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.
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.
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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