the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Can Opener

Before she retired in October, my mother told me a story about this college summer intern who worked in her office. My mother’s workplace was antiquated, a “real” looking publishing house, like a relic from the 1940’s. In the back room, there was even a old style desk with a typewriter sitting on top, a reminder of days gone by. One day, the nineteen year old intern asked my mother to tell her about this mysterious machine. The girl knew that it was a typewriter, but she wasn’t sure how it worked, or how you inserted the paper.

“Is there a feeder on the bottom?” she asked.

When my mother told me that story, I laughed. What a dummy that girl was! Of course, in this wireless mobile world, I’m sure it was this young woman who was laughing at my mother.

“You mean — if you made a mistake you had to “white it out” with a cartridge?!”

The arrogance of the college kid.

The typewriter is not the only product to become obsolete. Once upon a time, before the invention of the electric can opener, there was a well-known kitchen appliance called the “manual” can opener. If you go to the Smithsonian, you can see a fine example of this early Americana.

Last night, in an attempt to eat a healthier dinner, I decided to make myself a tuna salad. I went into the fridge and took out an assortment of “good for you” items — lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. Perfect. Now it was time to reach for the main ingredient — a shiny new can of Bumble Bee Tuna Albacore Fish, packed in water. I carried the can over to electric can opener, and saw this —


WTF? Where’s the can opening apparatus? It occurred to me that this was the first time since my mother had gone to Florida that I was attempting to open a can. I called my mother in Boca Raton.

“Where’s the top of the can opener?”

“The top of the can opener? Hello to you, too?”

“Hello, Mom. I’m trying to open a can of tuna fish.”

“A can of tuna fish? Is that your dinner?”

“I’m making a tuna salad.”

“That’s not much of a dinner. Why don’t you buy one of those ready-made chickens at the supermarket?”

“Because today I’m making a tuna fish salad.”

“You should have some soup with too. Did you buy any soup? I’m worried that you’re not eating enough there by yourself.”

“I’m eating fine.”

“You’re not eating in McDonald’s every day, are you?”

“No, I just go there for coffee.”

“Too much coffee is not good either.”

“Anyway, I want to open this can of tuna fish.”

“You should open a can of soup, too.”

“OK, I will. So, now, with the soup, the situation has intensified. I have two cans to open. But your can opener is missing the top.”

“I thought the can opener is just one piece? It has a top?”

“The attachment thing! With the magnet that latches on the metal.”

“Oh, yeah. I don’t know. It’s not there?”

I looked and looked, and couldn’t find the attachment.

“Use the manual can opener that’s in the drawer” she finally said.

I let my mother return to her mah jongg game with her friends, and found the manual can opener. This is it —



Can you believe that it took me fifteen minutes to open this can of tuna fish? It’s not like I have never used a manual can opener before, or that I am one of those guys that doesn’t know how to open up a can of food. Maybe I have owned an electric can opener for so long now, I forgot how to use the manual one! For the life of me, I could not decipher where the can went in relation to the opener. On the side? Under? To the right? To the left?

I felt like the intern at my mother’s office who didn’t know how to use a typewriter. I felt dumb. But then I thought about it, trying to put a positive spin on my experience. Perhaps this proves that I am younger in spirit, like I am in college again, with an attitude of condescension towards this primitive tool. Who needs to know how to use this thing? The future is now. No going back! I bet you that if I search on iTunes, I could have found an iphone app that could open up that can of tuna fish wirelessly!


  1. People in the Sun

    The electronic thingy scares me. Maybe something happened when I was a kid, who knows… But now it scares me. Actually, I’ve never used one. Life is too precious to lose it all in a freak can-opening accident.

  2. Katee

    I have never used an electronic can opener – at least not successfully. My mom has one but whenever I try to use it I fail miserably. I like my good old manual one. It is so much easier to use.

    As for the tuna, I like the kind that comes in the packet so you don’t even have to mess with the can or draining it.

