Slow Food: The Art of Canning
by Jessica Bender, Cunningham Tennessee
I am going to be honest with you: when I heard about Slow Food Week, I had to Google Slow Food. I had no idea what I was supposed to be writing on, but once I looked it up I was surprised to learn that my love for food and love for cooking have come from the Slow Food Movement. I guess I didn’t realize that what I had been taught about food was part of a movement taken up by thousands of people. To my surprise, canning foods is one of the techniques that Slow Foodies use.
When I was growing up, I thought for the longest time that everyone’s mom canned beans, potatoes, and jams. It took me a while to figure out that not everyone knows this skill. It seems to have turned into a tradition that some people think archaic, or even prehistoric if you tend to exaggerate. I am in awe of my mom every time she cans. She takes yummy, fresh veggies and turns them into something that we can use at any time of the year. It really is amazing. I decided that my Slow Food Week submission would be an interview I gave my mom on the art of canning.
Q: “Now mom, are you aware that pressure canning food is one of the aspects of the Slow Food Movement?” Before she answered, I explained to her the basics of the SFM, such as choosing seasonal and locally grown produce, and preserving it rather than purchasing in the off-season.
“No. I had no idea that canning would be part of something like this. It is also nice to see that so many people are choosing to eat this way. Everyone may not choose to can, but eating local is very important.”
Q: “There is such a high demand for the canning skill that, in some areas of the country, there are workshops to teach it. How do you feel about this? Do you feel that this should be a traditional skill that most people should learn? Why?”
“I think that the classes are a good idea. Most people who learn this are learning from their mothers and grandmothers. For the people that do not have a family member to teach this, then the classes are a great way to bring the tradition alive again so that the students of today can be the teachers of tomorrow.”
Q: “Why do you think that canning/pressure canning food is such an important thing to do?” “First, there are two techniques that people can use to preserve their food. There is pressure canning and water bathing.
“Pressure canning is what most people think of when they hear the phrase ‘canning food’. This is also my favorite technique to use. Pressure canning is where you put a certain amount of salt and water into a jar with the desired food to be “canned”, and then seal them. The pressure canner itself is filled with water so that the jars’ seals are submerged. As the pressure canner is heated on the stove, steam escapes through the funnel. Once it is steaming, you place a weight on that is made for the canner to allow pressure to build to the desired amount of poundage per square inch within the canner. Throughout this entire process, you are following a recipe that tells you how much salt, water, pressure and how long to apply the pressure. It will come naturally after a time, but the recipe book for canning is always something to have. Once the jars have been cooking at the pressure specified by the recipe, then you let everything cool to zero pounds per square inch. Lastly, take off the canner’s lid and remove the jars to a draft-free place for up to 12 hours. Be sure to check the seals to make sure that they did in fact seal. If they did not, the food must either be used right away or you’ll have to process the food again with a different seal. This can result from too much water in the canner, not enough, or defective seals.
“Water bathing is used for the preserving of acidic foods and foods with high sugar content, such as jams and jellies. In this technique, food is prepared following a special recipe from the canning cookbook and is placed in the water bather’s wire rack. The wire rack within keeps the jars from hitting each other when the water boils. When you add water, the water must cover the jars by at least two inches. You place the jars in the wire rack and bring everything to a boil. Once boiling, you have specific times for different things as to how long they should boil. After time is up - let them cool, take them out and allow them to sit for 12 hours as you would with pressure canned foods. This is the easier process of the two. I use it to preserve things like pickles and tomato-based sauces, along with jams and jellies.”
Q: “How did you learn this amazing skill? What was your first canning experience?”
“I learned to do this from my mother, who in turn learned to do it from her mother. This is somewhat of a family tradition for us.
“I was 11 or 12 when I had my first canning experience. It was when I assisted my mom in canning a bushel of green beans. I was given the very important task of washing them. I can remember that it felt like it took forever, but maybe that was just me being 11. But what I remember the most is when she opened a jar of the green beans that I had helped her with. I was so excited when I tasted them and they tasted surprisingly fresh. From that point on, I knew I wanted to can. Everything that we ever canned together was amazing and without all the preservatives that canned foods from the supermarket had. So fresh.”
Q: “What supplies do you need to begin canning?”
“First, you obviously need a pressure canner. You will also need canning jars, seals and lids to accompany the jars, special tongs, jar lifter, plastic stick spatula, and a seal checker. Water bathing takes a large, special stock pot with a wire basket that keeps the jars separated.
“What is so great about canning is that once you invest in the canning products, such as the jars, lids, and pressure canner, they will last forever. As long as you have extra jars to accommodate your habit, then you are set. The seals are tricky and need replacing every time you can, but other than that this is a very budget-friendly skill. When you consider the upstart cost, it is no comparison to the money you will save on groceries and the good food that your family will have at their convenience.
“I have personally been collecting jars since I started and I have used the same pressure canner for twenty years.”
Q: “Do you buy local, sustainable produce for your adventures in canning? Why?”
“Yes I do, as often as I am able. I love to give back to the local farmers. I also find that local stuff is fresher that whatever they are selling in the supermarket. I have built a great relationship with my produce dealers. It is important to keep our community tight and supporting itself.”
Q: “Any tips on stocking pantry shelves?”
“The most important thing to stocking your pantry with canned foods is to determine what your family will use the most. You need to make sure that you can get things as fresh as possible, when the season comes, and can like there is no tomorrow. I always have potatoes of any kind ready for stews, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, and they even work for frying. I can carrots for my stews as well; these beauties are great with a balsamic glaze and a little brown sugar too. I also just started making seasoned tomato sauces for chili.”
As I get older and raise a family of my own, I begin to really see my mom as a different person. She is resourceful and amazing. I knew this all along, but now I want to learn her ways. I have started to really appreciate some of the traditional things that my mom does. I want to learn to hand quilt and can, just like she does. I have been busy every summer since I have started college and raising a family, but I have decided that this summer is going to be it. I have gotten a feeling for how I run my own household and how I like to stock my food supply. Canning is one way to cut out an exponential amount of preservatives that I am so desperately trying to get away from. I have learned from my mom that fresh doesn’t have to mean straight from the farmer’s food stand, but can also mean something from a wide mouth Mason - canned last summer. It tastes great and just as fresh as the day we bought it from Mr. Parker (her produce man).
Mason jars have a much different meaning to those who know the art that is canning. They are not only for drinking a nice cold beer or sweet iced tea out of; they are the best receptacle for amazing farm-fresh fruits and veggies to be had at any time of the year, thanks to the age-old skill of canning foods. I wish the newcomers good luck in their journeys through the world of canning and also some to myself. I do have a family tradition to uphold and all in this art of canning.