Funny how so many innovations in food preservation can be traced to armed conflict. But it’s no wonder why. Une armée marche à son estomac, as Napoleon famously said. A large force sitting still will consume every edible resource within reach in two days’ time. Historically, keeping such an army from starving has required either long supply lines or on-the-go, off-the-land foraging. But there are drawbacks to each. Long supply lines make easy targets for the enemy (see Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow), and foraging has a way of ruining civilian morale (ask anyone in the South about Sherman’s March to the Sea…150 years later at they’re still P.O.’d about it). But if you can take your supplies with you, you have a tremendous strategic and tactical advantage.
Such was the challenge that faced military commanders around Napoleon’s time. The rise of nationalism and national conscription, combined with advances in industrial-scale production, created armies of a size the world had never seen before. Whereas just fifty years previously a gigantic army numbered 150,000 or so, Napoleon’s army was composed of some 1.6 million souls. But getting all those folks together in one place presented a hell of a catering challenge. Which is why, around the turn of the 18th Century, the French government offered a cash prize to anyone who could come up with a workable method for preserving mass quantities of food.
The prize was collected in 1809, as I mentioned, by one Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner who developed a method of putting food in glass jars, plugging the top with a cork stopper covered in sealing wax, and boiling the whole thing for up to hours at a time. It worked…pretty much. Some soldiers did get sick from the food, and then there was the issue of bottle breakage, which kept the technique from becoming widespread. Still the invention was a success, so much so that the next year he followed up his triumph with a book: The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances For Several Years. It was a mouthful of a title that forever kept the book off the New York Times best seller lists, however it did inspire several other food producers to try their hand at canning, one of whom was a fellow by the name of Peter Durance.
As it happened, Mr. Durance lived in England, a country which by coincidence also had an army, an army which by further coincidence was at war with France and Napoleon. Inspired by Appert’s ideas, Durance invented the metal canning tin in 1810, which proved to be far superior to Appert’s bottles, both at both preserving food and standing up to the wear and tear of transport. All of which meant British soldiers had plenty of good food and nice full stomachs when they arrived to fight Napoleon in Belgium in 1815 at someplace called Water-something. Funny how life works sometimes, innit?