It seems a bit of a stretch to try and think about cooking and eating with tin cans, but there’s a history to this practice that’s worth considering. During the Great Depressions, many men found themselves not only displaced, but using freight trains for travel. They would hop on open-box cars and ride the rails to the next town or job or anywhere that afforded them a place to sleep, work, live and eat.
They often were referred to as “Hobos.” The term first showed up after the Civil War when many men found themselves displaced and out of work. As this problem continued, a Hobo culture followed that again found men riding the rails into the 1930s.
For the record, Hobos were not bums. They were men willing to work hard when they could find work, and that was the fundamental challenge.
Eating was the hardest part, and cooking was always a challenge given their need for frequent travel across country in demanding conditions. However, they found unique solutions to this need and it was often defined by using tin cans for a variety of cooking and drinking utensils.
1. Tin can cup
2. Tin can stove
3. Tin can frying pan
4. Tin can sauce pan
5. Tin can toaster
6. Tin can candle lantern
7. The tin can knife
The edges of tin cans are sharp, and anyone who’s worked with sheet metal knows how easily you can get a severe cut from a casual glance against raw-cut steel or tin. In fact, I question the need to cut a handle on a tin can cup when an empty tin can offer a clean lip at the top that won’t cut your lips with a casual sip.
You also may have to “temper” any tin can to remove any lacquer or waxy film on the interior. This can be done by boiling water in the can or simply heating it over an open fire first.
Tin snips help, along with some leather work gloves. A pair of pliers also comes in handy. You’ll probably also need a can opener. If you’re exploring this idea for the first time, make sure you are wearing the leather work gloves.
A tin can when opened can be placed into or next to a fire, and the contents will be heated. You can then eat what’s inside directly from the can. It’s as simple as that and was often the first choice for any Hobo on the road who happened to have a can of food. But there were more creative solutions.
There are safe ways to make use of tin cans as cooking utensils, and the Hobos perfected the art. The first is the tin-can stove or “Hobo stove.” It’s usually a large can with cuts made in the bottom by a can opener or “church key” which had a pointed end and would allow you to make various openings in the base of the can.
There also were some “church key” openings at the top of the can to allow the smoke to escape when a larger pan or pot was put on top.
Larger cans were cut to allow a wooden handle to be surrounded by tin for a sauce pan or frying pan. This created a very effective and creative solution that kept the fire hot and could easily and quickly cook a meal. That was often a necessary prerequisite for Hobos who had to avoid the “bulls” or security staff that manned the freight yards and trains.
This is as simple as a large inverted can with vents in the bottom and some at the top to create a hot surface for an inverted can. It could be used to fry a fish or simply to toast some bread. It was another simple and quick solution that could be easily abandoned if the “bulls” showed up.
A candle in the wind won’t last long, but if surrounded by a cleverly cut piece of a tin can, it will not only be protected from the wind, but the shiny interior will also reflect light. The base of the candle was melted to create a pool of wax at the bottom and the candle was stood in place. The critical part is to make sure the can is taller than the candle or you just have another candle in the wind.
Any #10 sized can is an easy choice for a tin can frying pan. A stick was often used around a cut of the can that was folded around the stick to create a handle. I think the whole handle thing is a lot of extra work that’s unnecessary. Cutting a large can down to frying-pan size works fine and you can always toss it off the fire with a stick after you’re done cooking.
This is not hard to do. Just use a whole, large can or if needed, cut it down halfway. Personally, I don’t prefer any cuts requiring tin-snips if I can use the basic can in some way. It’s all a question of the size of your can and what you’re trying to cook. I still like the idea of just cooking it in the can.
Anyone who has cut tin or sheet metal knows how sharp the edges can be. That’s a good thing if you’re trying to make a knife; a strip from a tin can in a piece of wood cut with a slight wedge and bound cannot only filet a fish but cut most game and other wild meats.
This is where I depart from most of the popular and historical culture about tin can cups. If I have an empty tin can, I have a cup. The idea of cutting it in half and creating a handle is idiotic. All you’re doing is creating hard, sharp edges to cut your fingers and lips. It looks good in pictures but makes no sense in actual practice. If you have an empty tin can, you have a cup usually with a band at the top that protects you from hard and sharp edges. I like that.
Once you start fashioning utensils from tin cans you’ll get the idea and can it to new levels. Tin can arrowheads come to mind. The key is to avoid getting cut by the sharp edges and to temper the cans to remove their waxy or synthetic coating before your cook or eat out of the can. If you can manage that, you can manage anything — including cooking and eating from improvised tin cans.