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When you walk past those canned-food collection bins that are suddenly ubiquitous this time of year, have you ever wondered either how the foods got in the can or what you could do to turn those canned goods into an exciting meal?

First, some history. Up until the late 18th century, food preservation was largely limited to a few methods including sun drying, salting, smoking, freezing and pickling, none of which kept the food safe and edible long enough to reach Napoleon Bonaparte’s far-flung armies, according to Canned Food UK and other sources. Napoleon offered a prize to the person who could come up with a better way to preserve food, and eventually awarded it to Nicolas Appert, a confectioner who discovered that sealing food inside glass jars and exposing it to high heat kept it from spoiling.

Later, others found that the same is possible with cans, which were lighter and easier to transport. Canned food was largely the purview of the military until manufacturers in the 1920s began mechanizing the canning process and putting canned food on grocery store shelves. Since then, the convenience, long shelf-life and relatively low prices of canned food have made them a boon for budget-conscious families and efforts around the globe to feed the hungry.

So, canned food is convenient, safe and affordable. But tasty?

Chefs across the country say yes, and they have some interesting ideas for how to combine canned staples and a few other non-perishable items into meals. Chris Spear, executive chef at Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster, Md., recently demonstrated some of these dishes at a food bank fundraiser, as the Carroll County Times reports. Spear turned bologna and white bread into “Italian Style Pork Spread” on crostini, and turned other simple low-cost ingredients into a dinner to demonstrate what you can do with a little creativity.

For six chefs in Quincy, Mass., there was more at stake when they took up the challenge of turning canned goods and other food-bank fare into fine dining, as The Patriot Ledger reports. The winner of the Quincy Community Action Programs’ Best Chef competition, Paul Wahlberg of restaurants Alma Nove and Wahlburgers in Hingham, turned everyday ingredients into citrus couscous with potato-crusted chicken, Asian slaw and Thai peanut sauce. The other five chefs came up with dishes that sounded no-less fancy.

Meanwhile, Chef Carl Hazel of 1111 Mississippi in St. Louis, Mo., went simpler to create a Cottage Pie using canned tomatoes, green beans and other common ingredients, then went more upscale with a version of chicken piccata over pasta, as shown in this KSDK-TV segment.

All these recent cooking demonstrations using canned foods come as we prepare to kick off the holiday season with Thanksgiving this week, a time when canned-food drives are in full force. We see the barrels each time we go to the supermarket, but for more ideas on how to donate, check out Feeding America, which works with food banks across the country.

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