  3. the slackmistress

    I’m a cook and a foodie and I’ve never used an electric can opener except in “Home Ec” in 7th grade. Manual all the way!

  4. Neil

    Jeez… three comments… three people who don’t use an electric can opener? Talk about Luddites!

    Katee — I have tried the tuna in the pouch. It doesn’t taste as good to me! Maybe I like the slight metallic scent…

  5. Miss Grace

    1. I feel compelled to tell you that I ONLY have a manual can opener (and I’m but 26). Although I grew up in a house full of hippies. I’ve never owned a microwave.

    2. My great….great grandfather? Was John Underwood, inventor of the typewriter where you can see what you type. It was a bit touch and go before that.

  6. 3boys1mommy

    All those mind numbing mommy bloggers have clearly crippled your brain cells.

    I hope you didn’t get any tuna juice on you.

  7. ingrid

    My nephew tried to play a CD on my parents record player. Fortunately he didn’t wreck the needle. When my dad showed him how it works with vinyl he was in awe. Like it was the greatest new invention.

  8. chantel

    I used to tell people “I could re-build your carbeuretor but I can’t program a VCR”. Unfortunately I have to get a new line on both accounts.

  9. Christine

    I have the EXACT same manual can opener … minus the burned handle end… what were you doing with that opener?

    BTW… who uses can openers anymore anyway? Doesn’t everything have a pull tab?

    ALSO… sorry… You think the manual opener is tough? Try figuring out how to open a can with the can opener on a pocket knife. Then again, you might lop a finger off. How hungry are you?

  10. Ash

    Over here in Holland we clearly live in the dark ages. We only have manual can openers. But still… it beats living in Africa where we had to use a stone to open the can and a flint to make the fire to cook it on.

  11. anymommy

    Um, yeah, I only have a manual too. I thought I was going to be alone on that one, but I’m pleasantly surprised to find that many of your readers live in the stone ages.

  12. jamy

    Manual only at my place too. But we did have an electric one when I was a kid (in the ’70s). Takes up too much counter space!

  13. JChevais

    I used to have a starfrit [manual] can opener. It was awesome. Then it busted and I have to use a regular old can opener and it is truly awful.

    I don’t think I’ve seen an electric can opener in Europe. Hmm.

    But in Europe, we do have certain cans that you can “peel” the top off of. Those are awesome.

  14. headbang8

    You should go back to the Apple Store and buy an iOpener.

  15. Nancy

    Only manual for me, never electric.

    I don’t like kitchen “gadgets” all over the counter, too messy looking and I’m OCD … totally another topic.

    But with that in mind, the manual can opener goes into the dishwasher after each use. Electric? No can do.

  16. better safe than sorry

    i’m left handed, i have never been able to use an electrical one. i have a baby blue starfrit one, it cuts the can so there are no sharp edges, it’s excellent! i think a manual one would be greener.

  17. brettdl

    Manual only too. But we’ll buy an electric if we ever get a cat. Best cat-calling device in the universe.

  18. kenju

    I used to have an electric can opener, and then I discovered that they don’t work very well when there’s a power outage. I have one like the manual one in your photo, and it works fine.

  19. Joe Schmitt

    I had no idea how Old School I was using a manual can opener. Some days I open as many as 10 cans. And to think of the 2 seconds per can I’ll never get back!

    I guess your manual can opener isn’t quite ready to join the Forgotten Electronics Support Group.

  20. *pixie*

    Manual only at our house. Actually, we have that exact manual can opener. It’s a piece of shit. There is always one or two spots on the can that doesn’t get cut through.

  21. Neil

    Joe Schmitt — I have to admit that I do sometimes use my boombox.

    JChevais – I had to google “Starfrit.” I had not idea what that meant.

    Everyone — What a bunch of losers with your manual can openers! I need cooler readers… Do you at least own dish washers?

