Yesterday I spent the day chopping and cooking enormous quantities of fresh vegetables and fruit for Can-O-Rama, a full-day canning work bee with friends. We steamed up the kitchen, cooking up a spicy bourbon-spiked mustard on one burner while aromatic pear butter simmered on another and mixed-vegetable pickles processed in the canner’s hot water bath.
Until last summer I had never really given much thought to canning, but now I’ve caught the bug. My cupboards are starting to fill up with home-canned jams, condiments and other preserves, and canning has become a semi-regular social hobby for me and my friends.
It’s not something I would have expected to enjoy as much as I do. Growing up in suburbia, I never needed to learn traditional skills for making and preserving food staples. As for many others in my generation, the chain of knowledge passing down home-preserving and other handicrafts from mother to daughter broke with my parents’ move to the city. Canning, knitting, sewing and other ‘maker’ skills just didn’t seem relevant anymore.
My grandmother spent summers industriously putting food up for the winter. Living in Ontario on a single mining company salary with five children to feed, my grandparents made their dollars stretch by growing or producing as much of their own food as possible. Their eggs came from backyard chickens. Blueberries were a seasonal indulgence, involving a bit of a hike up to the bushes by the beaver pond, and many of their fruits and vegetables came from the garden. For my mother’s family, canning and preserving was an important part of the work of summer to ensure that food was not wasted, and that the family would not have to spend unnecessary dollars when the snow fell.
My own childhood could not have been more different. I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in Coquitlam. Our garden was decorative, save for a few strawberry plants that the birds and bugs often pillaged before we could enjoy the red berries, and a pot of chives we grew on the windowsill. Food came from the grocery store. Healthy food was important, so we ate a lot of simply cooked low-fat, low-sodium and low-sugar meals. My mother tells me she did attempt canning one year, spending a hot, sweaty day putting up pounds of peaches in jars. The recipe was a low-sugar one, of course, and the result was apparently inedible. Aside from a successful batch of blackberry freezer jam we made one year, I don’t have any memories of making food staples from scratch or putting food by.
So you might imagine my mother and aunts’ surprise when they learned I’ve taken up canning. A city girl canning for fun may seem an indulgent oddity, like digging a backyard well or scrubbing clothes with a washboard in the bathtub despite having a perfectly good washing machine. The labour of canning was part of the sweaty, difficult farm work they left behind when they embraced city life.
And it’s true that my experience of it has been as a canning dilettante. A good part of the appeal is social – most of my canning has been done as part of a work bee with friends – but I also enjoy being able to control what goes into the food we eat, as well as the foodie thrill of discovering new and unusual flavour combinations.
I don’t love canning everything. I found putting up tomatoes to be a lot of work and without the thrill I got from jam-making. Despite it being a relatively frugal way to enjoy high-quality, locally grown, organic tomatoes year round, if I ever do it again it’ll be for the social side, not really for the end product. Saving money and making my own healthier alternatives to commercially processed foods are definitely less compelling for me than creating a taste I can find nowhere else.
I learned to can last summer with a few friends under Jen Arbo‘s wing. Jen grew up in a small Vancouver Island town, where she learned many traditional skills including canning. We organized a berry-picking day with our families at a local farm and brought home enormous quantities of ripe raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. After putting aside some berries for eating and baking, we poured ourselves some wine and set to work canning three types of jam: raspberry, mixed berry jam and a luscious blueberry-lime. It was sweaty work, and the product was not particularly healthy (you have no idea how much sugar is in jam until you make it yourself!) but it was the most delicious jam I’ve ever tasted.
Since that first canning session, I’ve made more jams with friends, as well as on my own. I’ve learned that my favourite canning projects are made with berries I’ve picked, or found fruit from my neighbours’ overly enthusiastic trees. I also love experimenting with healthier recipes and new flavours. My personal favourite recipe was a lower-sugar blackberry lime jam made with neighbourhood berries picked by my husband and kids one summer day.
I still have some of that first jam in my cupboard, and literally every time I spread it on my toast and take a bite it brings back memories of helping my children pick fat blueberries with their little fingers, and hours spent laughing and talking with some of my favourite people in New West. No store-bought product can compare.