The following magazine clipping hung on the door of our kitchen cabinet at the apprentice house all season.
The caption reads, “In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration assigned photographer Dorothea Lange to travel around Oregon documenting agricultural communities at the height of the Great Depression. Here we see Mrs. Botner of Nyssa Heights in Eastern Oregon tidying her storage cellar, where she had placed 800 quarts of home-canned food to sustain her family through the winter.”
Mrs. Botner looks like a sturdy farm wife, but I enjoy her outfit: she’s wearing some stylish leather heels with her plain summer housedress. She’s been working in the field and in the kitchen all day, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be lookin’ good while putting by some provisions in her root cellar!
Last January, I had the pleasure of taking a class on food preservation at a farmer conference in Stanwood, WA. The instructor of the class, Mrs. Vivian Smallwood, was of the right age to have been this Mrs. Botner’s daughter. White-haired and in her 70’s, Vivian came into class using a walker to teach us the canning methods and recipes she had learned from her female relatives of this bygone era. Vivian is a “certified master food preserver” with the WSU extension agency. She explained that she is the only one left with this title; there used to be others but they have retired and for a long time young people were never interested in achieving the certification. Just recently, though, she pointed out, there is a resurgence of interest in her area of expertise. In the past few years, the demand for her classes has increased to where she can’t keep up with it. She told us that she’s pleased to know that people are coming back to an interest in preserving their own food, and she’s eager to share her knowledge. “Feel free to call me on the phone,” she offered sweetly, giving out her home number in case we had any questions come up while we were doing our own canning.
I think this is such a telling example of the cultural shifts that have happened around food over the last century in America. In 1939, people were still preserving their own food because they needed to do so to survive. They raised their own meats, grains, fruits and vegetables and ate them fresh when they could; then they used preservation techniques so they could continue eating the rest of the year. Packaged foods, freezing, and even refrigeration were either unavailable or too expensive to depend on. Over the next several decades, the entire food system changed dramatically. For my grandparents and parents, packaged and shipped foods became the norm, and why wouldn’t they? Who would want to spend time harvesting and processing their own food when so much variety was cheaply available at the grocery store?
There have always been those that did canning at home. Growing up, I remember seeing the jars of peaches and pears entered into competition for a blue ribbon in the community fair. My mom made the YUMMIEST freezer jams and tried making cucumber pickles once. But overall the practice of, and knowledge about, food preservation has been decreasing steadily over the generations. Until, perhaps, now.
Based on Vivian’s experience and my own observations of happenings around Seattle, people are getting back into canning in a big way. It makes sense for this to go hand in hand with the current upsurge of interest in local & sustainable food. An increased number of people are growing their own gardens; similarly, home canning is gaining popularity. Even more people have switched to buying produce at a farmers’ market over a grocery store. These folks are also discovering that delicious, small-batch, artisan products like jam, honey, pickles, and sauerkraut can be had at many farmers’ markets. These are a much higher quality, more “real” product than the Smuckers, etc, from the supermarket. It seems to me that we can have the luxury of all that grocery-store surplus and still crave a more authentic taste and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing the origin of our food. We’ve hit a point where we are starting to realize that the extra effort that goes into making your own can be worth it.
I tried my own first forays into canning last fall with a jam project and some green bean pickles. They turned out well enough to give me confidence to try a bunch more this year with farm produce. Unfortunately, the time of year when all the extra produce is available for canning is the same time of year when you have zero time to do any canning because you’re so busy harvesting and selling all that produce. But I managed to get some stuff into cans:
I planned to write this post about my actual experience with canning, what I learned, and some recipes. But I got a little wrapped up in some historical analysis and now I’ve written enough for one day! So in part 2, I will share some canning basics so that we can all help carry on Mrs. Botner’s tradition and see our families through the winter with home-canned goodies. In the meantime, here are some essential items for your canning Christmas wishlist. Stay tuned!