Yes, I Can (I think)
Recent reflections on my catastrophic first attempts at canning, chronicled in these pages, apparently touched a nerve – and I’m not talking about the gag reflex I experienced when I ate my canned pickles.
Paul Virant, chef/owner of Vie in Western Springs, a man who has elevated the craft of canning to an art form, was less than delighted that The Local Beet published an article that portrayed canning in less than favorable terms. Cathy Lambrecht, the Master Canner who had given generously of her time to tutor me in the ways of the can, was so perturbed by what she’d heard about my article’s somewhat negative take on this age-old tradition that she refused to even read the damn thing. The day the piece was re-published in the Chicago Sun-Times, I got an email from a Ball representative suggesting that I really should give canning another shot. Clearly, an article that pretty much announced the simultaneous beginning and end of my canning career had started something, though I’m not yet prepared to say it started a lifelong desire to can. Still, I agreed, I should give canning another shot.
At Canning Central
On the first day of July, the fields were filling with fruits and vegetables that would once have been sealed into millions of Ball jars across the country. I was in a car headed to Muncie, Indiana – the home of Ball, now celebrating 125 years of “preserving America” – with Cathy, Paul and Local Beet’s Rob Gardner.
In the Ball Test Kitchen, Lauren Devine, author of the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, spent several hours canning with us. We canned carrot soup and then chocolate sauce, using a special graduated device to ensure proper “head room” between liquid and lid, and along the way we picked up bits of traditional canning wisdom (“Don’t boil the lids; it messes up the seal”).
Then we sampled the pickles and tomatoes I had “put by” last August. Though Lauren began laughing uncontrollably when she tried the pickles – “What is in there?” she asked, incredulously – she found them generally edible if limp (I chose larger pickles than I should have, and they lacked requisite crispness). The tomatoes, everyone agreed, tasted okay, though Lauren did note that some tomato seeds had squirted out between the seals, which could have permitted unwanted microbial activity in this and other jars.
Bad Food or Bad Attitude?
Everyone’s assessments of my pickles were more generous than my own, and at least one can of tomatoes was, apparently, non-toxic. It’s possible, of course, that the can of tomatoes I had previously judged to be bad was actually also fine. It’s possible that what was really bad was my attitude; like many, I may simply not have trusted the centuries-old process of storing food without refrigeration.
In 1958, Tang had appeared on breakfast tables, Sweet n’ Low in coffee, and the Jolly Green Giant on television. A chasm had opened between Americans and their food. Seemingly futuristic chow was replacing what people had eaten for centuries and the farm was becoming a distant memory, a “Green Acres” fantasy. Traditional crafts – like gardening – suddenly seemed quaint, no longer mainstream and perhaps even dangerous. When I recently mentioned to my mother – who was a young Chicago housewife in the Fifties – that I was growing food in my backyard, she asked with concern, “What about creepy crawlies; you know, bugs?” There seems to be a general paranoia about some traditional techniques for raising and preserving one’s food, a paranoia that I guess I shared when I bit into my first flaccid home-canned pickle and suspiciously sniffed my canned tomatoes.
More than Food Goes in the Jar
Lauren, our Ball canning guru, kept coming back to the idea that part of the romance of canning is the enjoyment we share when working with friends and family on a common goal. The tradition of canning, once carried on in household kitchens across the country, is an inherently communal activity. Like making tamales, it’s almost unthinkable to can solo. They say you shouldn’t drink alone; I don’t think you should can alone. Canning involves a good deal of work, and you need the division of labor to move the process along (“I’ll clean the peppers; you get the jars ready”). It’s also nice to have company as, together, you take what the land has given and confer upon the harvest a kind of immortality.
The Ball Corporation, which began in the nineteenth century, now works in the aerospace industry. People who grew up understanding canning as a natural step in the process of feeding a family are passing into history. It’s unlikely that many young dudes are going to put down their game controllers and iPhones to pick up pressure cookers and canning jars. Still, here and there, chefs like Paul Virant and food folkways enthusiasts like Cathy Lambrecht are keeping alive a domestic craft that, much like barn raising and quilting bees, brings people together in a solidly American tradition that carries interpersonal value that goes beyond simple home economy.
So as gardens and farmers’ markets begin to fill up with all the good stuff that will feed us over the next few months, I’m planning to select a few choice items – green beans, maybe beets, definitely cukes – that my wife, daughter and I will once again put into glass jars. We’ll return to open those jars, like turning to a diary entry from a summer afternoon, when the almighty Hawk flies and green fields fade to white.
When I was a graduate student, I remember reading in a linguistics class that comprehension of a sentence’s content is increased if the sentence structure is just a little complex; sentences that are too simple may actually be harder to understand. I’m saying Yes to canning (I think) for the same reasons that I garden in my backyard and cook at home. Canning involves extra effort, but it’s another way to understand, connect with and appreciate food. This additional activity seems particularly important in a time when most food seems to be taken for granted, wantonly wasted and generally treated like just a cheap commodity…rather than the miracle it is.