Can to Mouth

Dominique's Vichyssoise ($2.29) seemed like the perfect way to start a civilized meal. You're supposed to eat the French potato-and-leek soup cold. And talk about easy, you don't even need to add water. But the white potage poured out of the can as thick as paste. And it tasted like pabulum. Careful inspection of the label revealed that "non dairy whitener" was one of the ingredients, and the leeks were dried. Scratch this one from your emergency preparedness kit.

Petrossian Pâté Maison ($20) on JJ Flats Sesame Crackers ($1.79) is a much better bet for a lights-out appetizer. If you don't care about the money, you can step up to a can of Petrossian's pure goose foie gras ($56). And you thought all canned food was cheap crap?

So did our editorial staff. When I signed up for this tasting, they looked at me like I had just volunteered to test masks against mustard gas. I guess most folks don't think very highly of canned food these days. But I knew there was plenty of cool stuff out there. And as you are no doubt aware, our government wants us all to give canned food another chance.

The Department of Homeland Security has recommended that we all stockpile three days' worth of food and water for emergencies. "That's the amount of time you may need to remain in your home until the danger from a biological, chemical or radiological attack has passed," says the DHS Web site. "A gallon of water per person per day should be enough. Canned and dried foods are easy to store and prepare."

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Yeah, right -- real easy if there isn't any gas or electricity -- you just open the can and dig in! And without water, cleanup is a snap too. Better add paper plates to that shopping list. And don't forget the candles!

I went to Central Market, Whole Foods and Randalls and spent $100 on interesting canned and dried foods. Then I invited a friend over for lunch. To simulate the complete breakdown of the grid, the rules of our emergency food preparedness drill were as follows: no heating or chilling anything, and no tools except a can opener and plastic utensils.

Draft Guinness comes in a can, is extremely nutritious and tastes best at room temperature. So we elected it as our official emergency preparedness beverage.

My highlight was the canned lobster meat ($16 at Central Market) artfully arranged on artichoke bottoms served over roasted tomato-stuffed eggplant. My friend thought it was pretty good -- for canned. But she preferred the silky Greek eggplant (Palirria, Aubergines Imam, $4.49) by itself. "I'd buy this even if there wasn't an emergency," she said with her mouth full.

The biggest waste of $4.45 was the Hagenborg shrimp pâté, a loathsome orange fish putty that I wouldn't feed to a cat. Silver Creek Farms Gourmet smoked sturgeon, $7.99 a can, was equally disappointing. Blindfolded, you couldn't tell it from tuna.

I loved the Eastern Harvest smoked oysters ($1.79). She said they tasted all right but had the texture of liver. (And what's wrong with the texture of liver?) Likewise we had different ideas about the Chicken of the Sea canned shrimp ($3.99) salad.

I started that dish by putting Read Three Bean Salad ($1.29) and the juice from the can on each plate. "I'm having grade-school flashbacks," she said when she tasted it. Granted, canned three-bean salad is nothing special. But the vinaigrette it's packed in is crucial. Read Three Bean Salad or Read Garden Salad in your emergency larder can make a lot of other vegetables palatable.

I added Green Giant Mexicorn, a blend of corn, red peppers and green peppers, to the bean salad and dressing, then threw on a hefty helping of canned shrimp. Mixed together, it made a damn respectable shrimp salad. With the addition of Silver Creek Farms Gourmet smoked trout (infinitely better than the sturgeon and $2 cheaper), she begrudgingly agreed it wasn't too bad.

"Give me a break, we're working with nothing but cans here!" I pleaded.

"The more Guinness I drink, the better it tastes," she allowed. We both agreed that in a crisis, beer is the most important canned good to have on hand.

The sardine taste test was enlightening. I've always wondered why King Oscar Brisling Sardines ($2.39) cost more than the rest. We compared them to varieties of Bela Portuguese sardines ($1.99), one packed in hot sauce, the other in tomato. The sauces were fine, but the big Bela sardines were relatively tasteless. The King Oscar sardines were tiny and packed in mustard sauce. They had a distinct sharp flavor and a delicate texture that set them apart. So now I know why King Oscar rules.

Our dessert concept originated with David Kiser, a Central Market employee who came to my assistance after he found me wandering the canned fruit aisle. "If you're going to eat fruit right out of the can, be sure to get it in light syrup or water," he advised. "Fruits in heavy syrups are for pie fillings."

Kiser suggested mixing cans of peaches, pineapple, mandarin oranges and tart cherries together. You have to break out the Tupperware for this, but the resulting fruit salad is much better than "fruit cocktail."

After the fruit, we were both full. And all in all, it was a pretty good meal. Our after-lunch conversation meandered into a discussion of what you'd actually need to last three days. I confessed I'd either have to have some Starbucks Double Shots (the double espresso in a can) or deal with caffeine withdrawal. She figured she'd have to buy a whole lot of cereal and crackers if she was going to feed her picky kids for three days.

Then there was a moment of awkward silence while the cloud of seriousness passed over. "How about another Guinness?" I said, reaching for a can.

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