When your power’s out for who knows how long, you start to appreciate some of life’s simpler things. You realize that canning is civilization’s third-greatest invention, right behind 10-speed bicycles and grandma’s knitted sweaters. Artisanal, DIY types might have Ball jars full of home-grown preserves in their well-stocked pantries, but if you’re me you head directly to the canned-green-bean aisle at Key Food.
Opening a can without power is no problem to me these days. When my electric can opener shot craps—it was during the Great New York City Blackout of ’02 or ’03 when it suddenly stopped working—I trashed it and devolved to the manual one with the butterfly handles that turn the circular blade that presses against the gear that presses against the can’s lip.
Then I discovered one on my Swiss Army Knife. Within a few minutes and a couple of failed tries that resulted in minor wounds, I figured out how it works—and simultaneously realized that this is undoubtedly how people did it in the old, old early days of American canning. And now I’m passing on that wisdom to you.
Better pay attention: I hear a nor’easter is headed our way on Thursday.
1. Sit can flat on the table. With one hand, grasp can firmly. Grip can opener by the handle in the other hand. Usually these things have a handle attached to a metal head with a hook that hooks under the lip of the can’s top, and a little knife blade that’s actually the cutting head. This is hard to describe, so see photo above.
2. If the can opener doesn’t have a handle, you’re screwed.
3. Hook the can opener’s hooky part under the can’s lip, pointing it perpendicularly. Imagine you have a circle with a line drawn across the bottom. That’s what you’re looking for here.
4. Grasp the can opener firmly by the handle, and place your forefinger on the top. You’ll see later why you do this part.
Unless you’ve injured said forefinger, do not use the finger that is central to the traditional Brooklyn Greeting. This has nothing to do with manners; using the middle finger is just awkward.
5. Now, with the aforementioned forefinger, press the can opener’s sharp business end down while also pressing it against the can’s lip, which breaks the can’s seal.
Raise the can opener’s knify edge end up, using the can’s lip for leverage.
6. Turn the can toward the opener slightly. Stop when the knify part is close to the end of the previous cut. Repeat all the way around the perimeter until the entire lid separates from the rest of the can.
7. Naturally the lid will drop into the can’s contents. With a clean finger – oh, I should have mentioned this earlier. It’s a really good idea to have soaped up and washed off the top of the can before beginning, to avoid bacterial contamination of can’s contents. Also, to have dried the can thoroughly to prevent slipperiness during critical moments. This is why they say live and learn.
Now, where was I? Oh yes, with one finger, press down on one edge of the lid.
8. Turn the can opener’s pointy end flat between the can’s inner wall and the lid’s higher edge, then force it between the two. Try to not stick the pointy end into the contents.
Use the can’s raised lip as a fulcrum and the can opener as the lever, and force the lid up. As you know by now, the lid’s edges are jagged and sharp—so be careful! And then wallow in pride—you’ve opened a can the old-fashioned way!
Note: Never attempt to heat an unopened can. Allow 5 to 14 minutes to take the chill off an open can of beans by holding it over a candle. Canning tongs are useful to hold the can.
Phil Scott is an executive editor of Brooklyn Artisan. Usually he writes about science and aviation.