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.”