We’re now into mid-September and I have almost completed all my canning for the season. It took taking a week off of work, quite a few weekends and after-dinner sessions, but we have managed to preserve pretty much our entire harvest. I’m completely pooped out, but standing in our new “cold room” (think old-school root cellar in the house), surveying the results of our work, it’s well worth it.
We’ve talked a bit about how to can, but we really haven’t talked that much about the why. A lot of my coworkers and friends think I’m a total nut-case to be spending so much valuable time in such an archaic pursuit, but even when I’m sweating my brains out in the kitchen having spent all morning chopping 40 pounds of tomatoes, I know it’s worth it.
We didn’t start canning to be part of some fad, although now that we’re in the thick of it, we realizing there is a growing movement. Just this past weekend there was a story in the Globe and Mail about the surprising rise of canning in the 20-30 something age group. Clearly canning is moving into the realm of mainstream.
It makes sense that when times are tough, people look back in time for solutions. For us, starting to can wasn’t about our bottom line or the state of the economy, it was my finance craving the flavours of his childhood and my desire to know the origin of what I put in my mouth. I had tried very hard to be a diligent and conscious consumer. I read labels, asked questions and made sure my grocery store knew that I want and am willing to pay for local, sustainably produced products. I realized very quickly that wasn’t going to work. More often than not, the “BC Grown” labeled products bore stickers that said “grown in California” or ”Argentina” or ”Israel”. My produce was better travelled that I was.
So next stop was the farmers market. I tried shopping there on Saturday mornings, and absolutely love the atmosphere, the people and the products, but lets face it – at least here in Vancouver, it’s EXPENSIVE. I simply can’t afford to spend 5 bucks a pound for tomatoes on a regular basis. Not that I don’t believe they and the farmer are worth it, but it simply won’t balance my budget. That pretty much makes growing and preserving my own the obvious choice.
Canning puts the love back into processing food. We recently watched a piece on tv about how sauerkraut is made on an industrial scale. They pushed the cabbages around with bulldozers. Where’s the love in that?? Yuck. If we’re willing to take the time we can put the care back into processing food. I take a lot of pride in the food that stocks my cupboard. It’s been made with care and attention by hand, not back-end loader.
You can’t beat the flavour of home-canned products. My tinned tomatoes are sun-ripened on the vine heirloom varieties (San Marzano and La Roma). They haven’t been shipped anywhere, picked green and artificially ripened in a gas chamber or anything else weird like that. They get picked in the morning and are on the shelf in the afternoon, frozen in time at the height of freshness. They travel all of 20 feet to get there. If you don’t believe me that homemade tastes that much better – come try our green tomato relish. Who knew hot dog relish could taste so darn good??? Our friends and family buy it as fast as we can make it – and we make a LOT.
It’s not just what you put into the can that’s important. Sometimes it’s what you don’t put in. No chemicals, no weird additives, no stabilizers or artificial flavouring. Just food. Most of the products we make have only a handful of ingredients, all of which we can pronounce and the only preservatives used are salt, sugar, vinegar and lemon juice.
I think canning is an environmentally sound choice as well. There is very little waste – only the snap lids can’t be reused and if and when they eventually crack the jars can be recycled. The energy that goes into canning is mostly yours – so not too many fossil fuels there. And once it’s done, you don’t need to keep it cold, again saving energy. Even if you don’t grow your own veg, if you can you’re probably shopping for veg locally in season, when you can get a wack of cukes or tomatoes for super cheap from your local farmer. Hurray for lower food miles! And if you’re shopping local, chances are you’re being mindful about where you’re shopping (For example we passed one berry field by when we noticed their neighbour spraying the sh*t out of his potatoes.) In the process you’re supporting sustainable, responsible farming. You’re not putting crumby chemicals into your body, and therefore aren’t flushing them down the drain to the fishes when you’re done, nor are you exposing some factory worker to whatever weird stuff is in there. Look at you go – saving the world, one can of tomatoes at a time.
Canning can be fun! Take a page from Gramma’s book and hold a canning bee. Invite some friends over, gossip, peel tomatoes and split the loot at the end of the day.
Believe it or not – canning is convenient. Ok – so it might take you all weekend to can those tomatoes – but come February when it is pouring rain or snow and you want a quick easy supper, you only have to go as far as the pantry to do your shopping. And everything there is made exactly to your liking. Easy peasy.
Ok maybe not always so easy. You will have mishaps.
As I was typing this, my fiance hollered from the kitchen – I need help!! And I ran out to find him madly sopping up sugary plum juice from cans that had somehow overflowed during processing. The instructions are not always clear, especially in family recipes. I’ve called home to my fiance’s mom on more than one occasion to clarify a recipe only to find out – oh I don’t actually put that in. Or – Oh you know, just cook them till they’re done. You know, you can tell when they’re done. This is why a tradition of canning – i.e. watching someone and learning the recipe by heart, is a valuable family heirloom. We are certainly learning the hard way, but by the time we have kids, I’m sure we’ll have figured it out.
Here’s some of the things we made this year, many of which are pictured above: green tomato relish, canned peaches, canned tomatoes, stewed tomatoes with veggies, strawberry jam, raspberry jam, sweet summer squash pickles, dill pickles, pickled garlic dill beans, pickled roasted red peppers, canned plums, homemade ketchup, salsa, salsa verde and red root relish. That’s a lot of food – 90% of which came from our very own yard. By gardening and canning we transformed about 20 dollars worth of seeds into a winter’s worth of fresh, local, delicious food.
My fiance has just declared he is DONE with canning for now, and I don’t blame him. It was a lot of work in a short amount of time. We need a winter of hibernation and stewed tomatoes. But by the time the cupboards are bare and next August rolls around I’m sure we’ll be ready to do it all over again.