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There are South Dakotans who specialize in cream can cooking, but is it wise?
There are South Dakotans who specialize in cream can cooking, but is it wise?

Culinary Mysteries

Feb 7, 2017

There are things in this world which will forever remain beyond my understanding. String Theory, for example, suggests that multiple dimensions simultaneously exist in our physical space. I’m here at my desk, in other words, but in an alternate dimension shopping carts are rolling through my head because my molecules are part of the toiletries aisle in a Piggly Wiggly.

Other matters are far less esoteric, and relatively easy to grasp, yet they remain a mystery to me. Among these: why do people eat smoked meat?

As I understand the smoking process, you start a fire, then channel the resulting hot gases and unburned particulate matter through an enclosure in which cuts of meat or fish are suspended. It is the unburned particulate matter, I presume, which gives the meat that extra zing.

Devotees of smoked products lay great stress on how long it takes to prepare the flesh for eating, and the wood which is burned to generate the smoke. As for the first … something which takes a long time isn’t necessarily better than something which happens quickly. If it takes three hours to get your driver’s license renewed, are you happier than you would be if you got it done in 15 minutes? If slow-cooking is so great, why are microwaves more popular than malfunctioning electric burners which take two hours to heat up a can of soup?

With that rapier logic, I rest my case.

Hickory is the most often-mentioned wood for smoking purposes, although apple, peach and other fruit-bearing trees receive favorable mention in certain quarters. I will grant that such fuels are no doubt superior to tires or woodwork covered with multiple coats of lead-based paint, but that is all I will concede. Is one kind of smoke really more savory than another? If you blindfolded a guy and told him he was smelling burning hickory chips, could he even tell if it was actually a pile of 2x4 scraps? I’m just asking.

Which leads to my main point. Does anybody ever want to sit downwind of a campfire? Does anyone purposely close the damper on their fireplace so the room fills with smoke? If there is a fire in one part of a house, is the homeowner disappointed if only some of the other rooms get smoke damage? Does he plead with the firefighters to let the fire smolder so the whole place can fill with smoke?

I think not. Nobody likes smoke. It stinks. It makes you gag. So why do people infuse perfectly good meat, which they plan to put in their mouths, with the very thing they don’t like? When they eat this stuff, why do they say things like, “Oh … my … God … this is sooo good!” What is the appeal of food that tastes like it went through a forest fire?

Speaking of which … have you ever had a meal that was cooked in a cream can over a campfire? This is one of those who-ever-came-up-with-this-goofy-idea? things. If I hadn’t seen it done and tasted the results I might have suspected this was an internet hoax, like the one that claimed Mr. Rogers was once a Marine Corps sniper and contract killer, or you can win a free Tootsie Pop if you find a star on your wrapper.

Anyway … take an old-fashioned, three-gallon cream can. Pour in some beer. Put corn on the cob, standing on end, in the bottom, then top with vegetable and potato wedges; finish with a layer of bratwurst or spicy sausage. Place over hot coals and steam until the grease has soaked into the other layers.  

Quite honestly, I was not predisposed to appreciate this culinary delight. My first thought was, it’s been a long time since people used cream cans. Where has this one been since then? Rusting away in a barn? My next concern was metallurgical. These cans were designed to hold cold or room temperature cream, not sit over a fire. What happens when you heat that metal? Does it exude noxious gases? Contribute metallic molecules to the dish?

Beer is good. Corn on the cob is good. Bratwursts are good. Why would you want to prepare these good foods in a way that causes them to taste like scorched bark, solder and each other?

While I’m on the subject of questionable culinary techniques … have you ever heard of cooking a chicken with a beer can inside? When I first heard of this crime against poultry I was flummoxed, to put it mildly.

“Why would you want to put a beer can inside a chicken?” I may have thrown in an expletive or two for emphasis.

“Well, there’s beer in it!” he replied in a tone that implied only a fool would think he meant an empty beer can. “It makes the meat moist.”

I have no personal experience with this dish so some may question my right to pass judgment on it. To them I say: I’ve never been shot in the toe with a nail gun, but I’m pretty sure it would hurt. If you catch where I’ve drifted.

By the way, I’m quite certain it was a man who came up with this. I don’t know any woman who would suggest such a ludicrous thing. Somewhere along the line there had to be a guy who really and truly abhorred dry chicken. So he considered the problem, and out of all the possibilities … this was his solution.

Seriously?

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the January/February 2014 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

Comments

11:39 am - Thu, February 9 2017
Why do we smoke meat? Considering it is an age old way to preserve food that is literally centuries old, a better question would be, Why do we continue to smoke meat? But most likely people continue to smoke meat and enjoy it is probably because after centuries of doing it, we've grown a taste for it. As for the differences in smoke from one type of wood to another, yes, there is definitely a difference. Just like there are differences in the way wine tastes. I don't get wine tasting myself. It all tastes equally terrible to me, but I realize to some it is quite delicious. Weirdos, but whatever. You have an excellent point concerning cooking in a cream can. That does sound foolish. Better to weld an old tractor seat to the top and use them seating around the campfire than actually using them to cook in. That is what cast iron is for. Now the can of beer in a chicken was probably invented by a man, but it is actually quite tasty and works better than just stuffing a chicken with lemon wedges when grilling. Just sayin.

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