Canning: Two Bloggers, One Hot Trend and 26 Quarts of Tomatoes

By Kelly DiNardo
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

One early Friday morning last August, Clay Dunn and Zach Patton stood in a Prince George's County farm field surrounded by tomatoes so ripe they were almost falling off the vine.

"As the morning fog burned off and a rooster crowed from the barn, we plucked impossibly perfect ripe orbs -- pink, red, orange and purple," they later wrote on their blog, the Bitten Word. "It was a pastoral, idyllic morning -- and it belied the frantic bloodbath waiting for us at home."

Dunn, 31, and Patton, 29, were canning tomatoes for the first time. The process took an entire weekend, coating the tan counters of their Adams Morgan kitchen with pools of sweet juice and resulting in 26 quarts of tomatoes they're still eating their way through. Just recently, those tomatoes sated a craving for gazpacho.

"We haven't seen tomatoes yet at the farmers market; it's just a little too early," Patton says. "But a gazpacho is perfect this time of year, so it's nice to have ours to bridge us over until tomatoes come back."

The couple, who blog about cooking from glossy food magazines at, are part of a wave of interest in preserving. Last year Ball Corp., that longtime maker of Mason jars and other canning equipment, experienced a 30 percent increase in retail sales. The trend has continued into 2009. Intrigued by the uptick, the company researched who exactly is canning.

"Our traditional canner was a more rural woman who was a little later in life," says Brenda Schmidt, brand manager for Jarden Home Brands, the company that makes Ball jars. "Now, we're seeing a surge of younger people, primarily between 35 and 50."

California-based food writer Karen Solomon is among the converted. She turned to canning because she yearned for a craft project she would be better at than knitting.

"For some reason, canning has this mystique," says Solomon, who started by making her own salad dressing, moved on to infusing liquors and eventually began preserving and pickling. "You envision dozens of women in a farmhouse slaving away. With today's materials, it's not so daunting. It's fun."

Solomon had so much fun, her simple craft project grew into "Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It" (Ten Speed Press, 2009). The two biggest pieces of advice she offers in the book are to think through how much you make -- do you really need 32 jars of pickled asparagus? -- and to buy at peak season.

"You have to be a farmers market geek," Solomon says.

Jarden Home Brands found that two-thirds of its canners were indeed getting their produce from their own gardens, farmers markets or shares in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

Dunn and Patton fall into the latter group. Even before they started the blog, they wanted to try to preserve summer's bounty and weren't afraid to experiment. The year before, they had joined a CSA, paying $500 for a share in Clagett Farm's harvest for a 26-week season. They took home such an abundance of vegetables that they froze much of it: sliced peppers, breaded okra ready for frying, eggplant. They figured out what worked and what didn't; the latter would include the eggplant, which ended up "mushy."

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