October 21, 2021

The Joys of Canning, by St. Funogas

It was one of those intolerably hot and muggy days of August. My sister in the Redoubt called to say they could see the smoke from the big fires in California and the Northwest and how hot the weather had gotten even near the Tetons. She said in no uncertain terms, “Only a fool would be trying to get any work done today instead of lounging in a hammock with some lemonade!” And there I was slaving over a hot stove canning three-bean salad before the beans got overripe, the steam making the muggy day even muggier.

And yet, I was enjoying myself. I suppose that makes me a fool according to my sister, something she’s known all along anyway, but the joys of canning can’t be put on hold just because the mercury is threatening to bust out of the top of the thermometer.

I started canning in high school when my dad showed me how to can the many types of fruits from the orchards scattered everywhere in our little hamlet in the boonies. I earned money during the summers picking cherries, apricots, and peaches and after quitting for the day we could take home any fruit lying on the ground. While much was canned, most of the apricots went straight to the solar dryer. They were easy to prepare: in one quick motion pull them in half along the seam and with a flick of the wrist, send the pit flying. No fruit was easier to dry and peaches were a close second. Both were sweeter than candy and a real treat while splitting firewood or backpacking in the nearby pine-forested mountains.

An Apricot Mess

I set out to make the world’s largest piece of apricot leather one summer. I put a piece of 36” x 8’ plastic on concrete patio, spread a few gallons of apricot puree on top and grinned in anticipation as I looked up at the sun and bid it to get to work. A thin dry layer was just beginning to form on top when the neighbor’s dog came running up at breakneck speed for the back door. He hit that apricot-covered plastic and yelped in surprise when he just kept going, throwing up a spray of apricot puree on either side of his body as he headed east, finally ending up in a pile off the end of the porch, his white fur now decidedly more orange than it had been just a moment before. I put the leather project off for another day.

Today I got the canner out from its storage spot in a special cubbyhole I had built in the corner where the stove meets the bottom cupboards. I filled it with water and turned the burner on high.

My dad taught me to can but it was my grandmother and mother who first introduced me to the art and science of preserving food in glass. My grandfather had appropriated a small piece of right-of-way land just south of his garage, cleared away all the underbrush and made a dream garden with a raspberry patch as its centerpiece. It was beautiful. He lovingly worked the raspberries, tying them to stakes with strips of rags so the weight of the always-bounteous crop wouldn’t cause them to break or touch the ground. My grandfather worked miracles growing raspberries but it was Grandma’s magic in the kitchen which turned them into ambrosia: bright red, tart, sweet raspberry jam. She was old school, both frugal and resourceful, so no mason jars graced her pantry. The jam went into glasses and various other glass receptacles, then sealed with paraffin. After our summer visits she’d send us home with enough jam to get through the winter. With three kids it usually lasted only a few months, some of us often sneaking into the pantry with a spoon to take a hit straight out of the jar when no one was looking.

I emptied the five-gallon bucket of yard-long beans into the pool of water in the sink, then pulled them out in small bundles and chopped them into inch-and-a-half long pieces. I grew an extra-large crop of the purple ones this year because they have a shorter maturation time than their green siblings and my colorblind taste buds say it’s just as tasty as the three-bean variety.

That summer we discovered the blackberry thicket we greedily stuffed handfuls into our mouths, then rushed home for a bucket with visions of blackberry jam speeding our flight. My mother was happy to fulfill our wishes and soon enough fresh jam was being ladled into beer glasses, topped off with melted paraffin. Later when each jar was opened, my sisters and I fought over who got to lick the paraffin clean. Mom proved to be just as good of a jam maker as her mother. I bought my $300 pressure canner with some of the money she left me when she passed away. What I’d give now for just thirty minutes sitting with her at my kitchen table! Drinking coffee, eating home-baked cinnamon rolls and telling her what an influence she was on my life, how sorry I was for all those stupid teenage years, and how I understand her lifelong trials now that I’m older. I know she’d be proud of what I’ve become and compliment me on my blackberry jam canned in real jars with those new-fangled self-sealing lids. I love you Mom!

Tears welled in my eyes as I diced the onions and tossed everything into the boiling potion of vinegar and spices. The heavenly smells were filling my small cabin in the woods making the day’s weather more bearable.

As newlyweds, my wife and I continued the canning tradition of our families and I can still see my beautiful spouse sitting at the kitchen table, 100+ jars in front of her representing the summer’s work: apricot jam, apricot syrup, and apricot halves, all from my grandpa’s orchard. It would be pure gold, both in color and flavor, as it sustained us through the upcoming school year.

I added quart jars to the canner and got the lids heating up in a sauce pan. Everything was coming along right on schedule.

Our Grape Explosion

A lifetime later I moved to a job in the Big City, alone, and even there free edibles could be found for canning. One of my city-born-and-raised friends who had never lived anywhere else in her life wanted to learn about the mysteries of home food preservation so I bought a canner and some jars to show her the ropes with something simple: wild grape jam. The vines of wild fox grapes were everywhere but the biggest, tastiest, plumpest grapes grew on a certain curve along one of the nearby bike paths. We harvested bagsful and headed to my place to fire up the canner. Fox grapes are like miniature Concords: a tough skin, large seeds, and very tangy. We heated and simmered them a little to separate the skins and seeds as much as possible before putting it all in the blender prior to straining and extracting the juice. The hot grapes were ladled into the blender, and momentarily forgetting the laws of physics, we hit the on button. Instantly a small explosion covered us, the walls, and the floor with hot purple juice, skins, and seeds. Our jaws dropped, incredulously trying to grasp what had just happened, and then we started laughing. “Wow, did you see that?!” The grapes were hot beneath the skins and as soon as they broke open in the blender, a rush of steam from 500 exploding little bombs freed itself, making memories as indelible as the stains on our clothes and walls.

