Canned goods have never played much of a place in my pantry since I began a love affair with “gourmet cooking,” in the ’70s.
“Exotics,” yes — sardines, smoked oysters, Red Devil liver paste, water chestnuts until I discovered fresh ones in Seattle’s International District —but I would no more have served a canned protein, fruit or vegetable to a guest than a plate of dirt.
(I lie. Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk. My go-to dessert was fresh strawberries, a drizzle of the milk and a Pepperidge Farm sugar cookie, or perhaps a wafer cookie. And may I say, you have not eaten a strawberry until you’ve picked it yourself warm in the Snohomish County sun. They don’t travel well so you’ll never get them here.)
I kept tuna, of course, and beef and chicken stocks (no boxes then and I didn’t always have a stash of my own in the freezer, as I do now) and tomato products (sauce and paste and whole and crushed). Unlike my Grandma, who made her own “solid pack,” I had no garden (for which vegetables everywhere are grateful.) I kept canned spinach in case I got homesidk for laulau or chicken lu’au (until I found lu’au leaf fresh in the International District.)
But I was farm-to-table before the term existed. The Pacific Northwest, before there was a “regional cuisine,” personified the concept. Everyone I knew berried, clammed, had a secret morel or chanterelle stash (people who leave the location in their wills!), visited the Pike Place Market weekly, knew a cranky old farmer sold fresh apple cider every season (brown, tart-sweet, so refreshing), bought apples at local orchards, patronized a stall presided by an Italian woman who looked JUST like my grandmother where I got my greens, my parsley, herbs and good cooking advice in broken Italglish. Bless her soul. I knew a farm operated by Hmong where I could buy Chinese parsley (cilantro) in huge bouquets, and chives and Thai basil. I foraged in a civilized way. There were annual trips to Eastern Washington during apricot season (and, again, you haven’t eaten an apricot until you’ve had a ripe one, warm still, from the tree). Hazelnuts came from trips to Oregon. Salmon was everywhere; people just gave it to you. Mussels began to come from the then freshly planted floating acquaculture beds off Whidbey Island. …
Sorry, I lost myself in Northwest memories there.
After World War II, Hawai’i, the whole of the South Pacific, really, went canned good crazy. They were so cheap; so easy to make stretch to large, poor families; and haole food was considered “sophisticated.” We ate canned green beas, canned peas, canned peas-and-carrots (the worst!), canned corned beef, canned Dinty Moore Beef Stew. Grandpa even bought canned whole chickens that Swanson used to make (pale, unhappy looking things that tasted like … can).
Our “cream” was evaporated milk (you still see old recipes that call for 1 can cream). Except for milk (and when we were really poor, it was powdered), we never ate fresh dairy. And when you consider how many Portuguese kept their own cows and chickens in the early days, I don’t understand how they could stomach evaporated milk and margarine. But they did. With relish. Because they knew what work it took to get real food from the ground and the sea. Grandma thought sliced bread and cake mixes were a sign of the Second Coming she welcomed with open arms as if it had been the risen Christ.
But of late, two things have come into my life, both from the South Pacific and both banishing forever my can prejudice: One is canned wahoo (tougher to get now that there are fewer canneries there) and the other is Palm Corned Beef. Samoans buy Palm Corned Beef in industrial sized cans, for palusami, bundles of luau leaf with corned beef and coconut milk inside. They at least make their own coconut milk because they have become Hawai’is coconut tree trimmers so no tourists will get konked on the head.
Anyway, wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri) is a scombrid fish the Puerto Ricans call peto, is a long, skinny, silvery fish, the fastest swimmer in the Pacific. They’re often a bycatch from other fisheries but they’re worth finding on their own. Canned, they are to tuna what canned peas are to fresh, oh the fresh-like flavor and large chunks! They’re packed solid, not full of lard pockets or mushy unidentfiable goop, richly flavorful and really expensive. But make an old-fashioned creamed tuna, an Italian tuna salad with tomatoes, white beans and fresh arugula, even just a sandwich with wahoo and mayo and you’ll never turn back. Whenever I find it, I buy several cans.
Palm Corned Beef was something I hesitated about. We always bought Libby, McNeil & Libby which, if I remember correctly, kept its characteristic black-and-red label just for Hawai’i, where we used it unceasingly in stir-fried corned beef and cabbage, a classic family stretch dish. Just melted butter, caramelized onions, ton o’ cabbage and then break up the corned beef and put inside. Throw on some chili peppah wattah and pile on hot rice and you back in Grandma’s kitchen like you been beamed there.
I heard it was oily. I had my doubts. But it was on sale the other day and I bought some. What a revelation. The meat is packed solid, the strands thick and meaty, no lard, a bit of oil, worth saving to cook the meat in. Though I now know what a housemade corned beef from grass-fed beef can taste like, the melting texture and tang of pickling spice (thanks, Mark Noguchi of He’eia Pier Market & Deli) … I’m not going to be making my own soon. I’m a Palm girl now.
The other day I was hungry, alone, opened the pantry and the fridge. Hmm, that can of Palm, some chilled pastry from a recipe testing session, onions, parsley from my garden pot. I made corned beef turnovers. Took minutes. Ate half a one in the time it takes to write this sentence. Groaned with pleasure. Can’t wait to do more: an old, tomato-based stew my Grandma used to make, for instance. I used the last of the can to make corned beef sandwiches, which always remind me of trips to the beach, or long holoholo (aimless) drives to the country, when they were wrapped in waxed paper and you couldn’t wait for lunch, which would be the sandwiches and whatever fruit you found (or stole from the pineapple field) along the way. Hmmm, corned beef and pineapple; now there’s an idea.
I’m in birth with two books: a Portuguese Hawai’i cookbook I’ve long wanted to write, and a small, simple local cookbook my publisher commissioned. I think of nothing but food all day. Every dish my friends talk about, or serve me, is nutrition for the “babies.”
I should have a photo of a can of wahoo and one of Palm Corned Beef but, you see, well, I ate them.