By Ellen Jackson; Photo by David Loveall
This article reprinted courtesy of Edible Portland Magazine
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As a cook, I have an uneasy relationship with canned foods. Other than the small, silver foil-wrapped tins of LeSueur Early Peas, for which I’ll admit a three-year-old’s fondness, not much of what I ate growing up came from cans. At that time, Julia Child had set the stage for the culinary boom in America by teaching us how to cook, and Alice Waters was teaching us about the best ingredients: where to find them, how to use them and how to savor them.
Living in northern California as we did afforded my mother the opportunity to pay homage to both women by preparing elaborate home-cooked meals featuring the region’s staggering abundance. Honestly. This is not an overstatement—we were overwhelmed by it, having moved from a slightly less fertile suburb of Baltimore. Other than the canned tomatoes she put in her spaghetti sauce, food from cans rarely figured into her recipes or our meals.
Current trends in cooking and eating reflect Americans’ renewed passion for sourcing and preparing the freshest, most delicious ingredients. Organics is the fastest growing sector of the food economy—farmers’ markets have more than doubled in the last ten years, and cooking classes at high-end markets and kitchen stores sell out regularly. And Portland is at the forefront of this resurgence.
Given the agrarian opulence of the Northwest, it’s not surprising that specialized offerings like classes in growing, preserving, pickling, canning and curing one’s own food abound. Are we finally seeing the beauty and romance of lining pantry shelves with jewel-colored pint jars of summer’s bounty for what it is: just plain smart?
But what if there isn’t a single vestige of summer in your cupboards or your too-small freezer? Maybe you don’t have the time or inclination to preserve your own food. That’s where canned food fits in. With a growing emphasis on seasonality, it’s reassuring to know that there are flavorful, nutritious and socially responsible store-bought options available to supplement or replace home canning.
Contrary to my own experience, David and Peter Truitt’s childhood was filled with canned goods. The brothers are the third generation of a food-processing family whose story begins in Louisiana, with sweet potatoes. They moved to Salem in 1973, locating their canning business in a building (circa 1914) listed on the national historic register. Beans have always been one of the Willamette Valley’s better commodity crops; the facility the Truitts took over had run pole beans, which gave them a slight advantage with their plan to process bush beans.
Today Truitt Bros. is one of Oregon’s fastest growing privately held businesses. They added a specialty food processing operation in the 1990s, and have expanded in every direction to occupy neighboring buildings. A leader in the shelf-stable foods industry for more than 33 years, the majority of Truitt Bros. products are sold by the #10 can (industry-speak for a can weighing 6 lbs 8 oz – 7 lbs 5 oz) under private labels to food service giants like Sysco. Two-thirds of the canner’s business comes from food service establishments serving college dining halls and restaurant chains, which is why you probably haven’t heard of them. But that’s about to change.
There was a time when shoppers walked the perimeter of the grocery store, glancing past the canned goods in the center aisles in search of seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables. It just makes sense that fresh produce has the most vitamins, but here are the facts: Crops that go directly from field to can often retain vitamins better than just-harvested crops that travel through the distribution chain before reaching your kitchen.
Shoppers may think that canned food is less nutritious than fresh or frozen, but studies show that, once the food is prepared for the table, the nutrient levels of canned foods are equal to and/or better than those of fresh or frozen. To ensure that foods are packed at the peak of freshness, flavor and nutrition, Truitt’s canning facilities are located within a few miles of the point of harvest.
Doug Roth and his family operate G & C Farms eight miles from Truitt Bros., where they farm 1000 acres, 150 of which grow green beans, at seven to eight tons of beans per acre. The Roth family has done business with Truitt Bros. since 1973. This sort of relationship with their growers—purchasing fields of beans raised with great care and a sense of pride, from farmers they know by name—has always set Truitt Bros. apart from competitors like Del Monte, who relinquish quality control because they’re buying by the crop, for volume.
Most of Truitt Bros.’ growers have supplied fruits and vegetables directly to them since Day One. Cannery operations manager, Sue Root, and her family have grown the cherries processed in the canning facility she oversees for three generations. During college, Sue worked for Del Monte and Diamond Fruit, where, she says, the equipment is much the same as it has always been, just more efficient. Perfectly ripe pears are processed in only 30 minutes, passing at one point through a bank of 30-year-old pear-peeling machines that require a team of on-site mechanics to keep them running smoothly. It takes between three and six hours for a Blue Lake bean to make the journey from the field to its can. After 25 years in the field and cannery, Sue knows the process inside and out, and her contribution as a link between operations and marketing has been invaluable.
Last spring, Truitt Bros. earned the right to label two signature-canned products, Willamette Valley–grown Blue Lake green beans and juice-packed Bartlett pears from The Dalles, with the Food Alliance certified seal. Naturally they would be required to purchase fruits and vegetables from farms certified by Food Alliance for sustainable farming practices, so they enticed their growers to seek certification by offering an incentive of a $5 premium per ton on certified crops. Not exactly small potatoes when you’re talking about thousands of tons.
Growers like Doug Roth said the decision to follow suit was “a slam dunk.” Despite the fact that there had been no change in the price of green beans for 20 years, it was just the right thing to do. Roth saw it as a chance to appeal to the changing market, and encourage consumers to buy beans again because of the care being taken in raising them.
Because of their practices, Truitt Bros. has received an order for pears from the progressive local food service company, Bon Appétit. You’ll also find them on the shelves of New Seasons and Whole Foods markets, in 100% recyclable steel containers designed to preserve the quality and nutrients of the contents. The 100% recycled paper labels are printed with soy-based inks; the handsome design recalls vintage grocery and fruit crate labels. But they don’t just look good; the labels offer traceability, identifying both the grower—by name—and processor (with an attractive rendering of the Truitt brothers’ faces), information discerning shoppers have come to expect when making food choices.
Canned foods are still the purest food package you’ll find. Believe it or not, cans are produced using less energy than any other container (yes, plastic too). And the products in those cans are processed with less energy than any other method of preservation.
According to Larousse Gastronomique, the ultimate culinary resource, “The necessity of guarding against want by stocking surplus food is almost as old as human life itself.” Call me a survivalist: I put up more food than ever this year. I always manage to find time for jam and jelly making, but this year we acquired a chest freezer (I have no idea how I lived without it) and talked about sharing a steer with neighbors. But what’s really thrilling is that I did some canning.
My grandmother took great pride in the rows of quart jars lining their Ohio basement cellar: peaches, plums, jam, pickles, beets, beans and tomatoes. For our predecessors, the work of farming the land was a time-consuming business. Sources of food outside of what they grew themselves, within their communities, were neither available nor affordable; preserving the food they had grown was about survival.
Today, home food preservation is optional but enjoying a revival as we explore our food roots. Its return reflects a desire to know where our food is coming from and what, exactly, is in the jar. And because processors are responding to this movement, a few cans of Truitt Bros. juice-packed Bartlett pears and Willamette Valley–grown Blue Lake green beans can be found in my pantry, nestled between the ruby-red baby beets and crunchy dilly beans.
Related Recipe: Four Hour Pickled Green Beans
Twelve years as a pastry chef and a background in commercial publishing allowed Ellen Jackson to reinvent herself last fall as a freelance food writer, editor and stylist.