I can pretty much measure out my life in tins of food.
As a child, pudding was often peach slices in syrup with a dash of condensed milk. As a grumpy teenager I perfected an exotic beans-on-toast recipe with two slices of toast, chives and a poached egg.
Working for a charity in Namibia during my year off, we ate tinned sardines, corned beef (which we called “Meat Square” because it came in a square tin) and spam (“Meat Round”).
As a university student I survived on Heinz Cream of Tomato soup with a side of white-bread-and-cream-cheese sandwiches. Or Spaghetti Hoops. Damn I loved those hoops.
Tins don’t feature much in my life anymore – and I feel rather guilty about it. I am one of those people contributing to the sad decline of Heinz, who lost £29m last year. Considering how much I used to dine out on tins, I genuinely believe that I am responsible for a lot – if not most – of that £29m.
But tinned food just doesn’t play a part in my life any more. I have a fussy husband, two small children and I am blessed with good local shops – dinner any night can be bought in ten minutes on the way back from the school run in the morning.
But that’s just me – it’s an accident of circumstance and geography that I can live my life like that. I am appalled and horrified at the fuss made about the woman who opened a can of tinned potatoes from Aldi to find that it was horrifically mouldy. She took to Facebook to warn other people about the possibility of finding Oscar the Grouch living in your dinner, only to find herself criticised for using tinned vegetables at all. It’s not healthy, said commentators - it’s lazy.
We are so lucky, so spoiled, to be able to apply this sort of class snobbery to food. Is it better to buy and cook all your food from fresh? Yes of course, but let’s not be babyish about this
The invention of sealing food in an airtight container to preserve it – by the French chef Nicolas Appert in the early 1800s – revolutionised the world. Before that food had to be harvested and then pickled or salted to keep it edible. Canning changed all of that; food could be eaten almost as if it were fresh, months after it had been picked. Vital nutrients – calcium, Vitamin C, iron, zinc – could be transported across the world on ships to keep sailors not just alive but healthy.
It also brought the price of food down – food has historically been expensive – things no longer had to be bought and eaten quickly in order to be fresh.
This means so little to us today. We have no real concept of what a disaster it would have been to our ancestors if a harvest failed or if our carefully preserved food had somehow gone bad anyway. We are so lucky, so spoiled, to be able to apply this sort of class snobbery to food.
And make no mistake, that’s what this is: horrible snobbery. Is it better to buy and cook all your food from fresh? Yes of course, but let’s not be babyish about this. You could live well and healthily if you only ever ate tinned or frozen food. It’s better to have tinned vegetables than no vegetables at all. Better to have a tin of Heinz than a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes for dinner (I have done this) – or a liquid dinner. (I have done this, too).
I have no time for the accusation of “laziness” when it comes to shortcuts in the kitchen. Convenience food is there for exactly the reason it sounds like – for convenience. When time is tight, which is pretty much permanently is if you have a full-time job and/or children, the important thing is that everyone gets fed on time, not whether you got your potatoes out of a tin, out of your allotment, or from the supermarket.
I’m a great cook. I can make pretty much anything – and as I work from home, I’ve got the time. But I don’t make my own pastry or my own vinaigrette. Why would I? I use pre-sliced, frozen cooking apples in my Sunday lunch crumble. And a pre-made crumble topping, too, while we’re at it. Everyone loves it.
We have tins of tuna and baked beans on constant standby. If you ever suggested that I ought to soak and boil kidney beans or chickpeas or lentils rather than opening a can, I might be forced to hurt you.
And, if I’m ever feeling lonely, nostalgic or just plain sorry for myself, out come the peach slices.
So hurrah for tins, I say! Hurrah for Heinz! I feel a spaghetti hoops dinner coming on, and yah boo sucks to the snobs.