Thursday, July 20, 2006
History of Van Camp’s Beans Is Utterly Mangled
By ROGER M. GRACE
Here’s the tale of the beginnings of Van Camp pork and beans, as set forth on the website of the owner of that brand, mega-corp ConAgra:
“Van Camp’s roots began with Gilbert Van Camp and his wife, Hester. Back in 1861, they canned fruits and vegetables in their family store in Indianapolis. Van Camp was an entrepreneur and tinsmith who built the first cold storage warehouse. Gilbert’s son, Frank, discovered that pork and beans taste better when mixed with tomatoes and served hot. He began marketing his new product and even sold them to Union troops during the Civil War.”
A timeline on the website includes this entry for 1861:
“Indianapolis grocer Gilbert C. Van Camp, once a tinsmith, creates a new canned food staple and secures an army contract. Van Camp’s Pork and Beans helps sustain Union troops in the field during the Civil War.”
So, according to ConAgra, Frank came up with the idea of putting beans in tomato sauce, and beans so prepared were put in cans, some of which were sold to the Union Army during the Civil War.
There’s a major flaw in the chronology. As of 1861, Frank had not yet been born.
Did Frank Van Camp originate baked beans in tomato sauce? Maybe so. One rendition of how that happened appeared on Oct. 21, 1952 in the Long Beach Press-Telegram:
“Chance brought about the discovery of the famed Van Camp product pork and beans. Van Camp’s 16-year-old son, Frank, conceived and developed the first commercially prepared catsup, which was a departure from custom. Then the plant burned.
“The Van Camps were working to salvage the remains of the plant when Frank Van Camp received a crock of pork and beans from his mother. Wanting more flavor, he poured some of the plant’s catsup on the beans and discovered the fine flavor of the mixture.
“Thus the famous product came in to being. He began canning it for the world.”
That would have been about 1880. The 1880 census shows Gilbert Van Camp was in the “Fruit Packing Business,” his son Frank worked “in Fruit House,” and that Frank was 16 years old.
By the way, if that sounds like commercial hype, it was. In the guise of a news story, it was a publicity piece for the Van Camp Seafood Company, an enterprise founded by Frank Van Camp after he left the family business, being carried on by his heirs. The company had a local factory—producing “Chicken of the Sea” tuna—and had a full-page ad on the page preceding the article.
When did Van Camp’s beans go on the market? According to a 1935 federal trademark application, they first entered commerce in 1882. That was the year that Gilbert Van Camp and his son Cortland launched Van Camp Packing Co. (after a previous fruit-packing enterprise, Van Camp & Son, went bankrupt).
It was heavy advertising, beginning in about 1895, that created public demand for their beans drenched in tomato sauce. While we now think of such a product as distinct from “Boston baked beans,” made with molasses, Van Camp advertised his product as “Boston Baked Beans Prepared with Tomato Sauce.”
To heat the beans, were that desired, the cans were to be placed in boiling water, ads instructed. (Well, that would prevent the beans from getting scorched.) Some ads mentioned that the dish was good either hot or cold.
So far, the pieces seem to fit, and it can reasonably be concluded that Van Camp’s Pork & Beans, as we know the product—that is, beans in a tomato sauce (with a fatty cube of pork)—harks to 1882, and that whatever cans of beans, if any, Gilbert Van Camp sold to the Union Army would not have had a tomato-based sauce.
There is, however, a problem with the 1952 account in the Press-Telegram.
While the 16-year-old Frank Van Camp might have officiated over the marriage of beans and tomato sauce around 1880, the tale that this stemmed from his fortuitous shaking of Van Camp-brand catchup on a serving of beans is hokum. The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted, in an 1898 decision, that the Van Camp Packing Co., according to its averment in a complaint, “has been engaged in making catsup since 1888.”
ConAgra does not propagate the catchup yarn. It does, however, assert on its website that Gilbert Van Camp “built the first cold storage warehouse,” that it was Frank Van Camp who “discovered” that baked beans taste better hot, and that cans of Van Camp beans were sold to the Union Army during the Civil War pursuant to a contract. To find out what of that is true and what is myth, come back next week.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company
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