Summer Jobs: Processed Foods

For our summer jobs series, listeners tell us about working as a fly picker in a jam factory, the hazards of canning pineapple, and why your low-end brand peas might have been high quality the summer of 1969.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

While you're loading your cart at the grocery store, you're probably not thinking about who's canning the peas, packing the pineapple or picking the flies off the jam before it gets to your store shelf.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, that may change after this roundup of summer job stories. Our topic today: The not-so bright side of processed foods.

And let's start with former fly picker, Howard Green(ph). Howard worked at a food processor in Hamilton, Ontario one summer. They made jam. And Howard writes this: When the product came off the line, it was poured into these large pails, which were set out in a large room to cool. As you can imagine, flies were plentiful and some would settle on the jam and become stuck there as the product cooled.

Well, after the cooling was complete, my job was to take a spoon and go around the room making sure all the flies were picked off before the lids were placed on top.

I did not eat food preserves for quite a few years after that.

Mr. LARRY SICTER(ph): I was a tray boy.

BLOCK: That's Larry Sicter of Menifee, California. He grew up in Hawaii where he worked at the Del Monte pineapple cannery one summer.

Mr. SICTER: My job was picking up a steel bin full of pineapple and walking about five feet and then putting a steel cover over the bin and flipping the bin onto a table.

And then this lady at the table would take the pineapple that were sitting there - there were about 12 of them - so she'd take each pineapple and shove it down a hole in the table and it would core it and slice it and drop it into a can below.

BLOCK: I know what you're thinking. You're thinking someone's going to lose a finger here in this pineapple cannery story, but fortunately, no. Scratching is involved, though.

Mr. SICTER: When you flip a pineapple over onto the table, the juice would run out of the pan under your arms. And after a couple of days, you'd get a rash and would start itching. So they'd make us go to the dispensary, and we get this white cream put on. And then they'd bandaged our arms in gauze, so we look sort of mummified after a couple of days as all these workers with their bandaged arms from their skin rashes from pineapple. And, of course, you go back to the job and get more juice on it, so we were a sticky mess at the end of the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Larry Sicter, who says rash or no rash, he still loves his pineapple.

But Mark Weisar(ph) of Silver Spring, Maryland, is no fan of peas. He worked for a premium brand factory in Illinois that also canned peas for several low-quality brands.

Mark writes this: Since I was in college at Yale, they gave me the intellectual job, working the machine that calculated the ripeness of the peas known as the pea tenderometer.

And he explains: The best - that is, the tenderest peas - were supposed to go into the premium cans, and the less than tender peas were supposed to go to the off brands.

But working in that factory was pretty boring, so we used to engage in little pranks, like switching the numbers for each bucket and thus changing the brands.

There were probably a few months in 1969 when the premium brand peas weren't nearly as tender as they usually were, and the off brands were of surprisingly high quality.

And here's what sealed Mark Weisar's distaste for peas. He says, every night for about two hours, everyone in the factory had to put on waders and yellow rain slickers and hose down the entire factory with high-pressure hoses. There were rivers of pea slime cascading down the walls, rushing along the floor, gurgling into the industrial drains.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: It took me 25 years before I considered eating peas again, and they're still near the bottom of my vegetable list.

BLOCK: Well, your summer stories are at the top of our list. We learned so much from these, Robert.

SIEGEL: Absolutely, the pea tenderometer.

BLOCK: I love the pea tenderometer.

SIEGEL: Fly pickers and pineapple rashes.

BLOCK: And later this week, we're going to add corn detasselers to that list, as we share your stories about the summer jobs that influenced you.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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