brewer, he had a keen interest in food preparation. He discovered that heat could be used to to sterilize food in sealed containers, thereby preserving it. While the method was sound, it wasn’t exactly canning. It was more like bottling. He was a brewer after all.
His method of preserving food was very much the same as that used in canning food. He would place food into a sealed jar and boil it for several hours. This sterilized the food and prolonged its life. So while he didn’t actually use tinned cans, the method worked. Glass jars were much more readily available anyway, as canned food was still only in use by the Dutch Navy. Nicolas Appert then used his prize money to build the world’s first cannery.
Just think. He could have saved 12,000 francs and just stolen the idea from the Dutch.