BestOVall Canning Company – Beans and All
The idea for this blog began with an intriguing label for BestOVall Canning Company, a BC canning company, and ends with a delicious homemade version of Pork and Beans.
Food packages and container labels are highly perishable and many don’t survive. Yet each one has a story and are therefore important artifacts for food historians. Recognizing this, the Royal BC Museum has a Food History project with collections of images categorized under these headings:
- Multicultural (Imported & Local) Food Collections
- Dairy Food Package Collections
- Canning and Packaging Collections
- Libation Collections
- Menus and Catalogues Collections[i]
One of the labels from the Canning and Packaging Collection is used as a header for the webpage:
Bestovall Canning Company interested me immediately. The Royal Museum provided more information:
Green beans, one of Bestovall’s main products, came to the plant in sacks, with about fifteen hundred sacks on hand at a time. About sixty to seventy sacks were packed each day. The beans were dumped into the bean snippers to remove both ends. They then moved along on belts past women who sorted the beans for spots and oversize, the oversize going to a slicer for French Cut beans. A bean cutter sliced the rest into pieces about one inch long and passed them to a bean sizer. The sizer would sort by 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s and larger. The 1s, 2s and 3s were combined as fancy, the top grade; the 4s as choice and the larger as standard.
But I was more interested in the company and when it operated in BC.
The information wasn’t easy to find. Most articles on canneries in BC tend to focus on the many fish canneries up and down the coast, with very little attention paid to fruit and vegetable canneries. When the latter are mentioned, only the big companies such as Empress or Royal City are named.[ii]
I was able to find little snippets of information about BestOVall, for example,
• In a StatsCan (1941) Publication, list of manufacturing establishments employing fifty hands or over, BestOVall Canning Co. Ltd. was included at 2244 West 10th Ave. Vancouver[iii]. The same address was given in Canadian Trade Index Annual Issue Of 1943[iv].
• By the 1950s it had moved to a larger establishment at 1775 Clark Drive, Vancouver.[v]
The best information source was an article in the British Columbia Historical News, the Journal of the BC Historical Federation[viii]. It was written in 1990, by Robert Griffin who was the head of the History department at the Royal British Columbia Museum. He obtained his information from Art Hayden who took over running the cannery from his father Charles Hayden in 1943. The company was started in 1933 and operated for 30 years. It was started by a group of men who had previously been employed by Canadian Canners[ix] and decided to go out on their own. It was started in the Kitsilano location in 1933, then moved to a bigger location on Clarke Drive in 1943 and operated there until 1963.
The availability of cheap vegetables and fruits from the United States and cheaper canned fruits and vegetables produced in other countries where wages were cheaper and economies of scale prevailed meant that small local producers could not compete and this eventually lead to their demise. “After packing nearly two million cases of food products Bestovall ceased operation in 1963 and liquidated its assets in 1964” (Griffin, 1990, p. 8).
While Bestovall Cannery was in operation, it preserved a variety of fruits and vegetables: beans, peas, potatoes, apples, pears, raspberries, cherries, apricots, pumpkin, beets, asparagus, various jams, and pork and beans. The last two began as means to extend the canning season and keep the operations going for as much of the year as possible. Much of the labour force was women who lived in the neighbourhood who used the seasonal work to augment the family income.
Pork and beans eventually surpassed green beans as Bestovall’s main product. This might not be surprising. In a Maclean’s article Gratton Gray claims that “beans built Canada”[x]. To support his argument Gray refers to the fact that bean stew was one of the first meals served to Jacques Cartier by the indigenous people and it became the staple food of early settlers, lumberjacks, trappers, farmers and fishermen and the Klondike Gold Rush miners. They are associated with cowboy meals and pioneer dinners. And today they are still popular for cookouts and camping and a quick “go to” meal.
Canned pork and beans are often described as the first convenience foods. Mass-produced canned foods were made possible during the mid 19th century industrial revolution. Commercial preparation of beans began to appear in the late 1800s and pork and beans became more popular when Pennsylvania-based H.J. Heinz Company came out with their version in 1895.