  22. ali

    i have both. and the automatic one makes me want to vomit thinking about all the random can juice that gets transferred from can to can. i use the manual one…so that i can WASH it between uses.

    yes, i am disturbed.

  23. *pixie*

    Sadly, I don’t own a dishwasher either.

    I also live in a cave and cook my meals over a fire started with a stick and a piece of flint.

  24. teahouseblossom

    Hahahaha. I’ve never used anything besides a manual can opener! We have to be prepared for when the machines rise up against us, and we need to hunker down into bunkers and eat canned food.

    This story reminds me of that time my younger sister had no idea how to call our mom on our older relative’s rotary phone. She just stood there sobbing helplessly for 10 minutes.

  25. Neil

    Pixie — you do own a toaster, right?

  26. *pixie*

    Actually…no. We use a toaster oven instead. I’d call it a close relative of the toaster, but an actual toaster? Not in this house.

    Is that weird?

  27. Annie

    I only have a manual can opener and I would not use an electic one if I had it, they scare me :-).

  28. Caitlinator

    I love this story. Reminds me of the time I was camping in Africa and all we had to eat was canned beans, but no one had a can opener. In the end we had to use someone’s dull pocketknife to get the can open. Let me tell you, when you’re hungry enough, you will find a way to get to the food!

    Heh, and while I’m at it I’ll share the story of when I was in Italy and we had this fantastic bottle of wine but the only corkscrew was this super-fancy one that no one knew how to use. Even the Italian guy who was with us didn’t know how to use it. We were within inches of breaking the bottle against the wall and just picking out the shards from what poured out before someone finally figured it out. Again – where there’s a will there’s a way. 🙂

  29. Neil

    Caitlinator — I have seen some of those oddball wine openers!

    Pixie — I am a real connoisseur of toast, and let me tell you, no toaster oven is going to make as good a piece of toast as a real toaster… even the cheapo toaster you can buy for nine bucks.

    When is your birthday?

  30. *pixie*

    It’s not until August 15th. Do you plan on sending me a toaster?

  31. Marisa

    Just to pile on, I only use a manual can opener as well. Mostly because it takes up less space and my kitchen is pretty tiny.

  32. Betsey

    I’m pretty sure this must be a new side effect of your new “phone”.

    And PS?

    I won’t even let my husband buy an electric can opener. I hate them. They seem like over kill and laziness. Is that weird?

  33. ACG

    I had only a manual can opener since I moved out of my parents house, but my dad recently bought me one of those “as seen on TV” openers you just put on the top of the can and it moves around by itself. That one is only good if it is for stuff I don’t want to drain in the can. I prefer the manual one most times.

    My coffee maker is also manual – I only have a french press.

  34. Nat

    I’m glad to read that I’m not the only one who still uses a manual can opener. (And now with the Good Grip kind it doesn’t have to hurt your hands either.)

    As an aside, when The Boy first saw a vinyl record he wanted to know where you plugged in the earphones.

  35. sassy

    If it makes you feel any better I don’t think my husband knows how to use a can opener (manual OR electric) either.

  36. Danny

    We don’t have an electric an opener or a dishwasher. Those electric can openers are disgusting–the goop that collects on the blade…yuck! And is it really that labor intensive to open a damn can? What next, an electric pepper mill or electric fork spinner for eating spaghetti? (Oh wait, both of those already exist.)

  37. kimberlee

    a sad commentary on the resourcefulness of today’s male. (LMAO at the iOpener … )

  38. Ry

    Now I feel silly because I’ve never owned an electric can opener. I’ll give you lessons on the manual one if you like, but I’m only offering so I can watch you struggle with it first. A girl’s gotta stay entertained.

  39. Yvonne

    Wow I had no idea manual can openers were obsolete. I always thought electric can openers were just a gimmick, like electric pencil sharpeners and everything else they sell on Sky Mall.

  40. Chris

    Electric can openers are so 80s. Or maybe even 70s.

