Sterno® Canned Heat™ is a fuel made from denatured and jellied alcohol. It is designed to be burned directly from its can. Its primary use is in the food service industry for buffet heating. Other uses are for camp stoves and as an emergency heat source.
The Sterno brand is owned by the Candle Corporation Of America, a subsidiary of Blyth, Inc. The name comes from that of the original manufacturer: S. Sternau & Co. of Brooklyn, New York, a maker of chafing-dishes, coffee percolators and other similar appliances. They had previously applied the name to their "Sterno-Inferno" alcohol burner. In 1918 they promoted their Sterno Stove as being a perfect gift for a soldier going overseas.
Invented around 1900, Sterno is made from ethanol, methanol, water and an amphoteric oxide gelling agent, plus a dye that gives it a characteristic pink color. Designed to be odorless, a 7 oz (198 g) can will burn for up to two hours. The methanol is added to denature the product, which essentially is intended to make it too toxic to be drinkable (see methylated spirit for more information).
Sterno has long been mixed with water and other liquids to produce a drink called "canned heat", "squeeze" or "pink lady". The product is squeezed through a rag (or in other traditions, a loaf of French bread with ends removed) to extract the alcohol. These alcoholic beverages, primarily used in poorer communities, have been linked to numerous deaths from methanol poisoning, including 31 people in Philadelphia in 1963.
In NASCAR racing, it is alleged that sterno was used in Mike Waltrip's #55 racing Toyota Camry as an illegal fuel supplement to increase the horsepower during qualifying. From the article "At the same time, inspectors will be 'going over the 55 car [Waltrip's] with a fine-tooth comb,' Hunter said after inspectors found a gel-like coating inside the manifold. Several engine builders from other teams said the substance appeared to be Sterno, a bluish gel that could provide a hotter, cleaner burn inside the engine to create more horsepower."
Sterno references in popular culture
- Blues artist Tommy Johnson recorded a 1928 song "Canned Heat Blues", about the consumption of the "canned heat" drink described above, and was said to have later died from its abuse. This song later inspired the name of the blues band Canned Heat.
- In novelist Michael Crichton's book The Andromeda Strain, and later the 1971 film of the same name, a character claims to regularly ingest squeeze (Sterno) along with aspirin to treat a stomach ulcer — a questionable use at best of the denatured (thus poisonous) cooking fuel.
- In The Dark Tower (book 7 of the Dark Tower series, by novelist Stephen King), Roland and Susannah use Sterno to get away from a monster below the Dogan.
- In the 1989 film Uncle Buck starring John Candy, Buck's friend Roger admonishes him to "Watch the Sterno, will you?" during their conversation at the bowling alley.
- In the MC Lars and mc chris hip hop track "Roommate from Hell", Lars complains about his roommate, Satan. At one point he says, "I can’t have girls over when the dorm smells like Sterno; When did Room 56 become Dante's Inferno?"
- In the animated television series Futurama, one of the episodes features Elzar the Cook and his special dishes. Bender the Robot is served a "Sterno Niçoise."
- In the novel A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly uses a can of liquid heat to keep his hot dogs warm when he finds employment as a hot dog vendor. Reilly also mentions Sterno during a complaint after Clyde, his boss, orders him to change his vending route from the business district to the French Quarter:
- Judging from the customers I have had on this first day with the new route, the "tourists" seem to be the same old vagrants I was selling to in the business district. In a stupor induced by Sterno, they have doubtlessly stumbled down into the Quarter and thus, to Clyde's senile mind, qualify as "tourists".
- The poem "canned heat?" by Charles Bukowski features a Philadelphian bum who drinks "canned heat."
- In the movie Rocky III, Paulie (played by Burt Young) yells out his Los Angeles window at the noisy rabble below, condemning them as "Sterno bums".
- Sterno fuel is also mentioned in the Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.
- In his version of "Rainy Night In Georgia," Ray Charles mumbles that if he "can just get [his] hands on some Sterno," that everything will be alright.
- In Batman Forever, the 'dark side' female associate of Two-Face made a "sterno and grain alcohol" for his favorite dinner.
- In Nick Mason's (of Pink Floyd) song Hot River from an album Fictitious Sports there's a verse "You don't need no Sterno/In Dante's Inferno"
- In The Blood, Sweat & Tears song The Modern Adventures of Plato, Diogenes and Freud, off their debut album Child Is Father To The Man there is a lyric about a "fake-up man who lives in the Sterno Can beside you"
- Coble, Don (2007-02-11). "Waltrip could face a Sterno penalty". The Florida Times-Union Jacksonville.com. http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/021207/spr_7944840.shtml.
- Sleeve notes to Hooker 'N' Heat, BGOCD964, quoting An American Rock History Part One: California by Hugh MacLean and Vermont Johnson (Borderline Publications, 1987).