Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, July 27, 2006


Page 15



ConAgra Doesn’t Know Beans About Van Camp’s History




Information about Van Camp’s beans on the manufacturer’s website is half-baked.

As I mentioned last week, the ConAgra Internet site says this:

“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.”

Frank Van Camp’s coupling of beans with tomato sauce is slipped in there right before mention of the Civil War contract with the Army, implying that such was the nature of the product consumed by the Union troops. That’s impossible, as mentioned in the previous column, because in 1861, Frank Van Camp was not yet born.

And, on a timeline, the entry for 1861 says:

“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.”

The proposition that Frank Van Camp “discovered” that baked beans taste better when they’re hot is ludicrous.

It’s true that beans back then were often consumed cold. Indeed, ads for Van Camp beans in the mid-1890s proclaimed that the product was ready to eat, unless you wanted to heat it. But serving beans hot was no innovation. Beans had been eaten hot by native Americans and by settlers from the time of the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims, barred by religious scruples from cooking on Sundays, would bake beans all day on a Saturday, consuming some that night while the beans were hot, and eating more, warm, the next morning.

A few weeks ago, I quoted a couple of stanzas from an ode to baked beans by an anonymous “Yankee” which appeared in various newspapers around 1841. Here are two more lines from the poem:

“Ah! neither my heart from my native land weans,

“When smoke on the table a pot of baked beans.”

It went on to say:

“The pot of baked beans! with what pleasure I saw it,

“Well seasoned, well porked, by some, rosy face dame.

“And when from the glowing hot oven she drew it,

“Well crisped and well brown’d to the table it came.”

The Waukesha (Wisc.) Democrat on June 18, 1850 described diners as entering a room “where baked beans and brown bread lay smouldering in abundance before them on the table.”

Did Gilbert Van Camp build “the first cold storage warehouse”? If he did, it’s strange that the ConAgra website is the only place where I’ve been able to find that assertion.

Gilbert Van Camp’s life is discussed within a 1910 biographical sketch of son Cortland Van Camp, as well as one published in 1919. There’s no mention of this supposed feat. A sketch of Gilbert Van Camp published in 1991, though not entirely clear, seems only to say only that insulation techniques he utilized were later incorporated in cold storage facilities. Although mechanical refrigeration had been invented prior to 1861, there’s no indication it was used by Van Camp.

The contention that Gilbert Van Camp had a contract with the Union Army for the sale of canned beans is unsubstantiated. It appears on numerous websites—but so does the false assertion that hot dogs and French’s Mustard were introduced as a team at the 1904 World’s Fair.

Much of what appears on the Internet is merely picked up from other websites.

A spokesperson for ConAgra told me that their information “is minimal since ConAgra Foods did not acquire Van Camp’s until 1995.”

She pointed to some websites that mention the 1861 contract…but none cites a source of the information (which is probably the ConAgra website).

The spokesperson added:

“ConAgra Foods only has some archival materials that date back to the 1930s.  However, there was an inquiry into the brand history last year, and staff in the town of Newport, TN, went to the local library to research. Here’s what they noted: ‘Information we obtained at the local library indicates that Van Camp was founded in 1861 by Gilbert C. Van Camp.  He created a new canned food staple and secured an Army contract for Van Camp’s Pork and Beans which helped sustain Union troops in the field.”

Aha! Well, that seems promising. But what was their source? Did they photocopy something that can be faxed?

ConAgra won’t say.

Absent substantiation, the only reasonable inference that can be drawn from the historical facts is that the tale is fantasy. As to what those facts are, I’ll get to that next week.


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