I know, because I do it. Can, I mean. Not a lot. Not quarts and quarts like your grandmother did, presumably. Somehow in canning discussions, default grandmotherly images appear again and again: the stained but clean calico apron, the practical, dowdy leather shoes, the monstrous range dominating a corner of a crowded farmhouse kitchen.
Because canning is a time-honored tradition, right? Self-reliance and all that? My grandmothers canned, I think. I know my mom did, for years, putting up jars and jars of home-grown tomatoes and green beans. Maybe vegetable soup. As a child, I wanted no part of either the process or its results. Had she canned Spaghetti-Os, I might have come around, but probably not.
Now I’m the one who cans, not Mom. “Oh, I’m over that,” she says casually; inside, I know, her heart is dancing with relief. Usually I stick to small batches of preserves, chutneys, and jams—things I can knock out in a few hours, late at night or early in the morning, when the house is cooler and no one searching for a spoon or snack will barge in and interrupt me.
Then, last summer, I did my first batch of crushed tomatoes. It took the better half of a day, my own young daughter safely removed from the sweltering dangers of the kitchen with the draw of a “Go, Diego, Go!” DVD looping incessantly. As Diego swung on jungle vines and rescued exotic baby animals, I fouled our kitchen with blood-red smears and spatters of tomatoes. Steam, sweat, and swear words poured forth. A Dutch oven, a pressure canner, and a conical sieve perched on a three-legged stand competed for space on the counter, the sink, the stove. Cleanup was a bitch.
We got a baker’s dozen pints of red gold to show for my efforts. All year long, I doled them out accordingly, saving them for special occasions. That puree was dense with flavor, silky in texture. And every time I opened a jar, I thought to myself: next time, just buy a damn case of Pomi tomatoes from the grocery store.
Sure, canning allows us to take the food we grow and preserve it for later use. Unlike frozen food, canned food won’t spoil during a power outage. But it takes so much water and energy—human and fossil—to can a big batch of something. As my glasses slide off my perspiration-slicked nose and my own calico apron sports blobs of sticky goo, I find myself wondering if I’m better off leaving this to the pros. Pros like major corporations. Even if they do line their cans with BPA.
In terms of human existence, canning is new to the game. Nicholas Appert developed the process during the Napoleonic Wars as a way to preserve food for masses of soldiers. In The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz writes, “Canning, a sterilization process that revolutionized food preservation in the 19th century…is the diametrical opposite of fermentation.” You know about fermentation. It’s that trendy, thousands-of-year-old process we use to preserve vegetable, meat, and dairy products.
Katz continues, “In fermentation, we rely upon native microbial communities, or cultures introduced in sufficient concentrations to assure success, to create an environment too acidic to allow the development of C. botulinium or other pathogenic bacteria. In canning, we apply heat in an attempt to kill off all microorganisms.” Fermentation is a slow, passive process. Canning is intense and, in my case, super-aggro.
Striving for balance, I use a three-pronged preservation approach these days: ferment a little of this, can a little of that, purchase nearly everything else readymade. Mom gave me some of her old earthenware crocks, which is cool, because those buggers are expensive. Not only did she can; she fermented, too, though I don’t have any memories of that. I ponder what my daughter will recall years from now of my occasional, embattled forays into canning. In her present incarnation as an adorable and willful four-year-old, she’s willing to sit on the porch swing and leisurely snap beans with me, but that’s it. She wisely stays far away from the sterile jars, boiling water, and singed potholders I contend with during another canning session.
Because, like so many impossible pursuits, I cannot stop canning. “It’ll be different this time, I just know it!” I think as I inevitably haul out the black enamel spatterware canner. The expectant new jar lids, freshly yanked from their box, shine like gold medals for an idiot. Grungy hours pass and the spoils accumulate: quince jelly, squash chutney, bread and butter pickles. When the energy grid collapses, my little family will have about three days of eating stashed away on the rough wooden shelves in our cellar, and we will sup in the highest of styles.
This post originally appeared on Food Riot, but you just read the better version, because I went back and fixed a few things.