Allens, poke sallet and change

by The City Wire staff ( 394 views 

Changing times, modern cooking gadgets, powerful global food companies and management which had other ideas finally has closed the door on Arkansas’ own, Allens (Canning Company).

The purchaser from the bankruptcy, Seneca Foods of Marion, N.Y., will keep a presence in the region.The 90 or so local employees who do the day-to-day warehouse, field works and run the local plants will stay – for now.

Allens was the 23rd largest private Arkansas business, according to state figures in 2013. The long-ago salad days of Allen Canning Company – just like the formal name of the company – is about to change.

Why? Well look in your kitchen pantry, if you have one. There’s a lot of commercially canned food in there these days. Now your home freezer and refrigerator may be full of plastic bags with flash-frozen veggies, but that’s another chapter in the demise of Allens.

Does the likely change in management mean that the iconic “Popeye” spinach label and its well-loved mascot statues in Alma and Springdale will simply disappear? Let’s hope not. Chambers of Commerce and local history groups need to spring into action before one day those iconic statutes of old “Popeye” just aren’t there anymore.

We’ve had trouble during the last generation or so of adequately explaining why old “Popeye” meant so such to our past generations – but he did. The popular and iconic “Popeye” of the Allen collection – a brand which featured an icon of the earliest of printed newspaper comics, Popeye – was on the label for chopped and leaf spinach. For those too young to remember, Popeye, when down and out and almost defeated, would consume right from the can. That magical spinach, that super infused vegetable, would always allow him to prevail.

Popeye moved off the comic pages and into the fledging world of television when fist fights, good and bad guys and damsels in distress filled the cartoon world. I must confess at my insistent urging, my mother made me once eat some of Popeye’s spinach right out of the can as my hero did. I never made that cold mistake again. And then there was another Arkansas staple that only Allen’s canned: poke sallet.

Allen Canning specialized in poke sallet, made from the pokeweed, the asparagus-like shoots of which became edible in early spring. It was popular because as one of the first spring greens it served to provide relief from a common winter menu that consisted mostly of salt pork, beans, and cornbread. As the people who grew up on poke sallet began to die off, the demand for the item dried up. Allen Canning packed its last batch of poke sallet greens in the spring of 2000.

And now we can explain why there is sadness in our voice of a local commercial canning operation being sold off. A proud label being gobbled up by a larger and more global brand.

From Allens own archives comes one reason for the sadness. Since 1926 Allens, headquartered in the small town of Siloam Springs, was one of the largest private canners of foods in the world. Yes, the vegetables they can today are not world beaters – such as beans, greens, spinach and sweet potatoes, which we prefer to call “sweet ‘taters.” These were staples no doubt to a table setting in 1926. But today there are more and varied choices of vegetables from around the world in most of the mega stores where we shop for our food.

Having canned their farmer-supplied vegetables, Allen’s branched out to do contract canning for major and private labels. At the zenith of the company’s rise there were about a dozen Allen plants, all located strategically close to the fields where these southern vegetables grew here at home in Arkansas, and in Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas.

Such table favorites as carrots, hominy (When was the last time that was on a heaping bowl of yellow or white hominy for supper?), black-eyed peas and even a chicken broth, was in the Allens stable of labels. To diversify and appeal to regional brands already well recognized, Allens picked up other labels including their well-known Allen Italian Green Bean label for processing and distribution.

Other labels included: “Butterfield,” for new and diced potatoes; “East Texas Fair,” for lima beans, field peas, black-eyed peas and chick peas and a “Freshlike” brand for other vegetables including spinach, corn, peas and beets.

Then there was the “Pincella,” “Royal Prince” and “Sugary Sam” labels for our Louisiana friends, which were sweet potatoes that were either cut, mashed or candied. A label simply called “Sunshine,” also featured turnip greens, rutabagas, yellow squash and butter beans.

The “Trappey’s” label name applied to a later line of bean products, including those beans considered “Northern” beans such as pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, Navy beans, Great Northern beans, and okra. Trappey’s has a delicious little concoction of okra and stewed tomatoes which is hard to find, but tasty.

Finally there is the “Veg-All” line of products for a mixed vegetable combination (beans, carrots, peas, etc.) and a line called “Wagon Master,” a pork and bean brand.

The family was being managed by a fourth generation of the founders, but other family members in line to succeed to the management found other business and cultural avenues than the canning company. One even went to Hollywood to make horror movies rather than work the family business.

The story of Allen Canning is an American success story. Founder Earl Allen moved to the healthy climes of the Ozark hills of Arkansas in 1922 with his wife and five children crammed into a Model T Ford.

A year later he began working in a canning operation located near Siloam Springs, established in an abandoned distillery that was no longer permitted to produce apple cider liquor after prohibition took effect in 1919. Allen became the sole owner of the business in 1926 and named it after himself. It was a tiny operation and he produced just one item during his first year: 4,000 cases of tomatoes. It was a family affair from the get-go.

The company forged its reputation on negotiations with local vegetable growers and expanded as the country – even through the Great Depression – grew in population and agricultural mechanization. Through the preceding decades the company held fast to the canning industry, but a late expansion into the fresh frozen vegetable lines may have undone the 1920s formula for success the company had known four generations ago.

Allens may soon answer to another corporate giant, but it has been a good and valued member of the Arkansas landscape and a name which we hope will not so quickly fade away.