Saturday, September 24, 2011

Yes I can

Bread-and-butter pickles, ketchup, plum jam and sweet pickled pepper relish
My mother was raised on a farm in Central Texas, and I'm pretty sure her family home-canned vegetables and preserves. But in our home, in suburbs of the Midwest, Ohio, and New Jersey, we bought our canned and bottled goods at the supermarket. I never even thought about home-canning.

My first knowledge of home canning came - oddly enough - from reading Shirley Jackson's unsettling and eerie novel "We Have Always Lived in the Castle."  Merricat, the narrator, describes the pretty colors of the jars of jams, jellies, preserves and pickles in the cellar:
There were jars of jam made by great-grandmothers, with labels in thin pale writing, almost unreadable by now, and pickles made by great-aunts and vegetables put up by our grandmothers, and even our mother had left behind her six jars of apple jelly. Constance had worked all her life at adding to the food in the cellar, and her rows and rows of jars were easily the handsomest and shone among the others....All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply colored rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green, stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever....

In 1979 I moved from Manhattan to Seattle. I felt like I was striking out into the wild - although then, as now, Seattle was quite a cosmopolitan city. Western Washington is an incredibly rich and fertile place, where fruit, flowers and vegetables grew with abandon. The man I moved in with was an amateur winemaker and home-brewer, and his ex-wife had canned. With those expectations, I fell into "pioneer woman" mode. We drove out into the mountains and picked wild blackberries, for wine and for jam. We drove to the Skagit Valley to U-Pick farms. We bought flats of cucumbers at the market for pickles. It was my first introduction to home-made ketchup - one of the main reasons I still can.

Later, married to [The Man I Love], and living in Seattle's Central District, I enlisted a friend to help me make wine from the Italian prune-plums that grew in our yard, and I also made preserves.

Moving to Topanga, I met my friend Jill. She's a formidable canner. Her neighbor, a movie producer, had a lot of fruit trees on his land, and he granted her permission to forage at will. We sent our children out in little red wagons to gather the fruit, and then, in her big beautiful kitchen, we canned jars and jars of plums and apricots. My own plum tree yielded a few jars each summer - as long as I beat the birds to the fruit. I sometimes see fruits on the prickly-pear cacti in our neighborhood, and wonder whether it would be worth trying to make jam from them.

Jam cooking down
When I was in high school - I don't remember exactly when - I had an apocalyptic dream where my friends and I were the only people left on a devastated Earth, and we settled in a farmhouse that I recognized from my bike-riding in the valleys of the Little Miami River in the suburbs north of Cincinnati where I lived. The dream was fleeting, and soon faded. But I was fascinated with the idea of having to go back to the land to feed ourselves, and preserve food for the coming year.

So although I live in one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, when the year turns to autumn, I get the urge to put food by.

I still have my big enameled steel canning kettle, with the hinged rack. But these days I work with smaller quantities, and use my pasta-cooker to process the 3 or 4 jars a small quantity of produce yields. The colander insert works fine if you're canning half-pint jars - which hold the right quantity for a small household like ours.

I don't can tomatoes, because I find commercially canned tomatoes are perfectly fine, but if I grew tomatoes I'd can them to preserve the harvest. 

Pickles and jams are the easiest and safest preserves for a home canner to make. Acid fruits, and the use of vinegar almost assure safety if you follow correct procedures and sterilize as instructed. This month so far I've made jam with purple plums and with golden pluots; I've made spicy tomato ketchup, sweet pickled peppers, and bread-and-butter pickles, all processed in a hot water bath. I've made smaller quantities of pickled red onions and pickled beets that I knew we'd eat up quickly, so I didn't bother to process them but just refrigerated them.
Bread and butter pickles
Next month when the lemons on our trees ripen, I'm going to make Moroccan preserved lemons and some lemon marmalade.

Do you "put food by"? Do you have family memories of canning and preserving? What does the coming of autumn stir inside you?


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Can it, lady!


cactus petunia said...

