Nostalgia by the Canful

Keeping nearly forgotten Southern canned foods around long past their expiration date

Photo: Jacqueline Stofsick

Four of these five canned foods remain in production, but the greens are gone for now.

To not-yet-teens growing up in down-town Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1980s, the Broad Street Piggly Wiggly was a linoleum-paved Valhalla. The canned goods aisle, especially, lured us, with row upon row of hermetically sealed postcards from far-flung places throughout the South. We spent hours scrutinizing the carnival colors, the quirky illustrations, the origins on their labels, and we tried to imagine what flavors were locked inside. Roddenberry’s green boiled peanuts, from Cairo, Georgia, we knew well: This was a favorite of ours for its soft, salty quarry. Canned corn, such as Mitchell’s “Fancy,” with “shoe peg” printed in red across a hand-tinted photograph of a corncob, we couldn’t get enough of. But those we hadn’t tasted—Rose Brand Pork Brains with Milk Gravy, with the lurid illustration of its contents, for one—were the most spellbinding. You couldn’t look away.

As we matured, we got to know more cans, and to know their contents better. Stout yellow Mrs. Fearnow’s Delicious Brunswick Stew became a household favorite (even though rumor was it contained squirrel). And we learned to love Harris She-Crab Soup, especially when Mom made it “homemade,” with a glug of sweet, sharp sherry. The soup was tasty, and it also made us feel grown-up.

But by the time we had our learner’s permits, that Piggly Wiggly location had closed, and just a decade later, the only shelf on Broad Street with rare Southern canned brands was the one in the tiny shipping office of our Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue. In 1994, we’d started a small mail-order concern, aiming to be a one-stop shop for fresh boiled peanuts and pantry items we knew expatriate Southerners craved but couldn’t secure in L.A. or Peoria: shelf-stable treats such as sunchoke pickles, muscadine jelly, chowchow, pickled okra; canned purple hull peas and she-crab soup; stone-ground grits; and Duke’s mayonnaise. In short, all those flavor markers that lend the South its enduring edge, color, and interest, fixing powerful food memories that last a lifetime.

But soon after launching, we experienced the first heartache of dwelling in the world of small-batch regional foods: We lost our source for ramps. Packed in chemistry-class jars by the Facemire family of Richwood, West Virginia, and pickled with white vinegar and salt, they’d been a customer favorite and a personal one, too. Their demise was about supply (small) conflicting with demand (growing); the Facemires wanted to focus on the fresh market for their wild onions. Soon after that we received bad news about the cane syrup. The Layfield family, who made the 100 percent kind (uncut by cheap corn syrup) in St. Matthews, South Carolina, was exiting the business. Robert and Julianna had wearied of all the hard work every fall.

We became accustomed to holding our cup in the last run of endangered, artisanal foods, but we took comfort in the solidity of our canned-goods section—we’d always have those iconic labels, the warm nostalgia those sturdy cans inspired. Surely they were everlasting. You can probably guess what happened. In 2000, we called Allens, then one of the last large independent canneries in the nation, in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, to order four cases of canned Poke Salet.

“Sorry,” the clerk said. “We’re sold out, and I don’t think we’ll get ’em back. Too hard to get good clean poke anymore.” Could it be? Phytolacca americana, a native weed impossible to suppress? We had a mailing list of homesick Southerners who were hankering for that bracing,
spinach-meets-dandelion flavor.

As the years went by, more legends in our canned-food world fell: Betty Ann Creecy Greens, a bitter cress people from the mountain South adore, was an especially hard loss. In 2002, the original canner in Crossville, Tennessee, sold the brand to McCall Farms, in Effingham, South Carolina, which kept it going for another decade, but then shut it down for good.

“We were having a hard time getting them grown properly,” says Woody Swink, copresident of McCall Farms. “It sold real good up and down the Appalachians, in the Asheville market and Knoxville…” Even now, we get calls every week from people searching for them. Would it ever be possible, we ask Swink, to resurrect Betty Ann, if, say, a group of idealistic young farmers were to plant a decent crop? “Absolutely, if we could get a supply,” he says.

Five years ago, when Harris She-Crab Soup disappeared from our local Harris Teeter, we added another can to our growing memorial shelf. But then, a few months back, a friend reported having scored some, and we tracked down Boone Brands, the company that bought Harris out of bankruptcy in 2015 (along with Mrs. Fearnow’s Brunswick Stew and those famous Rose Pork Brains). Boone CEO Ron Sonntag says the cannery had lost most of its distribution network in the run-up to receivership, but to date Boone has restored 90 percent of it. The soup is now distributed to BI-LO, Harveys, and Winn-Dixie supermarkets in the Southeast, and he has some advice for those of us who want to keep these legacy brands on the shelf.

“Comments and requests from customers are the number-one way to keep products stocked,” Sonntag says. “Even national companies like Walmart and Food Lion are focused on local food, and they depend on their store managers to provide that feedback up the chain.”

So you want some of that she-crab soup or McCall Farms White Acre Peas, a brand endangered, Swink warns, by soft demand? Speak up, so these Southern traditions can live on as more than memories.