By Tim Bean
“Got something good today?” I asked, my feet crunching up the gravel parking lot to the Buckley Homestead Maintenance office.
“Always,” Chris said. “Every moment with me is a delight. Hurry up.”
Chris had managed the Grand Kankakee County Park for seven or eight years and was reassigned to Buckley Homestead a little over a year ago. Buckley is a heavy responsibility. Small by park standards, Buckley’s upkeep involved maintaining a dozen historic structures, hosting dozens of events every year, giving hayrides, working with schools, keeping a menagerie of animals healthy, and more. It was a tough job.
The maintenance office was warm and neat. An army of tools hung from pegboard hooks. Across from tools a long, tall shelf of books, some weathered and ancient, some in shrink wrap. It was a welcoming office. Neat but not fastidious, well-lit and warm.
In the middle stood an old, rusty can.
“That?” I asked.
“That,” he said and smiled. He piked up the rusty can and tumbled it back and forth between his hands. “Found it in the hired hand’s quarters. That’s a surprise in itself. You don’t ever see these.”
“Yeah, rusty cans are pretty scarce these days,” I said.
He rolled his eyes and handed it to me. It was old. It was rusty. Heavier than I expected, but that’s just old metallurgy.
“See anything odd about it?” Chris asked.
I rolled my finger in the air. “Get on with the making me look stupid stuff,” I said. “I know it’s coming.”
“Aww, Tim, you don’t need my help looking stupid,” he said.
I replied with something unprintable.
“Look at the rim of the can,” he said.
Now that I took a closer look, the rim of the can did look a little odd. There was no thin lip of cut metal like you would find with a can opener. Instead, there was a small bead of dirty, silver metal all the way around the rim. I rubbed my finger on the bead, as though touching it would offer me some insight. It didn’t, of course.
“Lead,” he said. “Or lead solder.”
I quickly handed the can back, holding my fingertip out. “Lead? I don’t want to get—“
“Relax, baby,” he said laughing. “Just touching it won’t do anything. Lead has to accumulate to hurt you. Or you’d have to swallow it.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe. Wash your hands really good before leaving.”
I washed my hands right then, slathering on a healthy dollop of Orange Gojo pumice cleaner.
Chris sat down, putting the can on the table between us. He leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingers, ready to pontificate.
“Canning,” Chris pontificated. “I’ve done it. My parents did it. Grandparents. Great-grandparents, on and on and on. Yours?”
I nodded. My mom canned a lot when I was younger. Strawberry and grape jelly, which we’d pick ourselves. Often she’d can with my grandmother, both of them knocking out a year’s worth of fruit preserves in a day. My favorite was my mom’s homemade salsa, which she canned in massive, 64-ounce jars. “My mom still does,” I said. “Although we say canning, but we mean Mason jars.”
“Mason jars. Ball jars, those were from Indiana. But it’s still canning. Canning is traditional in most middle-class or working-class families,” he said. “Especially if family members had lived through serious economic hardship. Yours?”
“My dad’s side not as much, but my mom’s side, yeah. Great Depression. My grandpa hunted and ate whatever he could get. He did that as long as he could fire a gun. Ten years ago, he’d hide out in a old trailer with his .22, plink at the groundhogs in his garden. Then he’d dress ‘em and eat ‘em.”
“That’s a yes,” Chris said. “Canning is recession proof, even today. When we had our little recession a decade ago. The housing bubble and all that, industries across the board plummeted. A few stayed the same and a tiny handful thrived. One of those was canning supplies. The canning industry showed a 12% increase in sales.”
“Stockpiling?” I said.
“Cocooning, I once heard someone call it. I call it hunkering down,” Chris said. “Times get tough, people hunker down. Circle the wagons and wait it out. It’s instinct.” He banged his leg against his oration table and the old can jiggled. “But if your ancestors had used cans like that, you wouldn’t be sitting here.”
“Because of the lead,” I said.
“Actually, no. Probably not the lead.” He held up the can, holding it up in the light. Now that I was looking closer, I could see that the shape of the can was…somehow off. One side seemed shorter than the other and bulged oddly. “Cans like these, hand made. In some things that’s good. Not in this. It took hours to make these handmade cans, and then they’d have to cook the food for hours, then close it with lead solder, which took practice. One big ol’ can of food was six hours of work, give or take. Try filling out an order for an entire army like that.”
“You couldn’t,” I said.
“That’s right. You could do smaller contracts. That TV show you watched, what was it? The one with the Arctic ships and the polar bear monster thing,” Chris said.
“The Terror,” I said. “A rare case where the book and movie are equally good.”
“Terror, that’s right. That was one ship. And the other was the Erebus. The real-life Franklin expedition that disappeared. They had cans like that to feed a couple hundred sailors. And the lead solder didn’t kill the men like on the show. They disproved that.”
“So we’re talking the mid-1800s,” Chris said, “right about the time this farm was founded. I said it was weird this was in the hired hands’ quarters because cans like this, if sealed, were a kind of status symbol or luxury good. Like a bottle of expensive wine. Or Godiva chocolate.”
“Why would a servant have it?”