The recipe for commercially canned pork and beans varies slightly from company to company but generally consists of navy beans, tomato sauce, and chunks of salt pork or pork fat[xi]. Pork and beans are lighter in color than baked beans. Baked beans are darker because of the molasses or brown sugar used to prepare them[xii]. Pork and beans are not as sweet, not as thick, and not as expensive as the baked version. They are stewed not baked. When they are canned, they are actually cooked inside the can in the canning process. The raw beans are first soaked and blanched to soften, and then sealed in the can with the pork and the sauce, and pressure-canned to fully cook and kill any bacteria.[xiii]
Griffin included the recipe for Bestovall’s most successful product. The recipe for Pork and Beans started out with 150 pounds of beans, and the sauce made 50 gallons or enough for about 500 pounds of beans. So I got out my calculator and set to work to create a batch of pork and beans using the ingredients mentioned but adjusted to 1 pound (454 gm.) of beans so see if I could recreate a home style version. Here is what I came up with: [Author’s note: my comments are in brackets].
- Soak beans for 18 hours. Then bring to boil, skimming off scum and floating beans and drain. [The recipes said “until done” so I just simmered a bit until they were soft.]
- Make sauce:
500 mL tomato pulp [You could use tomato paste or crushed tomatoes, or tomato sauce but reduce the water.]
250 – 500 mL water
Bring to a boil then add:
1 onion ground [I just chopped it fine.]
60 mL sugar
5 mL salt
pinch of red pepper
Spice bag of 5mL Cinnamon, 5 mL whole allspice, 3 mL. cloves, 1 mL mace [I just had ground spices so didn’t bother with the bag.]
Boil for 30 minutes [I recommend just simmering]. Add boiling water if it gets too thick.
- Add beans and pork [I couldn’t figure out the amount of pork so I used 200g. of bacon cut into small pieces] to sauce and simmer. [I simmered for an hour. One article I read said simmer until the neighbours come running because the smell is so enticing!]
This was the result.
It’s been a long time since I have had canned pork and beans but this version tasted pretty good to me.
Many people consider Pork and Beans a comfort food[xiv]. The term comfort food refers to those foods whose consumption provides a feeling of well-being. Although the research is uneven it appears that certain foods do bring comfort through association with positive social encounters in an individual’s past. Pork and Beans remind me of campfires and hot dogs being outdoors and carefree. Happy memories for COVID times.
[v] Reference Paper No. 47 – Dominion Bureau of Statistics http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/statcan/72-D-55B/CS72-D-55B-1951-eng.pdf;
[vi] The Fruit and Vegetable Preparations Industry, 1950, Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Ottawa, ON. http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2019/statcan/32-218/CS32-218-1950-eng.pdf
[viii] Griffin, Robert. (1991). Case after Case: Canning at Bestovall 1933 to 1963. British Columbia History Magazine, 24(1), 3 –8. http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/bchf/bchn_1990-91_winter.pdf
[ix] Canadian Canners Limited was incorporated, in 1923 in Ontario for the purpose of consolidating and amalgamating a large group of canning operations. It grew to 150 plants across Canada, including ones in BC in places such as Vancouver, Oliver, Penticton, Lulu Island, Ashcroft and Mission. It was known for driving hard bargains with growers that allowed it to maintain low prices and tough standards.
Elder, L. (1986). The History of Canadian Canners Limited, 1903-1986. http://images.ourontario.ca/Partners/Burlington/BHS0027798411T.pdf
Rider, J. (2012) The Way it Was: My Life Story Including a 40 Year Cannery Career. Self Published.
[x] Gray, G. (1956, March 31). How beans built Canada. Macleans. https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1956/3/31/how-beans-built-canad
[xiv] Spence, C. (2017). Comfort food: A review. International journal of gastronomy and food science, 9, 105-109.