    I’m going to make some tuna salad. Seriously. I boiled the eggs for it yesterday afternoon. (My mom always puts a couple of hard boiled eggs in her tuna salad. It’s good.) I’ll be using a manual opener. The only one I own.

    Your mom’s great.

  41. TorontoPearl

    Our electric can opener sits in its box in a kitchen cupboard; can’t remember using it except maybe in my first couple months of marriage, if that. We have the same manual can opener your mom has — a Swing-A-Way — which is excellent, and the earlier basic can openers. You can always just dig up a multi-tooled Swiss Army knife, and no doubt you’ll find a can opener in there too.

    (Just keep the manual can opener in the pocket of that pink bathrobe you’re wearing…you never know when you might next need it, Neil! It’s not called a Swing-A-Way for nothing, you know.)

  42. Neil

    I have to write a post for my Brita “green” blog later today, that I write for once a week. I think I have the perfect topic —

    Why using a manual can opener is more “green.”

    I am still shocked how few use an electric can opener. I assumed every household in America had one, as common as a TV.

  43. TorontoPearl

    One another random comment for you: has NOBODY ever written to you and said that it says URI rather than URL where we’re supposed to mark these things before leaving our comments?? All these years that I’ve left you comments, I’ve been bothered by it. And since you’re trying to open a can in this post, I might as well be opening a can (of worms) too.

  44. Neil

    Jeez… Pearl, you are right. Unfortunately, since I can’t open a can of tuna fish, do you really expect me to know how to fix that?!

    Update: There is something called URI that is similar to URL — maybe it is supposed to be that…

  45. TorontoPearl

    Uniform Resource Identifier…is what it showed me when I pointed to it. (never heard of it, though) Okay, so maybe I AM wrong… But it’s weird to see. I always thought you’d typed cap “UR” and a lowercase “L”.

  46. wench

    Perhaps you needed the REALLY old antique can opener – all metal no plastic handles and an obvious lip that slides onto the top of a can. LOL

    Or a swiss army knife.

  47. natalie

    well i’m with the bunch that doesn’t own an electric can opener. we had one before we moved to turkey. from what i remember it worked fine. in turkey they didn’t have electric ones so i got used to that. when we got back here i just bought a manual one to save money and space in the kitchen.

    and as far as the goop on the electric ones that’s probably why the blade part is gone on your mom’s. she was probably cleaning it. look in the dishwasher. or in a drawer. it’s gotta be around there someplace.

  48. natalie

    another idea…look in the bottom of the dishwasher. maybe it fell during a wash.

  49. Paige Jennifer

    I look at your picture and can’t even tell it’s missing a part. Color me old school but I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with electric can openers. I rank them up there with shag carpeting and metallic wallpaper.

  50. maggie, dammit

    I don’t own an electric can opener, and would never know how to use one if I did. In Wisconsin we have manual can openers, manual wine openers, manual car jacks. Makes us feel hearty.

  51. Neil

    Paige — Shag carpeting was pretty comfortable.

  52. carma

    Great story. I purchased one of those upright electric can openers, used it twice and then put it away permanently. Much too befuddling. Went back to my tried and true manual opener. Besides, the electric one had a warning that if you touched the cord you should wash your hands since it contained a chemical that was outlawed in California and a few other states. I lived in fear of touching the cord!!!

  53. SciFi Dad

    We only have a manual can opener.

    Jeez… next thing you’re going to tell me is that there’s a faster way to get internet than my 14.4kbps modem.

  54. margalit

    I have never used an electric can opener in my life. Like my parents before me, I could never figure out WHY someone would pay so much money for such a useless appliance. What a waste of electricity. How hard it is to open a can with a manual can opener? Not that hard.

    Of course, if you haven’t used one in years, and the opener itself hasn’t been used in years, it’s gonna be harder. Go buy your mom a nice new OXO Good Grips manual can opener. Less than 10 bucks. Opens cans like a dream. No stress or strain.


