Black Lobster and the Birth of Canning

The canning innovation left another lasting impression: Foods are safe only when sterilized

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Nicholas Appert, a Frenchman, first preserved food without refrigeration in 1810, and an English immigrant named William Underwood first brought the technology to America. He set up a condiment business on Boston’s Russia Wharf. Despite Underwood’s legacy as a purveyor of deviled ham (and a pioneer of the term “deviled,” which he reportedly trademarked in 1870, the inaugural year of the U.S. Patent Office), he initially put up seafood. In Pickled, Potted, and Canned, Sue Shephard writes, “He first bottled and later canned lobster and salmon, which he exported using the label ‘Made in England,’ presumably to make the consumer feel it was a well-tried safe product from the old country and not something suspect from the ‘new.’”

By the late 19th century, Underwood had a problem—a rather disgusting problem that manifested itself as “swelling” cans of clams and lobster. These cans could be distinguished by their sound. In an 1896 paper, Underwood writes, “nsound cans which have not yet swelled give a characteristic dull tone when struck.” At their worst, the dull cans spoiled without swelling. “Such cases are sometimes found in canned clams, and more frequently in lobster, in the latter case being known to the trade as ‘black lobster.’”

With the help of MIT food scientist Samuel Prescott, Underwood spent months in the lab in 1895 examining the source of spoilage. The two found a type of bacteria that formed heat-resistant spores that caused bacterial blooms; these spores could be killed by canning at 250°F for 10 minutes—a process that would transform the science and technology of canning, ushering in a world full of safe canned vegetables or meat. The canning innovation also left another lasting impression: Foods are safe only when sterilized.

The rise of the “tin can civilization,” Shephard writes, “relegated most traditional food preservation to quaint practices of undeveloped regions.” In this light, it’s worth remembering what canning does not preserve: The microbial biodiversity that once gave rise to the domesticated species we now use to leaven breads and brew beers. That, too, is worth preserving.