Talkin’ ‘Bout a Can-volution
I’m going to tell you a story about how the past and the present (and quite possibly the future) collided into each other earlier this week, a convergence of forces unlike anything I’ve seen in a good long while.
You may have heard that we’re in the middle of a recession. In the food world, we’re talking lots about cheap tricks, cheap cuts of meat and anything to help stretch the edible budget. Many of you, understandably concerned about the rickety state of our food system, have taken food matters into your own hands and started a vegetable garden; seed sales this year are at a record high.
And with an edible garden, comes food. Lots and lots of it — with not nearly enough neighbors to share the cucumber riches from your back yard. In these hard times, the perishable surplus is now considered an opportunity – to can, jam, pickle and preserve.
To recap: We’ve got an economy in the crapper, a food safety system that makes E.coli-contaminated cookie dough possible and in response, legions of Americans are taking to the soil and the canning rack.
Not until a few days ago did I realize that a DIY revolution was underfoot – which is where my story comes in.
While scrolling through my Twitter feed, I click on a link to Yes, We Can (Food), a Bay area project offering monthly community canning classes in San Francisco. (Last month, they canned apricots; this month they’re doing cukes.)
What a cool idea, I think out loud, and retweet the link, asking my fellow Seattle followers if we should copy cat this inspiring project. What ensued, in less than five minutes, is the online equivalent of a meteorite shower. The tweets were like shooting stars, popping with light and excitement, and they were from all over the country. Here’s what I proposed: What if we set a date for a community canning event in Seattle and encouraged others to organize simultaneous canning ‘stravaganzas in their home towns? What if…we called it… Cans Across America?
By nightfall, an email address was created (cansacrossamerica AT gmail.com) and a skeletal blog was built. People literally came out of the woodwork, sharing a passion unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They all wanted in and they wanted to pitch in, too.
But here’s one of the most compelling pieces of this story: With the use of internet technology, we are resurrecting a dying art that our grandmothers mastered. With social media and blogs, we are building community – coast to coast – around a culinary practice that dates to the Napoleonic age.
In the heat of the moment, I contacted four veteran canners and newly minted CAA members (all well below the age of 50) to better understand the passion behind “putting up” food. Below, excerpts from my electronic conversations with Marisa McClellan of Philadelphia, Pa. (Food in Jars), Shannon & Jason Mullett-Bowlsby of Seattle (The Lazy Locavores) and Kat Kinsman, senior editor at AOL Food and Slash Food, who’s based in New York.
Oh, I almost forgot: The CAA coast-to-coast can-a-rama is the weekend of Aug. 29-30. Mark your calendars!
Why do you can?
Shannon & Jason: We believe more folks are wanting to can this year as an offshoot of growing their own food and/or knowing where their food comes from. More people are turning to local producers or growing their own food as a result of the increase of deadly food contamination and the greater awareness of GMOs in our food system. Food we grow ourselves or food we source from local producers we can meet and get to know is safer and better for us. The next natural step in that awareness is the desire to continue this type of food consumption all year long. For this reason, more and more folks are preserving the harvest through canning and other food storing methods.
Marisa: I can because I’ve always been drawn to abundance. However, once you fill your home with bushels of peaches and pounds of berries, you have to do something with them so that they don’t go to waste. I can because homemade jam is better than store bought. I can because I love the tangy crunch of a good dilly bean (and I don’t want to pay someone else $8 for a jar of theirs). I can because I like buying from farmers and sometimes I get carried away. And I can because I want the sense of continuity that making my own food, in the same way that women of generations past made theirs, lends to my life.
Kat: My husband, well before I met him, bought a gothic, stone Episcopal church in Sharon Springs, NY and converted it into a home (http://weliveinachurch.com/). The kitchen is incredible and the local produce scrumptious, so I just started doing this without thinking much of it. My Dad is a chemist, I have an MFA in Metalsmithing, so between the mad-scientist upbringing (he loves making wine jelly and odd edible projects) and the non-fear of potential immolation, it just has always seemed so natural. I love the equipment and the process and having a gorgeous artifact afterward. It’s meditative and calming and I’ll stay up around the clock if I’m inspired.
For how long have you been at it?
S&J: We’ve been preserving our own foods for three years now. We always did a lot of freezing and drying but it has only been in the past three years we became more aware of where our food was coming from and how it was processed. Also, it has been in the last three years that we started growing most of our own food and sourcing the rest of it from local producers. The next logical step was to preserve that harvest we and others had worked so hard for and canning was the answer.
Now we teach others to use canning as a way of preserving their harvests and the food they source. It is an essential skill to know if folks want safe food to eat year round.
MM: This is my third season of active canning and with each year, it takes up a larger portion of my life (in the best way possible).
KK: Officially, this is the second year of my upstate New York canning vacation, but unofficially, it’s been going on for nearly five years, as whenever I’m upstate, I just tend to can.
Who was your teacher?
S&J: Both of us remember canning as kids and in high school. I (Shannon) grew up on a large farm in Ohio and we had a huge food garden. We were always canning and preserving throughout the harvest seasons. Jason grew up in Wyoming where his mother did a lot of home preserving. It just made sense back then to produce and source your own food and then preserve it. It’s just what we did to eat.
More recently, we turned to the same guides our mothers and great aunts used. The Ball Blue Books are an invaluable resource for any home canner. We brushed up our skills with The Ball Blue Book of Canning and the Ball Book of Home Preserves (I think those are the exact titles) and took it from there.
MM: My mom taught me to can. She was part of the generation of baby boomers who became enamored of bread baking and canning in the late 60s and early 70s. Her mother was not a canner, so she taught herself how to put up in the early days of my parents’ marriage, in a tiny kitchen in Marin County, Calif. Although my mother doesn’t bake much bread these days, she never stopped canning jams and freezing homemade applesauce.
KK: I suppose I’d say that the Lee Brothers are my canning muses. I brought along their cookbook, along with Charleston Receipts, North Carolina & Old Salem Cookery, a comb-bound book of historical New York State recipes and a million more pamphlets, community cookbooks, etc. The more battered a book, the more I tend to trust it.
What’s your favorite thing to “put up?”
S&J: What don’t we love to put up?? Our pantry is this gorgeous array of colorful jars. The reds, greens, blues and purples are just stunning to look at all crammed in there. We really look at it as a true craft. The food has to look beautiful and taste good. We start early in the season with asparagus, work our way through the various fruit and berry seasons and are often canning our tomatoes and pickles right up through October and November. What isn’t there to love??
We can salsas and pickles, TONS of tomatoes and make enough jams and jellies and whole fruit preserves to keep us stocked up all year long until the next season rolls around. I guess we love it all! Oh yeah… we give a lot of our jars away as presents during the holiday season. This year, I’m betting we’ll be trying some new canned baby foods… we seem to have a lot of expectant mothers around us this year.
MM: At heart, I’m a jam maker above all other things. However, one cannot live on jam alone, so I pickle my weight in veggies and stock away jars of tomatoes.
KK: I tend toward the heirloom recipes — black walnuts, grape catsup, watermelon rind — but last year’s triumph was being able to break out pickled peaches to serve alongside a serious country ham at a New Year’s Eve-Eve soiree at a friend’s house. I felt as if I’d brought summer.