The People vs. Corned Beef

Last Saturday morning I awoke after a long sleep (this new routine is taking it out of me) to a few messages from my new Dutch friend Seph (pronounced Sepp, like Sciphol Airport is pronounced Scippol), who needed a place to stay for a couple of days. No problem, I thought – with Carnaval in Las Palmas for the next three weekends, accommodation is incredibly hard to come by for anything less than a couple of hundred euros a night.

After a late morning and early afternoon spent chatting on the balcony, with Seph introducing me to the wonders of urban exploration in the old Nazi buildings near Berlin, we headed to the supermarket to pick up some food. I grabbed the opportunity to stock up on lunch and breakfast supplies for the week.

Seph was passing through the canned foods aisle and chanced upon a tin of corned beef – oddly enough labelled as such in English. He had a vague memory of eating it as a kid. For my part, I used to be a huge fan of corned beef sandwiches for lunch back in my early primary school days in England, but when the BCE/Mad Cow Disease crisis struck it was off the menu, never to return.

After I loaded up on enough food to survive a medium-length zombie apocalypse and Seph got the provisions for a hell of a sandwich (peppers, onions, some salad greens, a nice fresh roll and the corned beef), we headed back to the apartment.

By this stage I’d been contacted by another guy I met here: Mark, an American guy with a penchant for ultramarathon running and seasonal work. He had also been bitten by the sudden LPA housing crisis and needed a place to crash for the night, so I told him our spare mattress was booked but he was welcome to the couch. With him due to arrive shortly after we got back from shopping, I realised my best chance to get some writing done was then, while Seph prepared and ate lunch and Mark was still in transit.

When Seph came to open the tin of corned beef though, he discovered a problem.

What had appeared to be a kind of ringpull on the top of the can turned out on closer inspection to be a loosely-glued key-type implement. It was thin but solid, too strong to bend under the force of a hand – partly due to its small size. The end of the key had a rectangular slice taken out of the centre, which I thought was likely just to save on materials cost without sacrificing too much in the way of the key’s strength. Unfortunately, neither of us had a clue how to use this “key” to open the tin. Certainly there was no evidence of a lock (obviously) or even a simple hole into which it could be inserted.

Just like that, two bright twenty-something year old men with years of experience living out on our own were completely stumped. If you’ve ever seen the “the files are in the computer” scene in Zoolander, you’ve some idea of how to picture what happened next.

We scoured the kitchen for a can-opener to no avail, resorting to trying to bash through the tin covering with the key, or lever the tip of the key down into the soft-looking metal of the tin’s top. We briefly considered using the bottle opener, but it’s a cheap one of dubious strength and it seemed unwise to risk its point on the rugged corned beef tin.

After losing a nail – the first casualty in the war against the can – Seph tried to use pressure to pop it open, wedging it against the edge of the kitchen counter and putting his weight down against it. It didn’t pop. I was secretly a little bit glad, as I had visions of corned beef splattered across our kitchen window, dripping down in globs like brains in a Tarantino movie. Still, for a generation so unused to having to work for its food, this was maddening.

I was ready to give up – it wasn’t my food, after all, and I had writing to do before Mark arrived. Just as I sat down in front of my laptop, I heard a triumphant yell from the kitchen. Seph had peeled the label of the can off, searching for a weakness in the seam that he could exploit.

What he discovered was a metal version of the opening mechanism on Wrigley’s Orbit packets, or fancy cardboard mailing envelopes. A piece of metal could be folded back from the edge of the tin at one end and used to pull a strip of metal away from the tin, all the way around the circumference and leaving you with an opened can. The reason for the rectangular cutout in the key became clear as the jutting metal strip fit perfectly into it. Now we saw that to open the can it was simply a matter of inserting the metal into the key and twisting the key against the can, rolling the seam around it until the can was open.

Seph, framed in the doorway of my hall, prepared to do just that. In our excitement, neither of us realised the danger he was in.

Seph took firm hold of the key, wide smile on his face at the prospect of the coming food he had striven so hard to access. I imagine it’s the look a fisherman has after braving a tempest to discover he’s netted a full load of glistening tuna, or a hunter has as he lines up the sights of his rifle just below the twitching ears of a prize doe, breath held in anticipation. Seph slowly twisted the key, the excess metal rolling around it until it reached the point where to twist any more would begin to open the tin.

By now, Seph was craned over the can. I could see the muscles in his forearm bunch as he made the victory twist.

A jet of liquid erupted from the new opening in the – highly pressurised thanks to our earlier efforts – tin. It spewed up and directly into Seph’s face, right in his grinning mouth and all over his face and his shirt. He turned away too late, taking the full blast right in the shnoz. The image frozen in my head is of his triumphant smile turning to horror as he rears back from the opening with the thin stream spraying his face and my apartment in the strong smell of processed meat.

He ran to the sink with beef-water dripping from his chin and shirt and peels of laughter echoing through the apartment.

I wrote this with him sitting next to me on the balcony, sandwich long-since finished (pretty good, would pair it with a Merlot, apparently) and the smell of corned beef still wafting off his shirt. Just like that, the universe provided me with easy fodder for my writing practice that day. On top of that, we both learned how to work a new opening mechanism, invented by some tin can engineering genius who-knows-how-long ago.

Cheers, universe.