How to Open a Can of Corned Beef

For base camping, a weekend hike or a solid meal after an unlucky day of fishing, there’s nothing better than a can of bully beef. Once the staple food of the British Army and a widespread basic commodity during WWII food rationing, this ground combination of rock salt and meat tastes better than steak after a hard day on the trail. Sure, it weighs a little more than dehydrated beef particles, but that extra weight packs a lot of calories into the can. Mix it with some brown rice or spread it on pita bread and you have a meal. These days it’s a better meat meal than the ground beef you buy fresh in the stores, because it comes from South America where the cows are free range and grass fed, not shut up nose to tail in feed lots with nothing to eat but GMO corn and composted poultry litter. Steak doesn’t taste like steak any more, but bully beef still tastes the way it did 50 years ago. In some cases it might even be the same beef, those cans hold up for a long time. One of my favorite movie scenes is when Sessue Hayakawa (Camp Commander Saito in Bridge Over the River Kwai) tries to corrupt Alec Guinness (Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson) with a glass of whiskey and a carefully served slab of delicious bully beef. You can see how it glistens as it slides gently onto the plate! The fat and the salt drip off it in the tropical heat, you don’t even need to cook it when the can is that warm because it spreads under the knife like butter, but with meat in it. When Nicholson turned it down, Saito knew he’d lost the argument.

OMG! Scariest thing on the show! Why does no one stop her?

OMG! Scariest thing on the show! Why does no one stop her?

But to tempt anyone with bully beef, you do have to open the can first and apparently some newcomers to the world of global travel haven’t encountered the keyed bully beef can before. Noteworthy among them was this young lady aboard a replica Chinese junk following the course of an ancient Chinese Imperial sailing fleet. Used to be there were lots of products in keyed cans but I don’t see many on the shelves now, and when I researched this the only thing I did find in a keyed can was corned beef. Looks like every major corned beef packer still uses the keyed can. Spam went to poptop cans ages ago and it’s not real hard to figure out a poptop, but the keyed can does sometimes mystify the new user. People today are used to cans where you just pull the tab.

Note the neat coil, empty can, and lack of severed fingers.

Note the neat coil, empty can, and lack of severed fingers.

Of course you and I think it’s obvious that this is not what you do with a keyed can. You bust the key off the bottom of the can and find the little metal tab on the side and insert that into the key slot. Then you start turning the key clockwise. There’s a metal strip indented in the side of the can that goes all the way around and back to the seam again. If you’re careful, the strip separates evenly from the can and winds around the key in a neat coil. If not, uhoh. Sometimes the strip tears and then you have a problem because it’s nearly impossible to recover from that. Might have to resort to an actual can opener, something the regular British soldier might not have carried in the Boer War, or shift to the bayonet, a method the average consumer today might find even more hazardous than the torn metal strip.

What you probably should avoid most of all is doing what this young lady did. Don’t grab the metal strip and pull. Lots of times you aren’t within easy drive of a hospital when bully beef is on the menu and this is a really good way to remove some fingers.

If you want to spread out into different corned beef territory, try the salt-cured and pickled version that’s the basic ingredient in corned beef and cabbage. Although some people might suggest the bully beef with cabbage, it’s just nowhere near as good as pickled corned beef and cabbage. A restaurant can go broke on an all you can eat special with pickled corned beef and cabbage included.

Makes me wonder how many other pieces of neat technology are going by the board now. I’ve always liked the bully beef and have always enjoyed the key. It’s such a neat idea! When I was a little kid and we were having corned beef hash for supper, Mom always let me open the can.

Popcaps are gone now unless you buy beer from Mexico. That’s not such a shame although at one time I did know a neat trick for opening them with my teeth. I think I won’t miss that. I was glad to see cassette tapes go away, and also 8-tracks, because I never could stand the background hiss, but I still would be tempted if I found a good reel-to-reel tape recorder. I miss those. That was a pleasant technology, something you could look at and understand from watching it happen. Too many things we own today are just black box technology. No one really understands how they work and can’t even repair them at a fundamental level. You replace blocks of technology instead of fixing what broke, and you don’t actually know what’s in the block except in theory. That may be why I hope we keep the keyed can. A human being can figure one of those out.


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