I remember sitting in high school English class my junior year. Discussing “To Kill A Mockingbird.” And the book mentioned canning.
Our teacher, a prim and proper lady, had grown up in town. I had not. And she said,
“You probably don’t realize this but generations before us used to can their food and store it up for eating in the winter.”
I quickly raised my hand.
“Um, my mom still does that. We have a whole shelf in our basement with canned items.”
And we did. Grape juice, green beans, pickles and tomatoes of many varieties. My mom had a vegetable garden and preserved the food she grew. Just like generations had before her.
Now, at the time, I paid little attention to the canning she was doing in the kitchen. I had books to read. Play dates to plan. Or I waited for her to give me a ride into town.
At the time, I hoped to be a lot more like my citified English teacher. I planned to grow up and leave the simple country ways behind. Not because I didn’t like it. Because I had bigger, better things to do.
Then life happened. I met my husband and we moved to our place in the middle of nowhere. I’m so at home here. The first summer we lived here, I planted a smallish garden. As if in some divine rite of passage, I had some fresh vegetables I needed to preserve.
I bought some books, cozied up with google and learned about canning. I read about the very real threat of botulism, which basically leaves you dead on contact. Also about how pressure cookers can explode and burn everything within shooting, boiling water distance.
Then I called my mom. I told her I was very disappointed in her parenting skills. How could she have all this knowledge I knew she had about gardening and canning and not share it with me?
But being the responsible adult I try to play in real life, I faced my fear. I followed the directions. I took notes based on what I learned from doing it. And I kept calling my mom with questions.
My canning efforts met with some success. This year, our garden grew abundantly. I have learned more ways to preserve a cucumber than I ever thought possible (one such way is to give them away to your friends at church so they can make some pickles too). I have tripled the amount of jars I have put up for winter. And I am already looking forward to the jars of home-grown food we’ll keep pulling out all winter long.
All of that to say, here are some lessons I have learned from the whole canning experience:
- You can never have enough jars or a big enough kitchen.
I had some jars. Remember I had done a little bit of canning last year. A lady from church had a neighbor who retired from canning and gave away her jars and lids. There’s a special place in Heaven for women such as her. Because if you do any amount of canning, you soon realize there’s never enough jars. I have bought more jars from the store four times this season.
And when you lay out everything you need to do your hot water bath. Along with your ingredients. You quickly run out of space in any sized kitchen as well.
- Gardening and canning connect you with old timers.
We have wonderful neighbors. A blessed bunch. I drove past their driveway once this summer and was flagged down by the patriarch of the family. Standing in their garden. I pulled over and rolled down my window. He held up a single okra and asked if it should be that size.
Oh, I knew this one. I had asked my girlfriend, a fellow gardener and canner.When you take up this hobby, you start asking all kinds of questions to anyone you know to be wiser than you.
I assured him that particular okra would be too tough for good eating. Okra, I told him, should be picked when it is the size of your thumb.
We’ve since also discussed the best ways to preserve squash, swapped pickle recipes and discussed the best vegetables to freeze.It’s true what my English teacher said all those years ago, the generations before us knew a thing or two about canning.
- Food is the common denominator.
I know we don’t all have time for canning. I often don’t have time for it either. But it still brings us all together. Some of my best summer memories come from grabbing a jar of salsa or pickles and offering it to my friends.
“Here. I made this!”
We’re all the better for gathering around a table of fresh food.I enjoy this new challenge of making a meal with the vegetables I have to get used up before they spoil. Grilled vegetables anyone?
- You can make friends.
Can I tell you a secret about gardening? Every year, you’re going to expand it. Whether it’s to accommodate more vegetables or to give a set number of vegetables more space. We expanded ours so much this year that we have more than enough. Even after canning and freezing. More than enough.
So, make new friends. Or bribe old friends. I gave vegetables away to the local food pantry. I took them to my daughter’s theater camp. Bible study. Church. On the street corners. If you grow a garden, you’re going to have extra food.Giving away food helps you make (and keep) friends.
Canning is a lonely business.
The friends don’t come around for the hard work though. If they wanted to do the hard work, they’d have their own garden and can their own food. I like the idea of canning with someone. But for me, this rarely happens. I crank up the music or turn on a sermon podcast and go at it alone. Canning a batch of something can take from two to eight hours so be prepared.
Reading canning recipes from loved ones is priceless.
My mom had passed on her canning recipe book to me. In it, I have bread & butter pickles from Mabel (they are the bomb). Also hamburger dill slices from Aunt Juanita. Frozen corn from my grandma. Grape juice from my mom. Following these recipes means a trip down memory lane for me.
My mother-in-law has a recipe collection of her own. Years worth of swapping recipes with family and friends. She rarely copies the recipes she’s given onto a new card. She can tell you, for example, that the zucchini bread from her old neighbor is written in blue ink on the back of a business-sized envelope. Having these recipes is priceless.
Vacationing in August thru Labor Day is questionable.
I have tried to honestly portray this canning business. As with most things, it has pros and cons. For us in Michigan, we plant the garden Memorial Day weekend. It requires some attention off and on all summer long.
At the end of July and all of August, you’re harvesting the largest part of your produce. We scheduled a week-long vacation at the end of July. I canned pickles right up to the day we left and also had some cucumbers fermenting in crocks while we traveled. Upon my return, I have canned the better part of August. I see a bit of a break coming up mid-September. Until the fall squash ripens for picking. If you have big plans to go cross-country the whole month of August, I’m not sure what your vegetable garden will think about that.
- All food tastes better homegrown.
This is at the heart of canning. We’re still fine tuning the very best recipes, but I make a spaghetti sauce that might cause a civil war in Italy. I have requests for salsa when we entertain. I’m learning how to make my pickles crispier. When to use fresh herbs and when dried work just fine.
We can’t eat these foods fresh all year long. But I’m finding that eating them canned or frozen is the very next best thing.
Every time I do some canning, I think of my sweet Grandma Lucy. She canned out of necessity.Not for fun. But then, if I really think on it, the more I read about the chemicals they put in our food, I might be doing it more out of necessity as well.