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Let’s take a poll. If I say the word “canning” what comes to mind? From my experience, your mental images would fall into one of three categories: grannies, a skull and cross bones levels of danger, or the sleeve tattoos and multiple piercings of hip DIYers. Canning and other forms of home food preservation have an image problem.
As for my basement? Don’t get me wrong, there’s some neat stuff down there (quarts of tomatoes, some tangy chutneys and pickles, a few fall squashes still hanging on), but “Hoarders” it is not.
Everyone should learn to preserve their own food
Teaching home cooks how to preserve food is often seen as folly, a luxury technique for those who have extra time on their hands. But we eaters are in a cooking crisis right now. There are segments of our population that cannot feed themselves for lack of basic kitchen skills. Expecting people to preserve might seem, initially, like asking the starving not just to eat cake, but to decorate it, too. But preserving foods is a reliable, economical and useful means of preparing seasonal ingredients. It has served the home cook for generations and can do so again.
When I was growing up, my grandmother canned, dried and fermented everything that came out of her garden. She put up her tomatoes, dried her herbs, made tremendous dill pickles and even her own wine. She didn’t do this because she was a gourmand. She did it because she was poor. For her, it was insurance; she was essentially building her own food bank every summer so that when things got tight in the winter, there was not only good food to eat, but some delight to be had as well.
In the early 1900s “Tomato Girl” clubs taught women how to can tomatoes and imparted the business skills needed to turn canned goods into profit-generating enterprises. The women of these clubs grew their own crops and processed, packaged and sold their produce to help support their families. The clubs were often the doorway to business and educational experiences unattainable to most women at the time.
In an era when economic pressures are driving more of our citizens toward food insecurity, and the increasing cost of fuel will limit our ability to ship food as widely as we do currently, preserving our own food could be part of the solution to a more stable, sustainable and equitable
Benefits of preserving your own food
Preserving food is practical. It minimizes waste. Think of how much food is discarded at the farmers market, the grocery store and in our gardens because it went bad before it could be eaten. The famously prolific zucchini doesn’t have to wind up in the compost pile; you can turn it into pickles. Berries that are starting to fade make a terrific sauce when cooked down with a little sugar.
Preserving food at the peak of its season evens out uneven production, providing for eaters when fields are fallow.
Preserving saves energy. Canned, fermented and dried foods can be stored without refrigeration.
Preserved foods provide income. They can be sold as added-value products by farmers and community gardens. If this business model is out of reach, food swaps and barter exchanges transform preserved foods into a kind of currency that helps eaters stock up on great tasting home-crafted foods.
Preserving protects food sovereignty. Just as victory gardens fed our nation in wartime, community and school gardens can help build our individual and our national food independence.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a deep DIY kind of a guy or gal to preserve your own food. (Though I can’t imagine you would earn your “Portlandia” badge without it.) It’s just a simple thing we can do to feed ourselves.
Photo: Sherri Brooks Vinton. Credit: Chris Bartlett
Preserving food is all the rage. Restaurant menus teem with house-cured meaty goodness and profusions of housemade pickled produce. Home cooks have taken to food preservation the way they did to knitting a few years back — it seems that canning is the new stitch ‘n’ bitch. This fervor is a testament to how far the food movement has come. Conscious eaters are not only carefully sourcing or even growing their own food, but mastering the skill to morph their produce into a delicious state of shelf-stability. But home food preservation isn’t just the new hot thing — it’s ancient kitchen wisdom.
The classes on home canning that I taught around the country this summer were packed with all different kinds of eaters: city CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members, backyard gardeners, old, young, married, single. They all wanted to learn how to put up their own food.
What’s driving all of them to the canner? Economy? Environment? Tradition? Artistry? Yes, all around. A quart of tomatoes gleaned from your own garden, or even the neighborhood farmers market, can cost much less than a tin of imported San Marzanos. Plucking them from nearby gardens, rather than having them hauled in from Italy, is also a great way to shrink one’s carbon footprint. Passing down this time-tested knowledge brings generations together, and those Ball jars are adorable. There’s one more reason that people are putting up their own food: good old common sense.
Preserving: A food tradition
The ability to store food isn’t just fashion — it’s a necessary skill for an eater. Fermentation, pickling, preserving in honey, drying and cold storage have provided delight and sustenance through the ages, and they still do. Jerky, dried fruits, fish sauce, relishes, jams, wine and beer have been part of our diets and the home cook’s repertoire for millennia. Factory producers may have taken over for a bit, but these food traditions are coming back to where they started and where they belong: the home kitchen.
The increased popularity of home food preservation is an extension of the real food movement — the return to a less consolidated, regional food system. It’s brought some much-needed practicality to the food chain — why import foods you can grow in your backyard? — as well as to home cooking habits. After all, a trip to the local farmers market or a CSA delivery doesn’t have much value if you aren’t willing to rattle some pots and pans. And once you’re roasting and peeling beets for a salad or chopping up heirloom tomatoes for a quick salsa, well, you’re just a splash of vinegar away from making your own pickles and relishes.
Big food marketing scared people out of their kitchens for a few decades by positioning home cooking as something impossibly time-consuming and difficult, and food preservation as taking your life into your own hands. As eaters return to the stoves, we’re pulling back the curtain on these marketing myths. Food preservation doesn’t have to be time-consuming — there are recipes for drying foods that take as little as 10 minutes. Nor is it difficult. If you can boil water you can put up your own tomatoes, pickles, jams, jellies and more. As for dangerous, I would ask the food manufacturers and regulatory agencies to look at recent food headlines — the bad news is coming out of processing plants, not home kitchens. Home preserved foods can be safe, satisfying and delicious, and they’re here to stay.
Sherri Brooks Vinton is the author of “Put ’em Up! A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook, from Drying and Freezing to Canning and Pickling.”