Thursday, August 12, 2010


To follow up on the last post, a passage from Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties, that captures so well the toil and fast pace and difficulty of canning in an early twentieth century kitchen, with sick kids and flies and heat to boot:

     "In the humid kitchen, Anna works on alone. Mazie lies swathed in sweated sleep in the baking bedroom. Jimmie and Jeff sleep under the kitchen table, their exhausted bodies, their hair damp and clinging to their perspiring heads, given them the look of drowned children. Ben lies in sleep or in a sleep of swoon, his poor heaving chest laboring on at its breathing. Bess has subsided in her basket on a chair where, if she frets, Anna can sprinkle her with water or try to ease the heat rash by sponging. The last batch of jelly is on the stove. Between stirring and skimming, and changing the wet packs on Ben, Anna peels and cuts the canning peaches--two more lugs to go. If only all will sleep awhile. She begins to sing softly--I saw a ship a-sailing, a-sailing on the sea--it clears her head. The drone of fruit flies and Ben's rusty breathing are very loud in the unmoving, heavy air. Bess begins to fuss again. There, there, Bessie, there, there, stopping to sponge down the oozing sores on the tiny body. There. Skim, stir; sprinkle Bess; pit, peel and cut; sponge; skim, stir. Any second the jelly will be right and must not wait. Shall she wake up Jimmie and ask him to blow a feather to keep Bess quiet? No, he'll wake cranky, he's just a baby hisself, let him sleep. Skim, stir; sprinkle; change the wet packs on Ben; pit, peel and cut; sponge. This time it does not soothe--Bess stiffens her body, flails her fists, begins to scream in misery. Just then the jelly begins to boil. There is nothing for it but to take Bess up, jounce her on a hip (there, there) and with her one free hand frantically skim and ladle. There, there.  The batch is poured and capped and sealed, all one-handed, jiggling-hipped. There, there, it is done."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Toiling away in the kitchen...

So it's possible that that last applesauce post of mine made it seem like this whole canning business is easy-peasy, but in fact, it's damn hard work.  One of the reasons I wanted to try my hand at canning (besides the obvious fact that it helps us eat more locally year-round, by preserving summer crops grown in the Madison area for eating in the winter and spring) was that I wanted to have a better sense of connection to the men and women I write about who canned food in the home and factory environments in the early twentieth century. The men in the factory had a whole different set of issues to deal with, but those women at home were doing much of the same sort of work that I'm trying my hand out.  Well, by "much of the same," I may mean that the general process of sterilization and preservation of food by heat and vacuum sealing was the same, but of course many of them had to deal with a lack of running water, or stoves that had to be supplied with firewood and stoked by hand, or kitchens with no ventilation, or homes with nothing like the air conditioning that sometimes pumps through our house and keeps the home environment tolerable even as the water in the canner boils away. So, not really the same at all.

Walking the walk

(a post from a couple of months ago that I never actually published, but that makes sense to post before I write about my more recent canning adventures)

After all of this writing and talking about canned food, I decided it was time to actually try my hand at this home canning business.

Two instances came together perfectly to enable me to do just that: (1) Last week, I saw a box sitting by the dumpster outside our house. People often put things there when they no longer want them, but they're not exactly trash. I looked inside the box and what should I find, but 8 perfect quart-size Mason jars! and (2) After my recent place-based workshop [end of May 2010, focused on energy in the upper Midwest], there was lots of food left over from the snacks that had been purchased for the trip, among them many, many apples. We gave away as much of this food as possible, but I still ended upcoming home with several bags of apples. So, though they weren't garden fresh or even local, these apples seemed like a perfect first canning project.

So, I washed them and I peeled them:

Then I chopped them and I cooked them:
Then, while the apples cooked, I sterilized and heated those mason jars in a big boiling water canner, courtesy of Mom Horn:

And after the apples were hot (and I helped along their puree-ing with an immersion blender) and the jars were sterilized, I filled up the jars, wiped the rims with a clean towel, put on the new lids and sterilized screw-caps, and put the filled jars back in the boiling water for 20 minutes. Afterwards, I removed the filled jars with a jar-lifter, and voila! canned applesauce, ready for winter eating. Yum.

Stay tuned for August pickles and corn relish...