Peggy Keener: How’s this for an opener?
It’s the 1950s. You’re holding a can with a key soldered to its underside. With your strongest fingernail, you bend the key upward, twist if off and insert its tiny slot over an equally tiny metal tab on the side of the can. Then you turn the key until it runs out, unveiling its contents. It’s a marvel of engineering and surely one of Spam’s most ingenious novelties. That little key allowed anyone anytime anywhere on Planet Earth to immediately access the yummy contents.
And, they did! By the bejillions!
But of course, this was all good as long as the key functioned as it was designed. Sometimes it did not. When that happened, expectations of munching down on mouthfuls of heavenly pink processed pork were dashed. The disappointment, monumental.
You see, frustration erupted when the little key meandered off its pre-scored track leaving you with a twisted band of curly metal sharp enough to perform an amputation. Moreover, spilling out of your mouth were skeezy four-letter words that up until then you deigned to utter aloud.
Two options remained: pull on the coiled double-razor-edged band with a pliers or pound on the can with a hammer and screwdriver—both as hazardous as asking your toddler to clean out the gutters.
Then you remembered the third option, the tried and true one—your regular old can opener. You thought you were in like Flynn as its sharp little wheels rolled perfectly along one long side of the rectangular can….until it hit the rounded corner where it spun clear off the track. At this point, and utterly thwarted, “Spam” became its own skeezy four-letter word.
Fortuitously, the perilous effort was not all in vain for through the mangled edges you could teasingly see glimpses of the contents. In a frenzy you grabbed the biggest butcher knife you owned and proceeded to ruin it by sawing the top off the can. Meanwhile you began to wonder if that course you took in Anger Management was all it was cracked up to be.
By now you were seriously salivating … so near and yet so far. For with the cover off, you were directly facing a new problem: how to get the blankety-blank meat chunk out of the can. It was wedged in there as tightly as a pudgy lady in a size small girdle.
In order to coax out the encased meat, you meticulously slipped that ravaged butcher knife into the can and worked it around the edges. Nothing budged. Utter exasperation fulminated as with excessive zeal you grabbed the screwdriver and viciously jammed it into the side of the can.
And, that’s when you heard it. Sluuurrrp! Splat! The stubborn blob slowly slid onto the plate like the slick birthing of a wee pink rectangular babe. Lamentably for you, however, was that by then your desire had diminished, replaced by an even greater need—Alka-Seltzer to counteract your recently riled up stomach acids.
I ask you to take a moment to ponder a world without can openers. Could we survive? Thanks is owed to the Dutch who in 1772 put their brined and smoked salmon in tin plated boxes. The cans often weighed more than their contents. Instructions read: cut around the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer. Note: 150 years later confounded Spam lovers were still doing the exact same thing!
By the 1850s, a primitive claw-shaped design was used to haggle its way around the top of the cans. Following this came the sharp sickle type which was thrust into the can and sawed around its edges. A metal guard kept the sickle from penetrating too far into the can … or through one’s fingers.
The Bull’s Head opener followed. Constructed of cast iron, it gaily featured either a charming bull’s head or a frivolous fish head. Your choice.
By 1870, things really ramped up when a sharp rotating cutting wheel was designed. Disappointingly, customers complained that it was difficult to use. With nary a trace of speed, it took only 55 more years to add a second serrated wheel. This marvel held the cutting wheel to the rim, keeping the opener from flopping off the can.
Still all can openers needed to be gripped with both hands. In 1931, the “Bunker” made this obsolete when it featured pliers-type handles that when squeezed tightly, gripped the rim of the can. Additionally a cutting wheel was coupled with a serrated feed wheel that rotated in the opposite direction. This interlocked the cogwheels, thus reducing the friction. Make sense?
Next in line was the raking blade opener. It was made from a single piece of pressed metal with a triangular metal piercer on one end. Ingeniously, it also functioned as a bottle cap lifter. Every home had one. Every home still has one. How else would you open your condensed milk can? Or your beer, for heaven’s sake!
In the end, it was the U.S. military that outdid all previous can openers. The hunky (but slow spoken) John Wayne made theirs famous when he posed with one during a training film that demonstrated how to open a can of K-rations. Key chain size, it was called the P-38 and was about 1.5 inches long. A short metal plate served as both a handle and a screwdriver.
On the side of the P-38 was a small hinged metal tooth that folded out to pierce the can lid. A notch just below the tooth kept it hooked onto the can as it “rocked” around the lid. Invented in 1942, the P-38 was used in field rations until 1980 when the soft-pack MRE was issued.
Not to be overlooked was the Australian Field Rations Eating Device known as “Fred,” although there was an optional more endearing name.
“******* Ridiculous Eating Device.” A model of functionality, it had a small spoon on one end, a bottle opener on the other and a can opener in the middle.
In a divine commingling in 1931, electricity met the can opener. Sublime in its efficiency, it was touted to remove more than 20 lids per minute. Sadly this swanky little number had little success because it seemed no one had 20 cans they needed to open in less than a minute!
Rivaling its unpopularity was the wall-mounted electric model in 1956. For some crazy reason housewives did not find it charming to see dripping contents from the cans running down their kitchen walls. Thus the idea was nixed and a freestanding can opener/knife sharpener combo was born. Launched just in time for Christmas, it was touted as the perfect gift for the little woman. Sexy as all get out, it came in Flamingo Pink, Avocado Green and Aqua Blue. A housewife had arrived if she had one.
All this brings me to my current can opener. It cuts not around the top of the can, but around the side of the top of the can. Devilishly, it leaves a sharp exposed edge around the top. All children and clumsy adults are banned from using it. Even I am despairing over finding my blood in my chicken noodle soup. It’s neither necessary nor appealing. Besides, who wants this most modern of can openers if it only creates deadly rims and anemia? Worthless, it doesn’t even sharpen knives, open beer bottles or come in Flamingo Pink?