Wow! I used to can all sorts of jams, jellies and reminded me how much fun (and messy) it is to "put food by"!

This year I had a big tomato harvest, and I've made several batches of sauce and oven roasted tomatoes to freeze for the winter. Next week I'll harvest the basil and make pesto.

Here's to winter, and savoring the fruits of summer!

Gilly said...

My mother used to make jam,and bottle (which is much the same as canning, only with fruit, not vegetables) all sorts of fruit. This was during WWII, so using every last bit of fruit was vital. We picked blackberries, masses of them, and she got plums from a friendly orchard! One year she bottled apple pulp, but there was an almighty bang one evening, which we all thought was a bomb, but proved to be a couple of the big jars of apple pulp bursting!

I used to make a lot of jam (very successful) and we made wine (not so successful, especially when the blackberry got too enthusiastic fermenting in the airing cupboard. Luckily only underwear was coloure pink!!

Nowadays I'm lazy. But we don't eat much jam, marmalade I find such an effort, and fruit seems to be around all year.

I've never tried pickles, but yours look absolutely delicious. Maybe I should try?

Another Kiwi said...

My wife is a great jam and preserve maker. Mostly we freeze the savoury stuff eg. tomato sauces.
I am support crew and try to clean up and background stuff like that.
Our best stuff from last year was crabapple jelly with homegrown chilli in it, brilliant on lambchops.
One of the attractions is the colours of the stuff in jars.
Great post Aunt Snow.

Anonymous said...

You are a wonder Aunt Snow! Such a pleasure to read your memory evoking words and then see pictures of those beautiful jars kind of Art.
I remember going into the cellar in Oklahoma and choosing a tomato filled Mason jar and even canned home-made sausage. That taste has never been topped.
My Mother was always proud of the rows of colorful jars the finish of all her hard hot work.....her pride was justified and I am proud of you! Catherine

Gary's third pottery blog said...

OMFG!!!!!!!!! :)

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Those jars are gorgeous! My mom used to make mulberry jam from a messy, messy tree that grew in our backyard.

spokalulu said...

When we were first married, in the late '80s, we purchased big boxes of peaches from the orchards and I canned them. I also met a friend with a cherry tree and I happily canned several dozen quarts of cherries (with pits, because I had no cherry pitter contraption). I loved having those beautiful quart jars in the cellar, the brilliant color to add to our winter table.

When we moved to Germany, I left all of my canning supplies in my MIL's garage, and much of them are gone (with my permission). I haven't canned in 22 years! But when our apple trees produced copious amounts last year, my dh got busy with the food dryer and I made many batches of applesauce for the freezer.

I think you just made me want to can again. Maybe next summer!

Anonymous said...

When my children were home we had a huge vegetable garden. The first year we were over run with tomatoes and my dear neighbor taught me how to can them. I remember how satisfied I felt when I was finished. I froze all our vegetables for the winter. At one time we had a separate freezer in the garage for all our frozen goods. I learned to make pickles from my neighbor but I never did do jams or jellies. Still I didn't do to bad for a city girl (thanks to my neighbor.) September reminds me of the Green Tomatoe Pie the same neighbor made for us every year. A concoction made with green tomatoes that tasted like apple pie!

Janet said...

I don't, but my cousin ( up in NH does. She had very good luck with her garden this year, and her husband grows all manner of fruit trees. She's had a busy summer!

Carmi said...

I'm ashamed to admit I don't can anything. But the vegetable theme seems to have resulted in lots of photos and experiences of participants who do just that. Consider me inspired: I think it would be an amazing thing to do as we head into a long Canadian winter.

Thank you for the push!

k said...

Dear Aunt Snow I am inspired! I usually can some strawberry jam in the summer when the Hoods are ripe and the desire "to put food by" is growing stronger (as is the desire to grow a bit of it as well). Thanks for this beautiful post which is a reminder of the satisfaction I find in jars of glistening ripe fruit in squat little glasses. Here at the tail-end of winter on a sunny day I can almost taste summer.