Archive for June 7th, 2011

Putting Canning In Perspective

Sharon June 7th, 2011

I wrote Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage because when it came time for me to take the next steps in eating locally and homegrown – to holding some of summer’s bounty for the long winter, there wasn’t any book that really covered what all I needed to know. After writing A Nation of Farmers about the “Why” of growing your own and eating locally, I ran into hundreds of people who had the same problem. They wanted to keep eating the same great food after the CSA boxes stopped coming or the farmer’s market closed down, but they didn’t know how.

One of the things I found as I became more expert at food preservation, and started to spend more time teaching and talking about it is that most of us have a mental image in our heads when we hear “preservation” mentioned. We think about canning, and about our grandmothers standing over a kettle in August, often for days on end. Indeed, when I did interviews they almost always began with someone’s memory of putting by food – and always by canning.

Now canning is a great technique for certain foods, and if it is done right at home, it is both safe and yields a much better tasting product than any industrial scale food could ever offer. And how would it not?  Instead of a company buying a whole orchard’s worth of peaches, all standardized to produce good canning quality but little flavor, shipped for several days after green picking, and then industrially processed, you can take peak-ripe food, often bought very cheaply at the height of the season or grown in your own garden, and process it to your own taste. I do a fair amount of canning, and I enjoy it – in part because I also don’t spend weeks over a hot kettle.

But assuming that canning is the main form of food preservation available to us doesn’t serve us all that well. People who have that mental image of grandma with a hot pressure canner (or worse, the image of an explolding pressure canner – old ones did explode sometimes, but they don’t anymore) immediately leap to the conclusion that storing and preserving food is too much work. Plus, for those of low income there’s the barrier of acquiring equipment, and it takes time to build up a supply of used canning jars – and new ones are pricey.  You either need new lids or better, the reusable ones, but they also can be costly.

Now all of these issues can be overcome – it is possible to shift the season of some canning. For example, I plant my main crop of cucumbers in late June or early July, rather than in May, like my neighbors. This means I’m not making pickles and running the stove in August, but doing it in late September, when the heat of my stove is wanted anyway. By using other food preservation techniques, and only canning when that’s the best way for my family, I get more free time, and cooler. Laying out sweet corn in my solar dehydrator in August means that after a short bit of cutting, I go in and drink iced tea and allow the sun to do my work for me. Preserving food doesn’t have to be hard – although there is some work involved, of course. But as long as we’ve got the assumption that it must be, we won’t experiment.

Moreover, the other reason this bothers me is that canning is a fairly new technique.  It was developed for Napoleon’s army in the early 19th century, so we’ve had canning for less than two centuries. On the other hand, human beings have been putting food by as long as there have been human beings – in cold or dry periods where crops do not grow, and for years of crop failure, drought or disaster, taking the excess of summer and autumn and putting it aside for times to come is one of the most basic and necessary of human activities. While canning is very useful for some things, if human beings couldn’t store up food for dry or cold seasons and eat well without canning, we’d all pretty much be dead. I don’t like to give canning pride of place simply because doing so crowds out the other ways we can preserve food, and our long and deep history of holding summer through the winter or the dry season.

Preserving food is simply too useful a technique to be abandoned because we assume that preservation means “canning.” During high summer, at the produce peak, most farmers have bulk quantities of produce for *vastly* less money than retail prices. The same farmer that sells tomatoes for $2.50 lb may have a bushel for $20 (these are real prices, local to me, your own will vary by location and the season). A bushel of tomatoes will keep you in salsa and sun dried and fresh salad tomatoes for quite a while if you can come up with the $20, and will get you five times as many tomatoes as the same $20 would get you buying retail.

Potatoes in the fall run 70 cents a pound or more here – or 50lbs for $12. It doesn’t take a math genius – and while many smaller families might quail at the thought of using up 50lbs of potatoes, it actually isn’t that hard if you can use the simple technique of natural cold storage (commonly known as root cellaring, although you don’t actually need a cellar, just any place that stays cool and doesn’t freeze – an enclosed porch, spare bedroom closed off from the house, an old fridge or freezer on a porch, a garage, hay bales in a barn). You’ll save a lot of money, trips to the store, and if you don’t eat them all, you can plant them in the spring when they begin to sprout and make more potatoes.

Season extension, natural fermentation, cheesemaking, dehydrating, preserving with sugar, salt or alcohol, natural cool storage – all of these are great ways to store some food. And with some judicious canning, together they make a complex and wonderful diet for the seasons of our lives in which things do not grow. But no one technique is all.

Whenever I do interviews or teach classes, the first thing I do is try to very gently let people know that this isn’t all about canning. Sometimes someone confesses that the thought of pressure canning makes them nervous. What I tell them is this – it is true that pressure canning can involve risk of botulism bacteria. However, so does eating industrially canned food – there’s no magic in the industrial process that precludes this (in fact, there was an outbreak in commercially canned chili just a couple of years ago). If you are attentive and pressure can correctly, there is no reason to be afraid of it.

However, there’s also no need to fetishize canning. Most of the other techniques we have used over the years to store food fell into disfavor, not because the techniques were valueless but because of the excitement generated by canning in the first half of the 20th century. Like baby formula and suburbia, canning was seen as modern, progressive, scientific and clean. And like baby formula and suburbia, things that might, in small quantities have been extremely useful were taken to ridiculous extremes. At the same time we were giving up the breast largely because of our sense that formula was progress, we were also giving up natural cold storage, lactofermentation and drying food.

Canning is a great addition to our repetoir – some things couldn’t be the same without it. But it is only one of many tools. The trick is for us to reclaim what is worthwhile about our past (actually that may be a large chunk of our overarching project, not just our food project) and to put things like canning into perspective – as part, but not the whole of the basic human project of provisioning ourselves.