Thursday, September 3, 2009

Putting Food By

Food in jars! Canning. Preserving. Putting food by for later. Canning simply resinates inside me. It speaks to my very core and satisfies me in a way few things do. I am called to the hard, long hours it involves in the kitchen. I love the connection to the bounty of food in the fall. Of course it appeals to my attraction to excess and, it keeps us prepared. Besides, I like to hibernate for which canning is essential.

We are prepared around here. I am not exactly sure how that happened but it started with Tina's appointment to the Bird Flu Committee at St. Olaf. A group who's purpose was to develop policy and a disaster plan for the campus in the event of a health care calamity. I actually wasn't paying attention, potential health care catastrophes don't get my attention. I barely noticed that cases of gloves and N95 masks were showing up on our door step, I barely noticed that water and food were getting stowed away in a closet with the gloves and masks.  When the very large generator arrived, I took notice. It reminded me of the make shift "bomb shelter" my father assembled in our basement and hearing my parents chatter about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early '60's. Had I married my father? But when we lost power for hours I realized that having a generator and being prepared paid off. The only thing missing from the closet is some Tamiflu.

Seriously, canning prepares me for the long winter months when I don't want to go out into the dark and the cold. When I just want to stay home, build a fire and realize that I actually have everything I need to whip up a great dinner because I prepared and canned. There is nothing like cracking the lid on a quart size bell jar and getting a whiff of fresh tomato or roasted red pepper. I can enough tomatoes, roasted tomatoes and roasted red pepper to last a year with plenty to give away. We use the tomatoes and peppers in just about any winter dinner imaginable, including many of my Indian dishes I like so much. 

I didn't always can. My mother didn't can, although we did have emergency food in that basement bomb shelter. My grandparents didn't can. I didn't know anyone who canned, it seems a bit old fashion and out of style. Few friends even knew what canning was. 

It started three years ago when I told my friend Theresa I was interested in learning how to can. Next thing I knew I was in her kitchen in Stillwater, her parents, avid canners, had come down from Wilmar Mn to teach the two of us the art of canning. We spent the entire day in the kitchen. Theresa's parents showed us how to use a water bath canner and  a pressure canner. We canned tomatoes, salsa, marinara and beans. We worked from the crack of dawn until dusk. I left, not at all sure I could do it alone. I remained terrified of botulism and spoilage. I had read Putting Food By, cover to cover several times. A few days later I got up early and headed to the Minneapolis Farmer's Market. A serious storm erupted like a volcano as I placed two cases of tomatoes in my car. When I got home, it was still dark, the storm continued through the morning.  I began a methodical process of canning, reading the directions out of my book, sentence by sentence, over and over, one step at a time. 10 hours later I had 7 beautiful cans of tomatoes. I could not have been more proud. I loved the ping, the sound of the jars sealing on the counter top. I loved tapping the lids. I loved admiring the contents of the jars. I was hooked.

From then on I became very serious about putting food by for winter. A colleague of Tina's gifted me a pressure canner. Phillis and her husband had canned together for years. They had a vegetable garden and in the fall they preserved the bounty of their garden canning. But Phillis' husband had passed away and she was no longer interested in canning. Her 22 quart Mirro pressure canner, was mine if I wanted it. Phillis could not have given her pressure canner to a more grateful, appreciative canner. Not a batch gets put up in the canner without my thinking about Phillis, her husband, her garden, her losses and her grief.

I really do spend all of September getting ready to hibernate. There are daily trips to the farmers market, cases of tomatoes and peppers that become sealed in bell jars. Food in jars. I love looking at the jars. I am not a perfectionist, to the contrary, my cans would never make the State Fair showcase but I think they are beautiful. I am captivated by the State Fair canning showcase, especially the paper thin pickles stacked ever so neatly, spears of asparagus making a perfect concentric circle, peaches identical in size suspended in pristine syrup. I am sloppy, not in technique but in placement. I don't really care how the food stacks up. I just want lots and lots of food in jars lining my pantry. I have struggled with excess all my life in one way or another, drinking too much, eating to much, running to much. So this preparing for hibernation does not stop with jars of food. I shuck, blanch and remove the kernels of 70 ears of corn to freeze. I make and freeze  over 20 cups of pesto from my basil plants. I can chutney and corn relish and this year I want to make my own ketchup. 

It is my favorite time of year, the cool crisp mornings, my days filled with utter satisfaction as the cans start mounting and the days grow short and the bonfires start earlier. I couldn't be happier. I long for September all year. Here now, I will savor every day. I remain ever so grateful to have this time. I do not take a moment of it for granted, knowing full well that few people have the kind of time I do, to spend doing as I like. And for that I will share my bounty with as may as possible, as often as possible. You are welcome to my canned goods, you are welcomed to my kitchen to watch or participate. It goes on all month long.

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