Jul 25, 2011

To can or not to can?

by Dick Williams, War Food Administration, 1944
I grew up watching my grandmother and my mother "put up" vegetables and fruit every summer.

There's a certain irony to the timing - just when you think the thermometer's mercury cannot possibly rise any higher, it's time to pull out your biggest pots and pans (and kettles and vats) and start boiling stuff.  You boil water to sterilize the jars (unless you're really progressive and use your dishwasher's sanitizing cycle); you scald the skins off tomatoes and peaches, you boil the food you're putting in the jars, and then you boil the filled jars to create a vacuum that will preserve the contents until you open them for use.  Who needs a sauna when your kitchen is full of boiling pots and kettles?

Back in the day, canning and drying was the best and sometimes only way to have fruits and vegetables for eating the rest of the year.  Store-bought produce was limited and expensive, especially when you're a housewife feeding a house-full on a very limited budget, which was the case with both my grandmother and my mom.

Instinctively, I took up canning when I had my own garden.  I made strawberry preserves in the spring, bought a bushel of local peaches each summer to make preserves and canned peach slices.  I've scratched and clawed my way through thorny brambles to pick wild blackberries for preserves and vinegars.  Our old house had muscadine grapes, which do make fabulous jelly.  And sometime in August, jar upon jar of tomatoes, tomatoes with peppers, and salsa would begin to line up proudly on my pantry shelves.

I never bought a pressure canner, so I've never ventured into canned corn or beans, although I have frozen corn, beans and fresh-picked blueberries from time to time.  Roasted and peeled green chilies are commonly found in my freezer, too.

But here's the irony:  our family rarely eats jams, jellies or preserves.  It's just not our thing.  So I finally realized it made no sense to put up a dozen jars of preserves that I'd wind up dumping out the next season in time to wash the jars and do the same thing all over again.

When we moved from the old house, I tossed several jars of home-preserved jellies and tomatoes and salsa that were of questionable vintage.

And so here I am, at a crossroads.  My pantry is much smaller now but I do have shelf space in the garage.  (It's where my canning jars are sitting in storage tubs, waiting for me to wash and sterilize and fill them with something.)

The call to can is strong.  And I am thankful I know how to go about it - that could prove to be a handy bit of knowledge if our society ever teeters off its axis and we are forced to revert to the "good old days"  of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

Nesco FD-60 dehydrator
I want my children to have an inkling of how food can be made to last from one harvest to the next.   But does it make sense to preserve batches of stuff if I'm going to eventually throw them away?  Aye, there's the rub.

A friend recently showed off a bag of dried peach slices she dehydrated with fresh peaches she bought from a local stand. The fruit looked so much more colorful than the commercial dried peaches that it nudged me to buy a dehydrator of my own. It should be here early this week, and once it is, that's the green light to snag a box of peaches to dry, and a box of tomatoes to roast, puree and freeze.  I guess I've answered my own question!

Happy Monday,