True Grit: Hominy Plant Is City's Last Cannery

February 16, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez

BALTIMORE USED TO BE THE KIND of town where gin mills had free bowls of steamed crabs on the bar to keep up their patrons' thirst for beer.

The deep-water port on the Patapsco was once a city where seamen just in from South America walked off of ships carrying parrots and monkeys to give away to friends and family as pets.

And some 88 years ago, Baltimore was the kind of place where Mike Manning's grandmother could start a food-canning business in the back yard of her Canton row house at 2425 Foster Ave.

"She was working in canning and got the idea of packing hominy in 1904," said Mr. Manning. "She was the boss and my grandfather was an engineer who worked the boiler."

Today, when waterfront old-timers talk about Baltimore's canning industry they say things like: "The last packing house I know was Lord-Mott's down Broadway on Fell Street."

But every morning that Mike Manning shows up for work at 803 S. Clinton St., he puts the lie to an old tale that says all the packing houses shut down long ago.

The 10,000 cans of pearl-white hominy that jump out of the hopper every day that the plant is in production say that the packing houses aren't all gone -- not quite, not yet.

The drafty brick building, erected in 1933, is the last packing house in a city that once led the nation in the canning of fruits and vegetables. It was back in those days that German immigrants Margaret Manning and her husband, Michael, first put a cup of steamed corn into a tin can.

"It's a family responsibility," said Mike Manning, 68, "president and chief floor sweeper" of Mrs. M. Manning Inc. "I was practically raised here when my father was living. Sometimes I don't know why I'm still here."

He is here -- with 19 mostly minimum-wage employees, two engineers to work the boilers, his brother John on the production line and his sister Lena running the office -- almost two decades after the other packing houses vanished from Southeast Baltimore.

When Mr. Manning says, ". . . you don't make a lot of money. The last couple of years have been pretty close," you sense that he has hung on to become the last canner of food in Baltimore because once he walks away from Clinton Street the family business will go the way of free crabs at the corner saloon.

His children, he said, aren't interested in taking over the business. Even one that gets fan letters from loyal customers.

To satisfy the public's appetite for hominy -- steamed kernels of white corn larger than those used for the more common grits -- Mike Manning cranks up an operation right out of the Industrial Revolution.

HTC On the second floor of the building, in a small room just off to the side of the huge open space where 20 pressure cookers sit, anywhere from eight to 10 women in hairnets sit on low stools at individual conveyor belts as millions of kernels of corn roll past their gaze.

It is their job to pick out the odd, derelict kernels shipped to Baltimore from mills out West. The women search for pieces of cob, a yellow kernel or one with a spot, anything that isn't corn, pristine and white.

"The main thing is the picking," said Mr. Manning. He considers the job crucial to maintaining his product's reputation for gleaming pearl hominy.

He doesn't trust machines to do the work.

"The electric eyes miss a lot, they only see the surface of the kernel," he said. "My workers have a certain loyalty, they know the quality I'm after and they respect that."

The kernels that pass inspection fall off of a conveyor that moves down toward the pickers' lap and into large metal containers, the thin and constant ping-ping-ping of corn sounding like tiny hailstones hitting a tin roof.

"You have to have good eyes to pick the hominy," said Viola Skahill, who will celebrate 50 years with the company in July. "It's tiresome sometimes."

The corn is steamed and canned the day after it's picked, and when Mr. Manning calls for a shift in production, the women in the picking room put on their sweaters and walk down into the concrete-and-cinder-block chill of the labeling room. They follow cans that travel there in round crates of 252 cans each that move along the ceiling.

The cans are dumped into 6,000 gallons of water that cool the hominy. After that, a wooden conveyor moves cans past women who straighten them for a noisy ride through the chutes of the labeler; women who check the cans for dents; women who fold the boxes that contain the product on its journey to markets, and women who make sure a label is securely glued to each can.

One thing the women at Manning's don't do is label the cans by hand, as the packinghouse women of years ago did.

"We're not that antiquated," said Mr. Manning. "We have a machine that labels."

The machine was made in 1939.

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