Here in Avis, we are in the middle of canning season, whether you are measuring a season by the calendar or by the amount of room it is taking up in your life. At this point, it is beginning to look like a pitched battle between the peaches and the jars. And though long experience tells me that the jars win, right now the sides look even. Green and yellow beans are finding their way into glass jars as well. You can’t beat a fresh green or yellow bean for taste, but home canned beans have a flavor all their own, and the pickled beans are a must all season long for salads and winter holiday tables.
It’s a strict procession, dictated by the Earth and the seasons. And canning starts slowly, first with a couple of jars of strawberry jam, just so you have a whiff of the flavor that those berries bring to a June table. Then the blueberries, though I freeze those. But then it begins in earnest, with the first beans from the garden in late July. Now I realize that you can get local beans a month earlier. But gardening is a hobby for me, not my livelihood. So, I am always behind the farmers and the truly dedicated gardeners, and my harvest is later. Pressure canning the beans and making pickles of beans is then followed by the peaches bought from an Amish neighbor, specially ordered from outside Huntingdon.
The peak of the season is still to come, when we harvest our tomatoes and begin filling jars with whole and sauced beauties, and Nancy buys a medley of local peppers for relish. For that, we bring up the “big guns,” a Squeezo that peels and seeds tomatoes, creating a river of tomato puree. Last year the bounty was so great that we ran out of glass canning jars. Now, Nancy and I never thought that would happen. After all, we hauled a trove of jars out of our mother’s place just a few years ago. At the time, I thought we had way too many jars and looked forward to a future without ever having to buy another. But our garden and the bounty of this part of the world are sometimes a little bigger than our jar hoard can hold.
I don’t can food because it is cheaper...because it just isn’t. Even if you paid yourself less than one dollar an hour, the canned food at the store probably costs less. But canning food, especially the tomatoes I grow, is rooting me in a cycle of the seasons that stretches back to another life. The process of vacuum sealing food is only 150 years old, but the thought of preserving food for winter is as old as people in cold climates. By canning, I feel the harvest. I look at the bounty. And the process itself is an intricate, measured dance of preparation, sterilization, and timing. At some point early in the peeling and chopping, I feel the presence of my aunts and especially my grandmother. As I can, I remember my childhood more clearly, and remember some of the best times. As I fall into the rhythm of processing, my hands are automatic, sure, and guided by some of the best women I ever knew.
That would be reason enough to spend days preserving the goodness at harvest time. But there’s more. There is the issue of control, at least in some measure, in canning your own food. The vegetables are grown here, if not in my garden, then within one hundred miles of my home. What is purchased is done at local farmer’s markets. Nancy carefully inspects the hot peppers that go in her excellent relish. How are the poblanos this year? They were greener and drier last year. She uses an amazing mix that works some slightly hot and some medium hot peppers into a relish that pleases us. Last year, we bought a new variety of peach, but still in the Haven family. Grandma always looked for Red Havens. Canned, they have a very slightly rosy glow that emanates from the red centers. Within the parameters of the canning process, we experiment. Our peaches are in a very light syrup—about 25 percent of the sugar in the commercial kind. They won’t last on the shelf for a decade, but that is not a problem. They won’t last a year in this peach-happy house. Tomatoes have salt, but we know how much. I add a splash of vinegar to boost acidity and protect the tomatoes from spoilage. The bottom line is that we know what’s in the jar and how much.
It is a labor of love, and memory. The rows of filled jars stand watch in the cool basement, and each trip to the larder brings up a world of good things to serve to friends and family throughout the year. But, right now, I have plenty to do. There’s fruit to peel and shove in jars, canners to remove from the stove, and fresh new jars of plenty to wipe, label, and take to the basement. Happy canning season, and enjoy the turn from summer to autumn.