When my grandma moved to a new senior residence, I was given her old canning supplies. This just tickles me to no end. Her farmhouse kitchen when I was a kid was a wonderful place where endless bushels of tomatoes were stewed and canned, where pickled beets stained hands and aprons and horseradish pickles sent a dilly vinegar smell up the stairs, across the screened porch and over the glider-chair where kids could spend an afternoon reading comic books.
Along with Grandma’s canner came a pressure cooker and my Great Grandma Parker’s old canner, a huge grey enameled beast with decades of well water hardened to calcium on the inside. Inside one big canner pot was a ziploc bag with several versions of the “Ball Blue Book” — a canning guide put out by the makers of Ball canning jars. I have the modern version in my own kitchen, but Grandma had a few vintage ones, scribbled with her notes and splattered with juice. One especially charming version had an artful arrangement of produce and jars pictured in too-vibrant color on the cover, and was published in 1941.
Inside the back cover was a brief essay from the Ball Brothers of Muncie, Indiana.
“To Save Is To Serve”, it was titled.
“Until now, homemakers have canned food in BALL jars because it is pleasant, convenient, economical, and healthful to have a well stocked pantry. Now, more home canning should be, MUST BE, done for the sake of personal economy and national welfare.
The transgressions of overseas dictators leave us no choice but to prepare to defend our liberty against possible aggressors. The debts for defense will be great. Each of us must pay a part. Some, perhaps all, must forego certain comforts and luxuries, but, unlike the peoples of the warring nations, we need not be deprived of neccessities. If we waste not, we shall want not.
All surplus fruits, and vegetables, and meats can and should be saved by canning. Every extra jar of home canned food will be needed — by you, your children, your neighbor or your Nation.
Today, the Stars and Stripes fly over a land of freedom and plenty. We can keep it so if we but remember that the wages of waste are high — and that to Save is to Serve.”
I am fascinated by the era of rationing, victory gardens, and the Great Depression. Maybe it is because I spent so much time as a folklorist interviewing people who lived in that generation. Maybe because it is so hard to imagine not having whatever we want at our fingertips. Maybe because “the wages of waste” are no longer a concern for most of us.
I have always canned peaches and tomatoes, and made jam, pickles and sauerkraut. This summer, though, it seems more important than ever.
Partly that’s due to my summer reading list, which included The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I can no longer buy lettuce shipped from California or CAFO-fattened beef without knowing just exactly what the price is — in fossil fuel, in pollution of the environment, and by extension, in human lives. For me to take part in the waste of resources — like by buying Florida strawberries when local farmers are selling fresh-picked-today — weighs on my shoulders, in the light of my new perspective.
It wastes my money not to grow my own, buy in season, pick and can. It hurts my community, to buy from elsewhere while local growers and small farms struggle all around me. It hurts the planet to take for granted that we should have watermelons in January, Chilean grapes, coffee and pineapples year round. The cost in fossil fuels to transport all that food is staggering.
And oil fuels wars. It gives power to tyrants. It makes beggars of out the countries with the highest appetite for fossil fuels. I am not ready to give up driving, to boycott my cup of coffee or live off the grid in a yurt… but canning my own produce feels right on so many levels. I can feed my kids home grown organic, even in winter. I can buy by the bushel from local farmers, bypassing all the middle men and chain groceries who get the lion’s share of the profit otherwise.
We build family memories, gathered in a steamy kitchen peeling peaches and lifting canning jars from the boiling water, lining them up to cool and hearing the “tink” of lids sealing. My kids love every part of it. They go out with baskets and come in with wild grapes, elderberries, cherry tomatoes to slice and dry — all from our little suburban back yard.
And the primal part of my brain likes the notion of stocking up for the cold weather. Deep down, we are cave men, and don’t grasp the fact that the Kroger store is open all winter and we are unlikely to starve. Fall means gather, harvest, prepare. School shopping just doesn’t do that for me.
And I suppose some of us — especially those of us whose imaginations were fired by Y2K scenarios, years back — also consider history to be a cautionary tale. 9-11, Katrina, earthquakes and blackouts in the past have reminded us that it’s important to have something in the pantry “just in case”. A friend who works in emergency management recently reminded us that quarantine would require provisions, as well, if something virulent were to break out. Visit the Red Cross emergency preparedness site and make sure you’ve got the basics in the house, ok?
I’m not stocking the bomb shelter or hoarding red beans and ammunition, and I am pretty sure our society will march along into some kind of Jetsons future without any major detours. Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I know my grandma didn’t can her produce because of the high price of organics, or becuse she wanted to support the local economy or save fossil fuels. But she had a pantry that was a work of art, and it fed us all wainter long with cherries and plum, fruits and veggies that tasted like summer itself.
Maybe that’s the final appeal. In the bleak grey of January, I can open a can of August – red haven peaches canned in fruit juice, golden as the summer sun, sweet and cold from the fridge.