The education of a can-vangelist

Seattle made me do it. That’s the only way I can explain how I went from canning neophyte to preserving preacher in just two years. In fact, four years ago, while vacationing in the Emerald City, I and two other newbies made mixed-berry jam, a blind-leading-the-blind endeavor with mixed results to show for it.

Despite our feeble success, our attempts to preserve summer in a jar stuck with me. If I fell off the proverbial bike, I wondered, could I get back on and eventually pedal my way to a jam-filled future? Little did we know that by the next summer, my husband and I would become residents of Seattle, where berries of all kinds (not just salmon) are king.

It would be one long, gray winter-spring (locals don’t call it June-uary for nothing) before I returned to the canning kettle, but in ways unimagined and unforeseen. While hibernating in our first-year rental, I relied on Twitter to meet Seattle’s robust food community, an eclectic mix of writers, cooks, farmers, winemakers, gardeners, DIY-ers and locavores. When the sun finally emerged from its long winter sleep (in July), I got to thinking about that inaugural (mis)adventure with jars. After learning about Yes We Can, a Bay Area project offering monthly community canning classes, I put a call out to my new Twitter neighbors, asking about interest in learning how to can and in perhaps replicating such a project in my new town.

The response was electric (if that’s possible via a wireless Internet connection); within minutes, I’d heard from aspiring canners around the country. The enthusiasm was so palpable that I then asked: What if we were to organize a day of simultaneous home canning in cities and towns around the country? I immediately envisioned a version of Hands Across America, that 1980s chain link of hands that raised money for the poor and homeless; ours would be a veritable and virtual show of cans coast to coast. The rest is Canning Across America history.

We are a motley crew, an ad-hoc mix of veteran canners and newbies, but united by a passion for keeping the spirit of safe food preservation alive. Many of us had grown up watching our grandmothers “put up” summer’s bounty; others, like me, had no idea what a dilly bean was. Together, we gathered in our kitchens and at farmers markets, and we taught each other how to put summer in a jar. As for my education, I was learning more by watching than by doing, still too intimidated to get back on that bike just yet. But when winter came and I popped open jars of Shannon and Jason’s whole tomatoes and Diane’s bread-and-butter pickles, I truly understood the joy of putting up for later.

Cherry Ketchup photographed on August 4, 2011 in Washington, DC. Tableware from Crate and Barrel. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Under the patient tutelage of my dear friend and fellow canvolutionary Jeanne Sauvage, who has been canning for more than 20 years, I entered the second season with courage and conviction and took on strawberry, blueberry and blackberry jams and the aforementioned bread-and-butter pickles, which my husband, Russ, has come to adore. One afternoon last July, a small group of us put up cherries and apricots, making jam, mustard and barbecue sauce; this spring, when we lost one of our own to cancer, that last remaining jar of cherry-chipotle barbecue sauce on my shelf held extra meaning.

I came to canning as I did to yoga, an idea that took a while to warm up to but is now, unequivocally, a regular practice that makes life more meaningful. When California satsuma tangerines were in season this past winter, Jeanne and I made marmalade that has forever changed my tune. Before hitting the road this spring, I caught the beginning of the delayed strawberry crop and made sure to make jam before getting on a plane. So far this summer, I’ve jammed raspberries with thyme, pickled those once-unheard-of dilly beans, made ketchup from cherries and more of Russ’s favorites.

By the time you read this, I’ll be knee deep in preparations for the first-ever Can-It-Forward Day, this Saturday at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Canning Across America has teamed with Jarden Home Brands, the Daleville, Ind., company that manufactures Ball jars, to host a day of canning demos and cooking demos with a “use up what you put up” focus. For those who can’t hop on a last-minute flight to Seattle, the event will be streaming live on Freshpreserving.com (11 a.m. to 7 p.m. EDT).

If all this tech talk makes you think you’re too old for new tricks, think again: Canning, after all, has been around much longer than Twitter. I just taught my mom, 66, how to can, and her only regret is that we didn’t put up more. I know the feeling.

RECIPE:

Cherry Ketchup

O’Donnel, former blogger at Washingtonpost.com, writes the twice-monthly column “Family Kitchen” in USA Today and is the author of “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook” (Da Capo, 2010).

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