I always thought my family was a bit different than the families of my friends. The traditions we kept, I just assumed they were ours. At times, I was embarrassed by them or didn’t know how to explain them. I figured other people would think the traditions were weird. Little did I know, more people than not seem to follow some of these traditions, like canning and preserving food.
Growing up, my dad always kept a garden. It seemed to grow in size every year, inch by inch. While he grew a wide variety of vegetables, he always had an inordinate amount of tomato plants, which also grew in number every year. I think he peaked sometime in the past ten years at 35 plants, but if I’m wrong, dad, let me know in the comments. Anyway, tomatoes grew and in August and September they would flow through the doors. Weekends were used for processing the tomatoes. They needed to be blanched to remove the skins. After blanching they were either turned into pasta sauce and canned, or they went straight into the jars for canning, only to be turned into sauce when unsealed. It was a yearly ritual, and I loved it even if I thought my friend would think it was weird.
While I was in Ukraine, my eyes started to open up to a larger world. A week or so after getting into the country, my host family’s neighbor Sasha took me in his backyard, homemade root cellar. We climbed down a ladder into this hole in the ground. In there were shelves filled with jars and barrels filled with pickled vegetables. There were sacks of potatoes and carrots and cabbages. Everything a family needed to live on for seemingly several years in a space no bigger than 8×8. It was astounding. Sasha wasn’t the first to show me how the Ukrainians stuck to the ideals of growing and preserving your own food. I had coworkers bring me samples of their homemade preserves and jars of their pickled vegetables. Delicious gifts I could never begin to repay. Each bite expanded my mind, setting me on the path to do things the way my parents did them, like their parents before them.
When I came back stateside, I had the itch to start my own tradition of yearly canning. I resolved to put up with the work and the humid household in the midst of summer, because storing fresh food your grew yourself was better than buying canned food at the grocery store or buying out of season produce. The only thing holding me back was the place to grow the vegetables until we bought out house.
This year, I had a full growing season and while I’m still figuring out what grows best in my garden, I did get a decent haul. Like father, like son, I put way more tomato plants in the ground than I needed. I only did ten but that ended up producing far more tomatoes than I expected. They were what appears to be a cross between cherry tomatoes and San Marzanos, with a few heirloom plants mixed in. We heaps of them that we couldn’t work our way through before spoiling. So I canned them. Unlike previous years, I didn’t process the tomatoes prior to canning them. Last year I made pasta sauce and salsa. This year I found myself buying a can of tomatoes here and there for recipes, I assumed it’d be better to can them whole so I can use as needed throughout the year. Plus, we still have half the salsa from the batch last year.
That first year I got back from Peace Corps I was living in my small apartment in Waukesha. I had a balcony I tried to grow on but little more than herbs survived. That was the year Ellie and I went to the orchard, however, and brought back many apples. Those apples were my first batch of applesauce. A sauce with so much sugar in it, I felt guilty when people exclaimed how much they loved it. Diabetes. You love diabetes is all I’m saying. ANYWAY, so I made applesauce. I think I had a couple gallons of it canned away and Ellie and I would slowly chip away at the stash. It was so damned sweet, it was hard to eat it often. This year, however, we discovered it mixed well with oatmeal and we cleaned out the stash.
When apple picking time came, I wanted to get out early to make sure I could get the good apples, suitable for saucing. Much to Ellie’s surprise, even though I’m pretty sure I warned her ahead of time, I came home from the orchard with 30 pounds of apples, nearly all of which was destined for the sauce pot.
In the past, I would have cringed at the thought of peeling and slicing all of those apples and then sitting around waiting for them to cook down into a sauce. However, a year or two ago I found a apple peeler/slicer combo thing at St. Vincent de Paul for $0.75 and I was ready to put it through the paces. It made quick work of pound after pound of apples. As soon as they were sliced, they went into the pressure cooker pot. Yes, that’s right, I pressure cooked my apple sauce and it made a world of difference. I had been toying with the idea because I’m always looking for more reasons to use my pressure cooker and I found a few recipes for applesauce made this way. I needed the process more than anything else. Let me tell you, it worked like a charm. A full pot of apples was done in about twenty minutes. Fill it up, heat it up to pressure, cook ten minutes, and then let the pressure release naturally. It tends to create a runny sauce, because all the liquid isn’t boiled off, but I am okay with that for the convenience.
So my thirty pounds of apples became several gallons of applesauce. The next step was for me to begin the process of canning the sauce. I have my big canning stoneware pot which I filled with water (I use hot water because our cold water isn’t hooked up to the water softener and the scale builds up quick on the pot). Wait for that to boil. Put the jars in the canning basket and then into the boiling water to sterilize. Bring the jars out, dump out the water, and fill them with sauce. Attach the lids and rings and then back into the water for twenty minutes to seal. Wait for the pop after they’re removed from the water.
It’s a lot of work at times, a lot of being on your feet and a fair amount of abuse to the fingertips but in the end, the product is worth it. It might not be a money saver, though I think it is, but at the very least I know where my food came from and how it was processed.
Do you can or do you think it’s completely a weird thing my family does?