Put 'Em Up: Can It Forward

Caption Canning tomatoes by Kim O'Donnel

Kim's gorgeous tomato sauce. Photo copyright Kim O'Donnel

A few summers ago my good friend Kim O'Donnel (longtime food writer and author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook) invited me over to can something. I think it was going to be fruit. I'd never “put up” anything before, so I was excited to have some gentle guidance for my first foray into this most old-timey of culinary practices. (For the record, Kim is probably the friendliest person you might ever meet – or even just read – electronically; the woman grabs you by the virtual hand and leads you gently into culinary aptitude.)

This was 2008 and Kim and I had both just attended Slow Food Nation.  I had swung north to Washington State to spend time with friends and family before returning east, and like many others, I was pretty freaked out about the upcoming election, the economy (just on the verge of the “downturn”) and the increasing polarization of the American populace.

Preserving the harvest at its peak is a thrifty and yes, hopeful activity – it’s also a kind thing to do for your not-so-distant future self and loved ones, for the days when a steamy Brooklyn kitchen sounds like a godsend and fresh tomatoes a pipe dream.

The evening before I was to visit Kim’s house in Seattle, I sat in an Olympia park with another friend – an old professor of mine, a mentor – talking about the issues of the day and my plans with Kim, and my friend pronounced the act of canning a distinctly hopeful thing to do, which made it sound a perfect way to spend a late summer day (especially in the Northwest, where a walk down the sidewalk doesn’t already feel like a steamed-up kitchen).

I was going to call my blog post “Yes, We Can.”

Something fell through the next day and it turned out we couldn’t – Kim and I instead wound up sharing a nice dinner (pizza at Tutta Bella, as I recall) but we didn’t cook, much less can anything. In fact, though I frequently overbuy at the farmers' market and freeze summer produce (mostly fruit, for future smoothies) and I've been known to ferment big batches of sauerkraut and pack it into old mayonnaise jars, I've still never – yet -- engaged in the tradition of water bath canning.

Preserving the harvest at its peak is a thrifty and yes, hopeful activity – it’s also a kind thing to do for your not-so-distant future self and loved ones, for the days when a steamy Brooklyn kitchen sounds like a godsend and fresh tomatoes a pipe dream.

Kim, on the other hand, has become something of a champion of the old-timey practice. Just a few weeks ago, I was back in Washington again and she told me about an upcoming event she’s been planning with Canning Across America, the pro-preserves organization she founded in 2009, when she wondered “aloud” on Twitter whether anybody else would like to start a Can-a-Thon.

It turned out that quite a few people did, and CAA has grown each summer since, growth that will culminate this Saturday, August 13, in National Can-It-Forward Day. Those of you who are in the Seattle area can stop by Pike Place Market to participate in live demos, in which top Seattle chefs will share traditional recipes and teach basic canning techniques. For the rest of us, CAA is webcasting the whole shebang, live on the internets, at FreshPreserving.com. The event is sponsored by Jarden Home Brands, makers of Ball Jars.

NCIFD is a great way to wrap up National Farmers' Market Week and to kick off CAA’s third annual Can-A-Rama, a whole week of nationwide canning parties. It is also, as my friend pointed out back in '08, a hopeful activity, and Kim points out, a joyfully collaborative one:

What I love about canning is how it forces you to slow down, no matter what is going on in the world, as you say.  And as a reader of mine (also a frequent canner) reminds me, "the cucumbers will wait for no one" so this idea of carpe diem really holds true, really resonates in spite of the chaos around us.

I love how canning is multi-faceted enough to force us to let go of the electronic device and focus on the food and the jars and the process of preserving for later. It also brings us together, away from our laptops and the headlines, and to the kitchen, where we all could stand to spend a bit more time, anyway.  It is a beautiful example of teamwork, in which everyone has an equally important job, and everyone gets "paid" in jars for their labor.  How’s that for gratification?

Canning keeps it real for me, keeps me centered and makes me geniunely happy.

Every summer since well before that broken canning date three years ago, I've been saying I'm going to do it, and every year until now, I've blown it off. But as the majority of the nation’s political leaders continue to quibble and the economy swings like a pendulum and the earth gets hotter and this week, London is on fire, we are every bit as much in need of hopefulness these days as we were then. These days, I'm feeling a little less “Yes, We Can” and a little more ”Can….You…Dig It?”but I guess that’s the point -- things change, but not that much, and preserving the harvest at its peak is always a forward thinking, thrifty and yes, hopeful activity. It’s also a kind thing to do for your not-so-distant future self and loved ones, for the days when a steamy Brooklyn kitchen sounds like a godsend and fresh tomatoes a pipe dream.

So, of course we can.


Responses to "Put 'Em Up: Can It Forward"
The views and opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Ecocentric Blog or GRACE Communications Foundation.

  1. Leslie Hatfield

    I like the way you’re thinking, Kyle. I’m guessing the canning proponents wanted to target their media exposure to make more of an impact, but obviously, we could all stand to practice food resiliency LIKE! techniques from spring into late fall, longer in some places, and to promote them, too. We need some BIG canning parties, etc.

  2. Kyle Curtis

    I had big canning plans this summer. Strawberry honey was at the top of my list. Never happened. Since a batch of blueberry jam a couple of summers ago my canning equipment has only collected dust. Grrr. I like the idea of connecting National Can-It-Forward Day with National Farmers Market Week, but I have to ask: Why just a Day, or even a Week? How about identifying the time between National Farmers Market Week in August to the Food Day plans going on for October and as Food Resiliency Months. Canning and victory gardens and fermenting and everything other the sun could be emphasized to encourage people to be more food resilient!

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