This article contains spoilers for The Bear.
In FX’s new culinary drama The Bear, after chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) has spent nearly eight full episodes chopping, peeling, “Yes, chef”-ing, and cursing his way through the kitchen of his struggling Chicago sandwich joint, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of canned tomatoes. Carmy has resisted putting spaghetti on the menu all season, even though it had once been one of the restaurant’s biggest moneymakers, but when, encouraged by a note from his late brother, he relents, he learns that the dish was a cash cow in the same way there was “always money in the banana stand” on Arrested Development: There is actual cash hidden in the cans of tomatoes. Viewers watch Carmy and his employees fish tens of thousands of dollars in plastic-wrapped wads of bills out of metal cans that had been sitting around the kitchen.
The ending was both messy—think of the cleanup!—and cathartic, but it also raised at least one important question: Surely you can’t actually hide money in canned tomatoes, can you?
Believe it or not, you can, at least according to Craig LeHoullier, an expert on growing and canning tomatoes. “You could put money in plastic, plain old plastic, and put it in a can of tomatoes, and it would probably last in there just fine without damaging the money for years and years,” he said.
After considering canned tomatoes’ acidity, “I started looking up about the stability of plastic in acid of that pH level,” said LeHoullier, who is the author of Epic Tomatoes. “It’s perfectly stable.”
It’s possible that the money could turn red, but that would be a relatively easy fix, he added. “If you store tomatoes or tomato products in plastics, the lycopenes, which give tomatoes their red color, actually stain the plastic, but they don’t degrade it. So the money would be red but I’m sure some enterprising person could find some sort of a wash, maybe an OxiClean or something like that, that would dissolve the pigment from the money but not harm the money.”
William Toll is the president of Simpson Brands, the company that produces San Merican tomatoes, the brand of canned tomatoes used on The Bear. He was surprised to see his tomatoes show up on the show—the amount of screen time they get is so notable that Salon went so far as to declare San Marzano tomatoes the “real star” of The Bear. (Fancy food rules dictate that, because they’re an American brand, San Merican tomatoes aren’t official San Marzanos, the way American sparkling wine can’t technically be champagne.)
And Toll was even more surprised to see his tomatoes used to store money—as well as a little more skeptical about it than LeHoullier: “It would be very difficult to do that,” he said.
Toll and LeHoullier basically agree that the money would be fine if it were wrapped in airtight plastic. The more complicated question is what state the tomatoes would be in. LeHoullier said that would depend on when the money had been added to the cans. He hadn’t watched The Bear yet when we spoke, but from hearing about it, he suspected an inside job: “It reminds me a little bit of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. In those shows, you had somebody on the inside who was putting drugs inside of containers of chickens or whatever. Typically when you’re doing canned tomatoes, it’s a large facility, the tomatoes come in en masse, they’re ripened, you have to probably peel them and quarter them and mix them with some kind of a solution, maybe a little lemon juice or salt. But somebody on the inside certainly could wrap large sums of money in plastic and tuck them into cans before they undergo processing. And if they were a can they would be sealed up and then heat-treated. The tricky part is then … how do you mark them? Is there some kind of a little barely seen mark that somebody could put on the bottom of the can or on the label to indicate … and then who on the other end is gonna be watching for that to know which cans have it?” (The cans on The Bear are marked with the letters KBL, although there’s no reference to an inside man at the tomato factory.)
Toll said that his product isn’t actually that common in kitchens like the one portrayed on The Bear—it’s more known as a product home cooks purchase at retail stores like Whole Foods. Of course, he appreciates the exposure anyway. “I spoke to some people at the canning facility and they said, ‘Now you’re gonna have people buying your tomatoes hoping that they find a bunch of money in the can. We don’t have to run a Golden Ticket event.’”
When I asked LeHoullier if he would ever consider The Bear’s money storage methods, he said, “If I wanted to hide money in canned food? Oh gosh. I’m a pretty good home canner. Why not?” before reconsidering: “Money comes too dear to me, so I probably wouldn’t hide it in a can.”
The home canning route does come with an added wrinkle. If someone were opening the finished cans up, adding the money, and re-sealing them, there would be a risk of air getting into the cans and toxins developing, LeHoullier said. White, the actor who plays Carmy, also wondered about this aspect of the plot device, he revealed in a recent interview with Vulture, but he was satisfied when he was told that restaurants have machines that can do that. LeHoullier thought re-sealing the cans without rendering the food inside inedible might be doable, but Toll was iffier on whether the tomatoes would survive.
“What would happen is the product would begin to mold,” Toll explained. “You wouldn’t see that nice, beautiful red tomato come out with that bunch of money. You’d probably see some mold in there.”
That mold would have put a damper on The Bear’s closing moments, where Carmy makes “family spaghetti” for his surrogate restaurant family. But in LeHoullier’s estimation, it wouldn’t have been a huge loss. “If he’s getting a lot of money, he could afford to waste some sauce,” he said. “Canned tomatoes really aren’t all that terribly expensive.”