“Down to the cellar,
come let us go
Where fruit jars like this
are lined up in a row
Potatoes like this are
stacked up in a bin
With cabbages so fat and
celery so thin…”
I remember gesturing motions that go with that child’s activity rhyme as I recited it with my youngest brother, (spreading hands wide apart to show a long row of jars, etc.).
It’s a sign of our times (and perhaps a bit sad) to realize that a great percentage of today’s population has probably never seen the bounty of a solidly stocked canning cupboard. Much more than meets the eye lies within those shelves: the planning of planting, working the soil, maintaining the plot, harvesting and deciding how to use the crop, and, finally, time spent “putting it by” as they used to say in a (usually) hot kitchen. Add to each work scenario the likelihood that an elusive concept transpired that many of us go into overtime to capture: quality family time.
During World War II, as part of the war effort, our government encouraged Americans to grow and can their own food, thus reducing the commercial canning industry’s need for steel and tin – commodities vital to the war effort.
In the 1950s and ’60s, due to the advent of TV dinners and fast food restaurants, Americans became disenchanted with home canning. However, as food prices skyrocketed in the 1970s and thanks to the “back-to-the-land” movement of that era, home gardeners hauled out their canners and began preserving foods again.
Canning methods have changed dramatically in recent years. Modern hybrid vegetable and fruit varieties are often less acidic than heirloom varieties. For this reason, modern canned goods generally need to be stored under vastly different conditions than they were just decades ago.
In 1989 our United States Department of Agriculture updated its home canning guidelines and declared certain old-fashioned canning methods no longer viable. Extension Services in every state reprinted canning manuals to reflect the USDA’s findings. Its own Complete Guide to Home Canning was released in 1994.
In 1996, the Alltrista Corporation released results of a study showing that 28 percent of Americans home-canned at least one food product the previous year. I can’t be counted in that number, though I hold dear my memories of canning with my family. I always packed our pears in the jars since, even as an adult, my hands fit into a canning jar.
So sentimental am I, that I keep a jar of plums marked July ’88. Noticeably faded, they’re probably no good for eating. Though I shouldn’t have wasted them, I couldn’t bear to open them. The jar stays in a cupboard beside our kitchen sink where I stand so often. Labeled in my mother’s handwriting, those plums bring a small part of her back to me whenever I see them.
Sue Weaver, a freelance writer who raises horses, gardens and cans with her husband, John, on their own hobby farm in Arkansas, advises, “Give canning a try. When that first batch of jewel-like jars stands cooling on your countertop, you’ll be thrilled you did.”