My West grandparents were east Tennessee farmers, and Papa could turn a memorable country phrase. If he gave someone driving directions that made the route sound trickier than it was, he’d try to reassure the person by saying, “It’s easy to get there once you know how.” One could say the same thing about the basic kitchen technique for home canning—what Papa and Gran would have called “putting up.” It’s easy to do once you know how.
Not that long ago, a lot of Americans did know how. In the middle of the last century, it was commonplace for households of whatever socio-economic status to put up jars of jam or pickles every summer, just as surely as it was normal for someone with a yard to put out a little garden patch of tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers. For my grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression and grew almost all their own food, home canning was practical and thrifty. Homemade preserves and pickles also added flavor and variety to their table during winter months when the garden was dormant.
The canning techniques still used today were first devised in Napoleonic France and perfected for home use in the late 19th century with the widespread manufacture of the Mason jar. (Indeed, home canning ought to be called “home jarring.”) American cookbooks from the era abound with preserving recipes: peaches in syrup, and cherry preserves, and pickled cucumbers, and endless relishes and ketchups of all sorts. Some of our food preservation techniques are vastly older. Shakespeare made reference to pickles stored in salty brine, while Romans wrote down recipes for fruit preserved in honey—the predecessor of modern marmalade. Scholars speculate that ancient Koreans began fermenting vegetables in buried pots—kimchi—as far back as the dawn of organized agriculture.
In America, the preserving tradition has a strong regional character, which is perhaps why preserved foods can provoke such potent sentimental reactions among their fans—think of kosher dill pickles from New York’s Lower East Side or Cape Cod’s beach plum jelly. A list of distinctively Southern preserves would include chutney, chow-chow and watermelon rind pickle. When I was a kid, Gran always served jars of wild blackberry jam with her breakfast biscuits, and lunch would come with little dishes of pickled beets or highly spiced sweet crunch pickles.
I first decided to make jam about five years ago when I got overexcited at the farmers market and bought a whole flat of strawberries. Gran was gone by then, so I couldn’t ask her for a recipe, but I thought I could just figure it out. I thought wrong—family recipes don’t transmit through the blood. But after several seasons of trial and error, I had become a good jammer, and had also begun to master pickles, relishes, candies, cordials, and the rest of the home-canning repertoire. Then in 2010, I quit my day job to research and write a definitive preserving cookbook, which comes out this June. With 220 recipes, Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving, is an encyclopedia of the cuisine and culture of food preservation.
There’s a long list of reasons to take up home canning: the thrift of preserving home-grown and local produce, the pride of self-sufficiency, the ecological benefits of sourcing and processing foodstuffs locally, and the merit of opting out of the industrial food system. This last is especially meaningful to me: Eating home-canned goods is a modest but meaningful way to assert our self-reliance as citizens. Home canning sticks a finger in the eye of agribusiness and flips the bird at the corporate food industry.
But there’s one more reason to fill a few jars at home, and to me it’s the most convincing of all: pleasure. Homemade jam, pickles and relish are delicious. Papa used to say, “There’s only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true, true love and homegrown tomatoes.” When Gran put up those summer tomatoes in quart Mason jars, they were as good in January as they had been in August.
That’s what I mean by saving the season.
Here are a few tips for the novice canner:
•Botulism is like shark attacks. Botulism is a serious foodborne illness, but it is also exceedingly rare. Like shark attacks and plane crashes, the fear of botulism generates exaggerated anxiety that is out of step with the actual risk. It may be calming to know that botulism is caused by improperly canned low-acid foods, such as fish, legumes, and vegetables. Acidity is the silver bullet against the bacteria that causes botulism, so high-acid foods—such as most fruit-based sweet preserves, vinegar pickles, and fermented vegetables—are safe from botulism risk. Berkeley jam guru June Taylor says the only way you could hurt a person with a jar of jam is if you hit him in the head with it.
•Good fruit makes good jam. You get out of a jar what you put into it, so use the pick of the crop. The best pickles will come from fresh, crisp vegetables that are still damp with dew when you buy them at the farmers market, and there will never be any raspberry jam better than the batch you make from your backyard berry patch.
•Small batch, big returns. If you’re just getting started, work in small batches—just two or three pounds of fruit or vegetables at a time. A small batch is easier to manage, quicker to make, and more economical. And if the recipe doesn’t work (which is unlikely), there’s less heartbreak involved in a small failure. Besides, how much strawberry jam or corn relish can anyone use? You’re not stocking a bomb shelter.
•Home canning is home cooking. If you have the kitchen skill to make cookies from scratch, or the patience to simmer a pot of tomato sauce for pasta, or the common sense to safely handle raw chicken (a potential source of foodborne illness), then you have everything you need to make a batch of jam, pickles, or relish. Home canning is just home cooking by another name.