Canning Catastrophe

April 14, 2009 at 7:58 pm

David Hammond

Editor’s Note: Eating locally isn’t always easy and we want to share the whole picture with you, warts and all. This piece is about the difficult and dangerous side of preserving your harvest. If you have questions about canning or a story to share, please show and tell in the forum. Although, I’m sure David won’t be answering your questions on how to properly can veggies :) -Michael Morowitz
UPDATE: David Hammond continues his canning chronicles in “Yes, I Can (I think)”.

No one got sick or died from eating my canned tomatoes and cucumber pickles. That’s pretty much the best that can be said about my first experience with the time-honored tradition of putting by home-grown and farmer’s market vegetables through the laborious process of sealing and storing them in glass Ball canning jars.

But perhaps I get ahead of myself.

Last summer, in late August, I had a bunch of beautiful heirloom tomatoes that I had grown in a backyard garden I’d started so my family could enjoy the most local of locally sourced food.

There were pounds of tomatoes ready for picking every day. At first, I figured I could either eat them or give them away. I took both courses of action. Still, more tomatoes were ripening on the vine, and I greatly enjoyed them, they were stupendously lush and juicy, but there was no way my family could consumer them all or that my friends and neighbors would accept more (there are only so many times you can leave bags of tomatoes on the neighbor’s doorstep; after the second or so late night deposit, I started to worry that it was getting creepy).

So, canning seemed one way to preserve this gorgeous, local bounty until a time of year when we really needed a big warm bite of summertime. Like, say, February.

Canning appeals to me because it’s an old-timey domestic tradition that seems to go hand-in-hand with a home garden. A friend of mine is a certified Master Canner, which is a designation offered through the University of Illinois extension, and it requires the holder of this certification to attend courses and prove proficiency. My Master Canner friend had a lot of experience in this dying art; she knew what she was doing, and she offered to give me a lot of old equipment she had lying around. I was game, as was my wife and daughter.

So on that late August morning, I picked 40 or so pounds of tomatoes from my garden and then went shopping at the Oak Park Farmer’s Market to buy some pickling cucumbers. I had grown tiny Mexican gherkins in my own garden, but these seemed too small and too sour for pickling.

One big drawback to canning is that it requires a fair amount of hot work with boiling water usually performed during the steamiest days of the growing season. We spent an afternoon peeling and canning tomatoes and pickling cucumbers. We boiled all the glassware, made sure everything was looking clean, put veggies into jars and then the bathed them in the pressure cooker, checked to make sure the lids were sealed, and finally sat back to admire our work. The stuff looked fantastic in the jars, very colorful and fresh, crystal caskets of rubies and emeralds. I almost looked forward to winter so I could eat them.

We sampled the first pickles around Thanksgiving. They were, beyond doubt, the worst pickles I had ever put in my mouth. They were much too salty, otherwise flavorless, and most unforgivably not at all crisp, probably because I had foolishly purchased cucumbers that were too large and thus resistant to the crisping properties of the canning and pickling processes. Without asking, my daughter gifted her boyfriend’s parents with a jar; I counseled her to warn them quickly that eating those pickles would not make them very happy.

We cracked the seemingly perfectly sealed jars of tomatoes in the dead of winter and they were…suspicious. There was no evidence of mold or rot, and the tomatoes didn’t smell terribly bad, but there was something vaguely unsettling about the aroma that came off them, a back-of-the-nose, slightly off-odor that whispered to an ancient part of the brain, Do not eat me. After opening all the jars, we decided to dump the whole lot because we feared we’d fall victim to canning’s biggest negative, and it’s a biggie: a batch of bad canned goods can kill you. Now, botulism is rare, and fatal botulism is much more rare, but who wants to spend a day or more experiencing uncontrollable vomiting and perhaps respiratory and musculoskeletal paralysis. We trusted our noses though we will never again trust our skill as canners.

Next August, I anticipate even more tomatoes as I’m doubling my planting this year. This time around, though, I’m going to take the easy, modern route and freeze everything. Freezing takes more electric energy than canning, but much less human energy, and frozen food is much less unlikely to make anyone sick or worse.

I’ll miss the beautiful Ball jars of canned red and yellow tomatoes and bright green pickle spears that I admired throughout the early winter. On even the coldest day, those time capsules from an over-heated August afternoon held captured memories of canning with my family and friends, warming, relaxing, and looking almost good enough to counterbalance their vile taste and potentially fatal toxicity.

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