  55. plain jane

    1. Tuna in a foil packet? The tuna I gave tuna for Xmas gifts was caught on a local fishing boat & canned in a local cannery. I can’t even imagine what tuna in a pouch tastes like.
    2. Sounds like a new-fangled typewriter if you have *cartridges* to white out mistakes, I had typewriter erasers that usually eliminated the error by making a whole in the paper (they had a little brush on one end to whisk away the eraser crumbs).
    3. Can opener? Haven’t you heard of a pocket knife to open cans? And I agree w/Nancy I want my can opener clean.
    4. As a child I had my mother’s old hand-crank Victrola and I listened to 78s on it.
    5. Shag carpeting? Have you ever *raked one* (or picked toenail clippings out of it)? Ughh
    6. My dishwasher is named John.
    Do I qualify of Luddite of the year? And no, I’m not 95 years old.

  56. plain jane

    By the way, my favorite, unnecessary appliance. Inside-The-Shell Electric Egg Scrambler.

  57. Christine

    Yes I have a dish washer… my rule is, no dish washer, no kids. My husband didn’t like the idea of me kicking them to the curb, so we have a dish washer.

    But really… I can’t remember the last time I needed a can opener. Pull tabs!

  58. JChevais

    Whew. I can stay a reader. My husband just bought a dishwasher but it hasn’t been delivered yet. I still don’t know where we’ll put it in the kitchen so it works yet. But if nothing else, I can use it as a counterspace. Right?

  59. Laura

    I’m still stuck on WTF. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE TOP of the CAN OPENER?

  60. Neil

    Laura, a found it today in the utensil drawer. My mother must have taken it off to clean it, and it someone ended up in here…

  61. Rachel

    Neil, I was having to cover my mouth not to laugh out loud.
    Bless your heart and your mother… she sounds adorable.

    I hate my mom’s can opener so I always use the ‘hand opener’
    It’s amazing what our children will take for advantage and not know.

  62. Postmodern Sass

    Didn’t you realize that if you can learn how to make a pipe bomb on the innernet, you can surely find instructions for using a can opener? Video, even:

  63. Rob O.

    Oh c’mon now, Neil! If you’re going to have some tuna – and I applaud that healthy choice – you simply MUST go for the tuna in the foil pouches, not that mushy, canned dreck!

    And of course, once you have good tuna, you’ll need to try a 2Dolphins Tuna Wrap. Although perhaps not as flashy as your fancy “Neilochka,” with its high-falutin’ wasabi mustard, this is still a darned good sammich!

    Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not altogether sure that wraps fall into the sandwich category. Well okay, sure, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say they do. So try it!

  64. Jessica (from It's my life...)

    Aw, don’t feel bad, my husband can’t figure out how to use our manual can opener and we’ve had it for years. He’d rather starve than try to figure it out.
    Guess I won’t be sending you our copy of the A Man, A Can, A Plan cookbook that’s going to waste over here.

  65. Beef

    Manual FTW…

    Seriously – electric openers are just dirty – most people don’t spend the time to keep electric ones clean and just keep reusing them… Just look at the picture again.

    YUMMY decaying 1 year old tuna gets mixed in.

  66. PCL

    The only problem with most new electric can openers is that they have fixed blades, not the round rotating ones that you’ll find on a good quality manual one (or an electric one from the ’60s). I have to admit that in spite of this flaw, my Sunbeam has lasted nearly 5 years without a problem. Some of the comments here are truly bizarre (“all that money”, “waste of electricity”); these things cost almost nothing (mine was less than $20) and use an almost immeasurably small amount of electricity. I only wish mine had a rotating blade, which would double its life expectancy. If I had to use a manual, I’d get a $15 cabinet mounted “SwingAway” with a crank, rather than an insufferable hand-held one.

  67. Sienna

    I am glad you are all able to use a manual can opener. Until this year, I was just like you. Now to some unfortunate health problems I can no longer use a manual can opener and an electric one is my only choice. I am glad they are available and YES you can clean them.

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