Chris shook his head. “They wouldn’t. My guess is the can just migrated there over the last 150 years. Crappy can. Crappy seal. Crappy food. What’s the worse thing that could happen?” he asked.
“Botulism,” I said. “Death.”
“Yep. Can’t see it. Can’t smell it. Can’t taste it. But if it gets in you, you sure feel it. It’s a bad way to go, I’m telling you. Nerves freeze up. Can’t eat or drink.”
“Lockjaw, right,” I said.
“No, lockjaw is with tetanus. Not the same. Botulism gets worse and you can’t open your eyes. Can’t move. Eventually you can’t breath. Nasty. That was the purpose of cooking the food for such a long time, but who knows what they’re putting in it. This is before the FDA, when your canning came from the lowest bidder. And that did happen,” he said. He shivered in this chair, scrunching his face in disgust.
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“This guy won a contract from the British Navy for so-and-so pounds of canned meat. The Navy liked it because it helped with scurvy but it also boosted moral. They called it a ‘taste of home’ for sailors. This is the mid-1800s. So this contractor uses a Romanian meat factory. And they put in rotting animals, diseased animals, every body part you could think—“
“Come on, man,” I said. “People will read this during breakfast.”
“Suck it up. Intestines. Hearts. Brain. Globs of spongy red-black pulp that they couldn’t even identify. The Brits discovered this at sea, had to throw everything overboard. When inspectors opened cans from the same batch in port, the smell was so awful they had to dowse everything in lime. Do you know how bad something has to smell to have Brits from the mid-1800s—Navy Brits—say something was intolerable? Guys who bathed every month or two? Epic stink. Whew.”
“They put the guy in prison?” I asked. Given that it was military, I thought they might actually string the guy up.
“Nope. No one knows why, but they told him not to do it again. My guess, he greased the right wheel.” Chris rubbed his fingertips together. Money. Bribery.
“Guy says okay. Instead, he makes bigger cans, but he still needs to cut labor costs, so he cooks the food just long enough to get it to the right temperature for a few minutes, then cans it right away,” Chris said.
“Aren’t you supposed to cook it for awhile?” I asked.
“For hours. Four or five, I think. This guy—“
“You keep saying ‘this guy.’ Who is ‘this guy?” I asked.
Chris sighed and brought out his phone. He tapped it for a moment and then said, “Stephan Goldner. Gold, N-E-R. So he gives them another load of canned poison. But the Navy checked before shipping out this time.”
“They arrested him then, right?” I said.
Chris smiled and shook his head. “Not even then. They didn’t want people losing faith in canned goods, so they dumped it into the sea. About two hundred tons of rotted meat. They told Goldner never to sell to the Navy again. And he didn’t. But the Franklin Expedition was a private venture. He sold to them.”
The television show mentioned that, but the novel went into greater detail on the inedible, undercooked food. “They found out when they were trapped thousands of miles from civilization in subzero weather,” I said. “Yikes.”
“Yikes is right,” Chris said and lifted the can. “Cans just like this. Imagine opening those one at a time and slowly realizing you and your men were going to starve to death. Cans just like this one.”
Neither of us said anything for a moment. It was like hearing a distant death knell.
“How’d they fix all this? They fixed it before they developed germ theory, I know,” I said.
“Cooking is cooking, can’t change that,” Chris said. “They kept a better eye on it, more accountability. But the biggest advance? The can seam,” Chris said. I could tell this was the moment he waited for.
“Cans could be machined, foods cooked completely, but what about the cans rupturing in transit? If you’re in the army, in a trench, you can’t be dainty. This guy named Max Ams, A-M-S, came up with the double seam,” Chris said.
He brought his hands together flat across his chest, bent his fingers and interlocked the bent fingers, palms together. It was a weird gesture. “You’ll find a better picture of it online, but a double seam held a lid on a can from the top AND bottom, meaning nothing but a puncture could open a can. Denting it, knocking it about, a change in temperature wouldn’t do it. It was a huge step in design. There’s a lot of lives owed to the double seam. Mine. Yours. Find a good picture of it somewhere.”
“I will,” I said. “So when we open a can with a can opener, we’re cutting the seam.”
“You’re not cutting the seam. You’re actually cutting the lid. Try to pull the top off a can of Campbell’s soup or Del Monte sweet corn. A Hulk on a steroids latte couldn’t rip the lid off,” he said.
“That is an exaggeration,” I said.
“It is because the Hulk is awesome,” Chris said. “Still, it’s very, very hard to do.”
I typed the names into my phone to look up later. “I did your lilac story. I’ll do this one tonight. Anything you want me to add?”
“I don’t know. Mention Buckley. Don’t forget that,” he said scratching his chin. Then he snapped his fingers. “You know what else? Tell everyone I’m smarter than my brother.”
I sighed. “Your brother. The co-owner of the website? You want me to say you’re smarter than him.”
I snorted. “All right. Much smarter.”
“Taller, too,” he added.
“Come on,” I said.
“All right, much smarter is good enough,” he said.
In closing, I’d like to thank Chris Orange, park manager of Buckley Homestead County Park, for helping me with this article. Also, I would like to add that he is much smarter than his brother.