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Jul. 17 2009 - 10:18 am | 266 views | 2 recommendations | 17 comments

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.

Rhubarb and apricot jam. Photo by Marisa McClellan.

Rhubarb and apricot jam. Photo by Marisa McClellan.

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.

In a recent interview, Laura Devine of Jarden Home Brands, which makes Ball jars (which just celebrated its 125th  birthday) said that sales are up 28 percent since last year.

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.)

Whole tomatoes and sauces from The Lazy Locavore's garden. Photo by Shannon Mullett-Bowlsby

Whole tomatoes and sauces from The Lazy Locavore's garden. Photo by Shannon Mullett-Bowlsby

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    I am surprised that, in your listing of food preservation techniques, that you did not include freezing.

    I canned years ago, until I discovered how much easier freezing is. Many of the foods taste better, too. If you have a freezer, or freezer space in a fridge, there’s no sterilizing, cooking in a canner, etc. All you do is a quick blanch, cool in ice water, drain in a strainer, and put into freezer bags or Rubbermaid tubs. If you do your produce right after you pick and wash it, when you use it it will taste fresh-from-the-garden.

    The only downside that I can see to freezing is that it takes electricity to run the freezer. But, if the freezer is fairly full, you’re getting good bang for the buck. L

    • collapse expand

      The only problem with freezing is that we live in an area where electric blackouts do happen. Last winter there was a terrible ice storm that knocked out our power for 4 days!

      We do freeze some berries, but we can jam and tomatoes. I’m so glad we did a lot of crushed tomatoes last year – this may be the year of no tomatoes because late blight, the cause of the Irish potato famine, has spread throughout the Hudson River Valley due to the cold, wet weather and possibly to infected plants that home growers bought from Home Depot and Lowes (at least according to the NY Times).

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    My mother has been teaching me how to can for the last few years. When I got married two years ago, she and I made relishes and preserves from fruits and vegetables in her garden to give as favors: cucumber relish, zucchini relish, blueberry preerves, raspberry jam, and rhubarb preserves. They were a big hit.

  3. collapse expand

    Hate to break up the party, but what’s the carbon footprint of canning at home? In the earlier dry-vs-canned beans debate, canned beans had a smaller footprint. If you backtrack the savings from home canning, how does that value your personal wage rate? My experience is close to zero, which is uneconomical- in the sense that it’s pulling your labor out of the economy and further intensifying the downward spiral we’re in.
    Fine if it’s a hobby, but not so fine if it’s meant to save money/the environment.

    • collapse expand

      Steve — A strange mix of arguments you offer here … carbon footprint … cost-effectiveness … economics 101.

      I’m going to guess that most of the canning will involve fruits and vegetables bought locally, probably at farm stands or farmers markets. That’s money going right back into the economy.

      And as far as the carbon footprint goes, those local ingredients will travel fewer miles to the customer than most of the stuff on grocery store shelves. And most grocery store foods are the product of industrial agriculture, which is incredibly carbon intensive.

      As for the cost-effectiveness of canning vs. buying at the store — you may have an argument there. But it’s not a very good one. Home-canned foods are healthier, but more importantly, canning can be fun. It is an art. It is a connection to simpler times. There’s no pricetag that can be put on that.


      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        The modern supply chain is pretty energy efficient- it’s cost cutting in the modern mass market that did in the local farms. The core argument here is that canning saves money- but that savings comes at a very low personal wage rate, and cutting corners on things like proper sterilization can cause botulism. Sterilization is time-consuming and easy to get wrong for beginners.
        Saving money (i.e. the recession) is exactly the wrong reason to promote it.
        I cook a lot, but I do it for reasons involving better quality and nutrition, and for entertaining family and friends. If I just wanted to save money, I’d just have a freezer full of Hungry Mans. For non-cost reasons, home canning is great- but if you’re really hurting financially as many are these days, it may not be the best way to go.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Botulism and sterilization … scary stuff. But you’re overstating the threat. Little old ladies mastered the art of canning before penicillin. Methinks the DIY’ers of the 21st century can learn how to can safely.

          As for industrial agriculture providing cheap food — “cheap” in absolute pricing standards, but not in total costs, which involve energy and public health costs.

          And in a recession, putting money into the pockets of local farmers sounds a heck of a lot more stimulating than sending money to Cargill or Tyson’s.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Canning does save me money. I’ve evaluated the costs of the seeds, water to grow them, initial out-lay for cans (depreciated each additional year I use them), new lids each year, and the energy to run the stove. I still come out (just barely) ahead of the store prices (water is expensive in Southern California; without that high cost I’d be far ahead of store prices). For the record, I just can fruit, tomatoes and pickles. I freeze all my vegetables and I save even more money here.

          Your argument that it comes at a low wage rate presumes that I would otherwise be producing income with the time spent canning. That’s just not true for me. A better argument would be to compare the cost of alternative entertainment I’d be pursuing if I wasn’t gardening and preserving.

          Yesterday was a perfect example of this principle at work. I spent an hour in the garden picking corn and green beans. I spent another hour washing, blanching and freezing the beans and some of the corn. I only ended up with five quarts of produce so it was a very small return for two hours of labor. Later in the day we went wine tasting for about two hours and we spent $300. Wine tasting and buying may be an extreme example, but I might have gone to the local minor league baseball game ($15 for admission and beer) or to the new Harry Potter movie ($12 for admission and red vines) and either would have cost a lot more than my food preserving activity.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Vacuum sealing and freezing works quite well- it avoids the difficulties of sterilization, reduces freezer burn, and extends the “freezer life” over many other methods. It’s pretty cost effective, too.

  5. collapse expand

    I’m not sure what cooking method everyone is proposing to use in canning, seeing as though I’ve never done it. However, if you approach canning using a pressure cooker, which is what I assume most people used in the 60s/70s, then I’m for the argument that it is in fact more energy efficient and saves money. Pressure cooking alone saves up 70% of cooking time, so that anything that would normally take 4 hours (dry beans) takes no more than about 45 minutes (w/out soaking). You could take those same beans and freeze them (for those arguing for freezing). By the same token, if you take veggies, fruits, etc.. and can them using the pressure cooker, you’re saving time and money as you’re not cooking conventionally long times and your gas/electric bills (stove, oven, fridge) go way down! I promise. I have about 6 pressure cookers, combo of vintage and new, and just bought two more this weekend! Talk about a lost art! I’m on a mission to reintroduce it to the masses! So, count me in for the canning project! I’ll be the Atlanta rep!

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    About Me

    You might know me from The Washington Post, where for a dozen years I dished up cooking content, both as Web chat hostess ("What's Cooking") and daily blog minx ("A Mighty Appetite").

    To the table, I offer a stew of journalism (total = 16 years) and cooking smarts (a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education), served with a side of life-long curiosity.

    Home is Seattle for now, but until last year was parked on the east coast, born and raised outside of Philadelphia, where H20 is pronounced "wooder."

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