September is for canning, apparently. We spent Saturday – all of it – with Jeremy’s family and a good friend, canning, or “putting up,” as they say here in Pennsylvania. Tomatoes two ways, green beans, beets two ways, pickles 2 ways, chow-chow (a Pennsylvania Dutch version of the Italian Giardiniera,) peaches, hot peppers two ways, apple butter and apple pie filling, and, for good measure, tons of sweet corn, cut from the cob and frozen. Some of this produce came from our gardens, the rest from local farms. It is tedious, messy work, made much lighter and more fun with a large group sharing the labor and some wine during the process. The nephews, 3 and 6 years old, were adamant about helping, and they did, more than you might imagine; I hope it becomes a memory for them. It is fairly basic; prepare the vegetables and the liquid to accompany them; put them both in hot, spotlessly clean jars; seal with a lid; and “process” in a boiling water bath for some specified period of time, depending on the contents. That simplicity is misleading, though, as the ultimate safety and longevity of the food is dependent on paying attention to details. It can be a hot job, too, with multiple pots and kettles steaming on the stove, though this year it was cool and rainy, thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Harvey, now just rain, passing through the area for the better part of the day. The rain kept the yellow jackets more or less at bay, too, helpful because they can be aggressive this time of year and especially when fruits and vegetables are involved. Jeremy was stung twice this weekend, not in the canning kitchen but outside, seemingly just for being nearby and irritating to the delicate sensibilities of a yellow jacket.
Most people in this area are only a generation or two removed from knowing the canning process well. Canned vegetables fed many, many families through the winter here. This is evidenced by the common presence of boxes and boxes of canning jars present at many auctions in this area, both on farms and in the older suburbs, any house, really, where folks of a certain age lived and raised a family. In the basements of these houses you can often find walls full of narrow wooden shelves, built specifically to house two or three rows deep of the year’s canned goods in a cool, dark place. The boxes of jars don’t typically tend to bring much at auctions, ubiquitous as they are, unless there are really old jars with names on them, sometimes in pale colors of purple, green, yellow, or blue, the glass filled with bubbles captured forever in their making, collectors’ items now. The boxes sometimes contain old mayonnaise jars or other re-purposed jars, the frugal Germans of this area not being ones to buy something special if they had something that would do. Today’s instructions for canning tell us not to use other kinds of jars except those made specifically for canning, but the evidence at these auctions suggests that might be overly cautious.
My grandmother canned from her garden for years. When we cleaned out the farmhouse after my grandfather passed away, there were still a few jars of her work on the shelves in the dirt-floored basement. I kept a couple of those jars for many years, their contents growing increasingly cloudy and dark. It was a reminder for me of my grandmother, the farm, and the big garden of my childhood memories. At some point I realized that their importance as a memory starter had been overtaken by their rather slow and unappealing disintegration, and I reluctantly disposed of them. Didn’t keep the jars, either, being mayonnaise jars. I don’t remember being a part of the actual canning at my grandparents’ farm. My only memory of food preserving is of corn days, when the family would gather to blanch wheelbarrows full of sweet corn in a giant pot on the outdoor brick barbecue before cutting it from the cob and freezing it. When freezers became affordable and easier to get, many switched from canning to freezing for many types of vegetables; fewer jars, less mess, an easier process, and a completely different resulting quality for things like corn, green beans, peas, and lima beans. Prior to freezers, though, all of those would have been canned, and meat was often canned, too, as the only way to preserve it outside of smoking and curing. I don’t believe I have ever eaten canned meat that I recall, and to be honest, it doesn’t appeal to me in the least, my imagination saying it must have been wet and soft. Nostalgia only goes so far.
As we worked on Saturday, there was a certain satisfaction in knowing that this winter we would open a jar of tomatoes, know exactly what was – and wasn’t – in them, and smell summer. Most of the tomatoes we canned were heirloom varieties, with a sublime flavor and quality that is simply absent from those grown and canned commercially. This isn’t to blame the commercial producers, as heirlooms are just not practical to use on that scale. They are too tender, can’t handle being handled, and they don’t have the disease resistance or productivity that commercial varieties have. Most heirloom varieties tend to produce and ripen over the whole season, whereas commercial varieties that are favored tend to ripen all of their fruit over a compact period of time, allowing them to be harvested and processed in one fell swoop. That works for those producers, and we will end up buying and using some of those tomatoes when our jars are all emptied, but they will not be the same, not even close, and we will remember why we did what we did.
Conversations over the 12 or so hours we spent working on Saturday were varied, as you might imagine. Some forecasters at the time were sharing forecast models showing a huge Hurricane Irma, still in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, coming up the Chesapeake Bay as a category 3 storm, making a beeline for us. The images of devastation in Texas by Hurricane Harvey still playing out on screens everywhere, of record flooding and empty store shelves, it was a short jump to thinking that this food could be useful sooner rather than later if we had to be without power for an extended period of time. North Korea had just tested a Hydrogen bomb in an escalating pissing contest with our own version of an ego-driven, narcissistic, unhinged president, edging the world toward an unthinkable cliff. California was baking under temperatures unheard of, wildfires raged in the northwest, white supremacists threatened more demonstrations and conflict here at home – there was much to cause concern. Each snap as the lids on those jars sealed gave some small measure of comfort, telling us that, whatever comes, we will eat, and eat well. We didn’t solve any of the world’s problems on Saturday, but we did use our hands to store abundance. In a world gone mad, we chopped and cooked and sealed and stacked jars filled with sufficiency. We “put up” nourishment for winter, however that may come. On shelves in cool, dark basements, we will have comfort in a jar.