Search the Site

Radio in Progress: Napoleon's War on Rotting Food

It is always fun when, in the midst of reporting, multiple sources lead you down the same interesting path.
I recently spent the better part of a day interviewing food scientists for an upcoming Freakonomics Radio podcast that we have dubbed “Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup.” (Yes, it’s a corny title and yes, it may change, but maybe it won’t.)
Coming into the day, I never would have guessed that Napoleon would figure so prominently in these interviews. Not one, not two, but three different interview subjects brought him up, twice in the same exact context.
First came Philip Nelson, a professor emeritus of food science at Purdue and recent winner of the World Food Prize for his work in aseptic processing and “bag-in-box” packaging:

Napoleon wanted to get armies farther away from base, and the limiting factor was food, so he offered 12,000 francs for anyone who could come up with a method of preserving food. Little gentleman called Nicolas Appert put food into an earthen jar, covered it, heated, it and said, Aha, the food doesn’t spoil, I’ve kept the spirits out. They had no idea why it didn’t spoil but he’s recognized as the father of canning.

The story is interesting in and of itself, but especially because of the application of a cash prize as incentive.
Next up was John Floros, head of the food science department at Penn State:

Floros: In last couple of centuries or century and a half, some of the most important developments was really the discovery, if you like, of the ability to put a food in a container and sterilize or pasteurize it. This came in the era of Napoleon in France, and one of his scientists developed the method to really can food and sterilize it, so that Napoleon can actually transfer the food to his armies and therefore can move forward to longer and longer distances. So Nicolas Appert and the invention of putting food in a jar or can, closing it and sterilizing it, is probably the most important invention probably in the last couple hundred yrs with respect to food because it completely transformed how we consume food, how we preserve, food how we ship food, and how we really interact with each other.
SJD: And that was a dividend of war?
Floros: In some respects it was, yes, became a lot more sophisticated later on, but I think the major need at the time was really to feed the army.

And finally, there’s Bruce German, a fascinating food scientist at U.C. Davis who is helping pioneer the growing field of personalized nutrition. But he too knows his food-science history, and talked about it in context of the one flavor that nearly all humans enjoy: sweetness.

Properties of sweet substances were recognized and began to be extracted so one of first dimensions of the whole food processing industry was separating sweetness from sugar cane. This was one of great explosions of economic value in the world, because those places that could grow sugar cane began to import it and grow it, you could very quickly extract this essence of sweet, then trade around the world in it, and vast fortunes were made, and sweetness then became a commodity. Then of course in the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon was blocked from getting to sugar cane by the lack of an oceangoing fleet, and so he caused Europe to start growing sugar beets and then you exploded sugar beet agriculture in Europe in order to provide sweetness that the trade wouldn’t allow, so you could see vast fortunes — in fact, the entire trading system of the world and the wealth of the world changed on this very simple sensation: sweet.

These interviews will show up in a two-part podcast scheduled for late January/early February. You’ll also hear from Nathan Myhrvold about his jaw-dropping new cookbook, Modernist Cuisine. And you’ll hear from Alice Waters, too.
I don’t mean to brag but: I love what I do for a living.