Talking ’bout a Canvolution

For many food enthusiasts, the clinking approach of a glass jar, metal lid, and huge stock pot are about as terrifying as Jack Nicholson in The Shining. In my early dabbles with canning I would think, “All this time, this effort… oh gosh I hope I don’t poison someone….” Then after my first taste of my homemade apple butter, it dawned upon the that the only thing I’d be poisoning is… my waistline! One bite turned into a cascade of bites and an almost empty jar. So I understand, homemade canned food can be a little unsettling. But honestly, the only warning label homemade apple butter or any other canned food should come with is, “By the end of your meal, 100 fearful thoughts will have passed through your head BUT you will have eaten all of this and be fine.” So come on now, you can can and join the canvolution!

After all, canning is what got generations through winters. Back in the day, seasons were respected and there was little importing of summer fruits and vegetables to fill the shelves in the middle of winter. Canning preserved and sealed the summer sunshine captured in berries and cucumbers… nothing better than opening a jar of strawberry jam in the middle of a wintery strawberry famine. So seeing you are here, reading this, surely someone in your family canned? Your parents? Likely a grandparent?

Well for Lyn DearDorff, founder of a small canning and teaching business ‘Preserving Now‘ based in Atlanta, Georgia, canning started with her grandmother. The only reason she would venture into the eerie depths and darkness of the basement was to help with her grandmother’s sauerkraut, fermenting in large crocks in the basement… and she was left unscathed each time. Later, during summers, she would admire the array of colorful jars that lined the larder of her future mother-in-law’s home. Before she knew it, she was reeled in.

Once you’ve overcome the fear and canned you first homemade goodies, it’s like riding a bicycle. Lyn has witnessed trepidation in the eyes of would-be canners who attend her canning classes in Atlanta. She has seen wives’ eyes roll as they introduce themselves and blame their husbands for ‘dragging’ them to the class. And then what happens a mere four hours later? A simple ‘pop’ of a sealed can lid sends these very folks reeling around the room exulting “I did it! I can can!”

For Lyn, forty years of canning here and there turned out to be the yellow brick road to this business, and with her good friend Karin Kane, life since retirement revolves around grandchildren, pets, and the happy rumblings of boiling water as it works to seal the delectable preserves in glass jars. But how do you can safely? Well, it depends on the recipe and what you want to preserve. Rule of thumb is if you want to preserve vegetables, a pressure canner may be in order. But if you’re making certain fruit jams or jellies, all you need is a pot willing and able to hold enough water to submerge the jars for heat sealing. Follow the recipe instructions closely and your delicacies will be perfect for human consumption!

Alright then. Most of us should have a pot that meets this job description. But if you prefer to keep cool and are still not convinced, the good news is you can make a refrigerated pickle instead. Adding sliced cucumbers to some vinegar and keeping this in the refrigerator is absolutely fine as is, no heat sealing required! Add a smacking of sugar, spices, or any other vegetables to your liking and you have your own recipe for success! Splendid.

But wait a minute (cue horror themed music)… there’s got to be more to it than this, no? The peeling, coring, chopping… Apple butter ain’t butter without all these workings? Hours of workings? Well not according to Lyn and Karen. Just cook the apples, skins on, and when cooked down, bring out your food processor. Viola! Beautifully smooth butter. Ok then. What about the sugar? The pectin? The magic wand that is the alchemy of all things preserved? Surely the chances to screw up lie in how these ingredients are married?

Let’s start with sugar. While it’s true you that if you use pectin (which helps the fruit “set”), you must add lots and lots of sugar. But keeping the peel gives you the natural pectin that lies in the skin of tree, allowing it to set on its own. This holds true for apples, peaches, plums – the list is endless really. You can add sugar if you like but only a small amount is necessary. Ripe fruit in the prime of its season is sweet enough. Lyn prefers to use agave syrup in apple butter as it compliments the apples perfectly. And what about the pectin for other fruits that demand to be placed in jars and wintered-over? Well, Karin recommends just including a couple of granny smith apples to the cooking berry jam or jelly (no peeling required, just cored), and then blend these together for your final product. Apples contain pectin in their skins and provide the perfect lending hand to thicken and set preserves. In all cases, Lyn also suggests using organic fruit to avoid preserving pesticides too! Super! Kid-friendly food (well, ok, adult and maybe pet-friendly too).

Honestly, it’s not all that bad. In fact, according to these ladies, canning is getting more main-stream by the minute. I have canned the last couple of years as a means to preserving summer goods and for gifts. I make a simple (super simple) crock-pot apple butter than turned out to be a hit over the holidays (and everyone survived to nag me for more). I have noticed more canned pickles appearing at farmers’ markets, and am hearing about more folks ‘dabbling’ in their kitchens with this. Lyn and Karin are excited that there is an emerging interest, and they are noticing that the younger generations will follow this suit. After all, we all want good, wholesome food, and we are all capable of contributing to the reform of our food through gardening or supporting our farmers, so a canvolution may very well be one of the offsprings of this reform. Lyn and Karin support this wholeheartedly. All of their ingredients are organic, and they’re exploring opportunities with local farmers too. The very fact that they teach canning is a blessing to would-be reformers.

But, if you’re still hiding behind the kitchen door, afraid to embrace a Mason jar, then do yourself a favor. Find a business like ‘Preserving Now‘ and go get some homemade deliciousness… minus the fussing. But don’t get mad at me if you devour the entire batch in a sitting. Bon Appetit folks!

Keeping Food Real,
Jess Avasthi
Winter 2012 Food Warrior

This post is from one of the interns in the Real Time Farms Food Warrior Internship Program. These interns are collecting data, pictures, and video on the growing practices of our nation’s farms, gathering food artisans’ stories, and documenting farmers markets. We all deserve to know where our food comes from! Boring legalese we feel we must include: this was written by a real live person who has their own opinions, which we value, but that do not necessary reflect, though they may (or may not), reflect the values and opinions of Real Time Farms. That is for you to guess and us to know.

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