Chef on Call
She Wanted to Do It Right, and Now She Cans
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
When novelist Leslie Pietrzyk told me that home canning is one of the 50 things she wants to do before she dies, I had to wonder what else is on the list. What's so exciting about putting up a couple jars of peaches?
Pietrzyk, who is in her mid-40s, grew up in Iowa City, belonged to 4-H and taught herself how to cook as a child with the help of a Betty Crocker cookbook and recipes clipped from Family Circle magazines. After she moved to the Washington area in 1989, her chocolate chip cookies and banana bread earned blue ribbons in the Virginia State Fair. Canning would seem right up her alley.
Not so. And here's where the excitement comes in. "I come to the line [in recipes] that notes if you do any of it incorrectly and jars aren't sterilized properly, everyone will get botulism and die!" she wrote in an e-mail soliciting help from Chef on Call.
"I'm hoping that one of our local area chefs might be able to walk me through the process," she entreated. "I love going to my local farmers markets and would like to take full advantage of seasonal fruits."
Given the greater availability of locally grown produce, rekindled interest in canning is logical; consumers view it as a way to maintain a shorter distance between farm and plate. Pietrzyk, who lives in Alexandria, put it aptly: "It's another way of knowing where some of your food comes from."
I knew just where to send her: to chef Carole Greenwood. We headed to Greenwood's restaurant, Buck's Fishing and Camping in Upper Northwest, on what Greenwood described as "the hottest day of the year in the hottest kitchen in town." Greenwood showed Pietrzyk how to make bread-and-butter pickles and preserve halved nectarines, then how to make a pie from the put-up fruit.
Food figures prominently in both of Pietrzyk's novels, "Pears on a Willow Tree" (Avon Books, 1998) and "A Year and a Day" (William Morrow, 2004), and Greenwood sees the process as an artistic pursuit. "Canning is a lot of work; why would anyone do it unless they have to?" Greenwood asked. "If you are a gardener and you have preciously grown cucumbers, they are like religious objects. So preserving them has meaning."
That meaning first got Greenwood into canning on a Virginia farm, where she spent time after college. "I watched an old pear tree flower in the spring, set fruit into the summer and finally drop golden Bartletts in the fall," she said. As a "tangible record of that time," she made gingered pear preserves.
Greenwood turned the subject to Levi Haynes, a friend's grandfather who had shared her passion for canning. "Levi used to make these beet pickles from a recipe passed to him from his mother. Levi kept it taped to a shelf in his pantry for years, even though he had long before learned its few ingredients," she said. "He'd pack the jars so lovingly."
Levi died last year, but his mother's pickles live on at Buck's.
"Canning is such a ritual," Greenwood said after she brought from the basement crates containing jars and memorabilia. "I have pictures of waiters sitting around pitting cherries and shelling lima beans. That's what people used to do. Canning was something you had to do to have vegetables in the winter. But they'd also talk. I mean, what else were they going to do? I date the jars to remember the day as much as to keep track of them."
Greenwood seizes opportunities to keep the social tradition alive. For the "Melting Pot" exhibition at the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival two years ago, she made pickles and lectured about the history of canning while other chefs and their assistants assembled trendy constructions.