The beans were now boiling in their solution of spice-infused vinegar, the canner was boiling, and amazed at getting the timing just right this time, I turned off the heat and began filling the jars. A small spatula helped remove any air caught between the layers of onions and beans, then after wiping the rim clean I used a magnetic wand to fish a lid out of the sauce pan. Once on the jar I screwed the band down finger tight before putting each one in the boiling canner for the 15-minute water bath.

I finally escaped the Big City after a few years, working the same job from home in another state while searching for suitable land for my homestead. I wanted the most self-reliant lifestyle I could create, including a big garden. It had been several years since I had done any serious canning aside from dabbling to make some special items for myself and friends. On my homestead I wanted to produce so many jars of canned produce each year that I’d need a large pantry to hold it all.

As luck would have it, not long after I finished building my house I bought nearly a pallet’s worth of used mason jars and lids for ten dollars at an auction. I only wanted certain sizes and brands and had just started sorting through the pile when a young lady approached and asked if I wanted to sell any of them. “Which ones would you like?” She selected about six dozen. “How much do I owe you?” She was about the same age as one of my daughters, herself a young mother trying to save money by home canning. I thought how this young lady had quit bidding at five dollars. She was probably as poor and struggling as I was at that age so I told her they were hers for the asking, no charge. She was unbelieving and very grateful but I was the big winner that day, helping a young woman along the journey of experiencing her own joys of canning.

The fifteen-minute water bath was done so I let the jars sit in the water for another five minutes before lifting them out and setting them on a wooden cooling rack. In no time at all I could hear the lids sealing with a loud pop, smiling each time I heard the next one. Once they had cooled I wrote the letter code I use for the date, hidden just below the scrollwork on the lid.

I stood there admiring the finished product with the usual big grin on my face even though it was the umpteenth time at having accomplished something as wonderful as preserving my own home-grown food. My grin soon turned to chagrin as I looked at the lack of uniformity of the lids. I reuse my lids and there on my bean-salad jars was an assortment of three different lid brands and logos, and both gold and silver lid rings. This would never do. It was finally time to quit procrastinating what should have been done a few years ago.

I got all my old lids and rings out of the canning-supply drawers and made a pile. I tossed them into a sink full of hot soapy water, washed them, then set them all outside to dry on towels. There was quite an assortment. Later that afternoon I sorted them into groups by brand, design, and color. It turned out to be a major trip down memory lane. The stories these lids could tell!

There were two stragglers from that 2007 batch of exploding fox grapes. I ended up moving to the country with the gal I shared that experience with. I decided to be more practical than sentimental for once so using cotton swabs and alcohol, I cleaned off any lids which had writing. By the next morning I was already regretting not saving a few with the writing still on.

Sharpie must’ve had a special formula in 2009 because most of those lids were impossible to erase completely. The banner year was 2014. Wow, lots of lids. I was finally retired and building my house full-time that year. On my way home each night during July, I harvested wild blackberries along a quarter-mile stretch of country road where bush after bush grew along the pasture fences. The thorns were extra sharp and by the end of blackberry-picking season, my arms looked like I had spent the day trying to give a cat a bath. But we had 66 pints of blackberry jam and syrup to show for it plus all the pies and cobblers which had long since been enjoyed with coffee.

The Tomato-Only Garden

I put in a garden that same year, tomatoes only, with no intention of tending them since I was too busy building a house. I threw a few dozen plants into the untilled soil, covered the ground with old straw and wished them Godspeed. The tomato worms hadn’t gotten the notice about a new garden in the neighborhood so it was virtually pest free. We ended up with the most bounteous harvest you can imagine. The house-building project ground to a halt as tons of tomatoes were boiled down into sauce and canned in 50 quart jars. We canned over 100 jars of various produce that same summer including some from kindly neighbors and some from wild sources such as plums and grapes, giving us enough to last until the house was finished.

As I sorted through the rest of the lids, cleaning as I went and then putting each one into a pile with its mates, lots of wonderful memories were jarred, and a few sad ones. There were two lids with “Apricots 2016” on them. My aunt gave them to me while I was on a trip west and she passed away that winter, nobody ever having told me she had cancer. Maybe that’s why she was teary-eyed as she handed me jar after jar of her home-canned treasures. Those lids I left unwashed, a tangible reminder of her kindness to me over the years.

I have many more such fond memories of my canning experiences and the joys of self-reliance, as well as grateful memories of the many wonderful people associated with those experiences over the years.

After the jars of bean salad cooled, I left them on the counter for a day just to enjoy their colorful display, then stored them in the pantry while waiting for the leaves to fall and winter to arrive to tickle my palate with their sweet tangy goodness…

And now that five-gallon bucket of cucumbers I picked this morning is screaming to be made into bread-and-butter pickles and won’t wait a moment longer so I had better put down the quill and ink and get to work.

For those SurvivalBlog readers considering trying their hand at canning, you’ll develop all these same kinds of memories, triumphs, and satisfactions as you learn a new skill in your quest for preparedness and self-reliance.

And it won’t be long before you too will be enjoying the Joys of Canning.

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