Yes, We Can--Tomatoes, Peaches and More

It's harvest season in Western Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan followed one author's advice for preserving local fruit's and veggies. She has this story as part of our Earth's Bounty series on food and the environment.

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It's harvest season in Western Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan followed one author's advice for preserving local fruit's and veggies. She has this story as part of our Earth's Bounty series on food and the environment.

JORDAN: Not long ago I heard an interview with author Barbara Kingsolver about her newest book, Animal Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Kingsolver and her family spent a year mostly eating foods they'd harvested on their own or bought from local farms. The idea, in part, was to prove to herself that her family could live well while cutting down the fuel used in food transportation. In the interview, she mentioned that the family had canning parties.

Inspired, I ordered a half-bushel of tomatoes from a local organic farmer and headed to Ann Murray's house. Ann's a friend and co-worker who loves to eat. Her father has a mantra for this time of year:

MURRAY: Eat what you can, what you can't can and it's so true.

JORDAN: As a kid in rural West Virginia, Ann had watched her mom boil jars of tomatoes and other veggies. But she was the shucker of corn and the snipper of beans. She never had a leading role at the pressure cooker. The friends who joined us - Robin Hewlett and Matt Willard - and I myself, were even lower on actual canning experience.

WILLARD: I've seen it on television - I experienced a lot through television I didn't experience through real life.

JORDAN: For canning instruction we turn to the decidedly low-tech 1964 edition of The Joy of Cooking. Check out the language in this book - Good organization and proper equipment simplify canning and give you, with a minimum of effort, gay-looking shelves of glistening, jewel-like jars - all labeled and dated and ready to use.

Matt recalls a similar book from his childhood.

WILLARD: My mom had the Betty Crocker cookbook from like 1965 and they had explicit pictures of the process and I always found it really intriguing to read through that 'cause I was like I live in NYC, nobody cans here. That was so far from my mind. I'm thinking of someone in Wyoming on a farm like actually still canning and I was like, those look really cool. But I was like -- canning, I'm never canning in my life. But now it's come full circle.

JORDAN: Sad but true -- as teenagers many of us Gen X-ers thought of canning as oh so backward if we thought about it all. But canning food started as a major advance in the late 1700s. That's when Napoleon Bonaparte offered an award of 12-thousand francs to anyone who could reliably preserve food for the troops in battle. French chef and inventor Nicholas Appert spent 14 years perfecting his technique before he won the prize. His canning method was inspired by the bottling of wine. Various accounts say Appert initially sealed his jars with pitch or wax. The process was a military secret that eventually leaked across the English Channel. And from there into the hands of gardeners, homemakers, and commercial canneries around the world. Now the tradition has made its way into Ann Murray's kitchen, where we're waiting for a pot of water to boil. We've scalded, and skinned our tomatoes. We lay out our plan for organization that Joy of Cooking promises will leave us with a glistening larder.

HEWLETT: I was going to say that why don't I just pack the tomatoes and use the funnel for the water.
WILLARD: Wait, are we putting water in there? Aren't we going to lose flavor that way?
Haven't we been talking about this like 70 times?
JORDAN: I don't know why, but I've never seen something in a jar without juice around it.

JORDAN: Anyway, what do we know? We try to get the right amount of tomatoes in the jar - not too much so they'll explode, but not so little that we're mostly packing water.

WILLARD: How 'bout another half?

JORDAN: We submerge eight quarts into boiling water and wait what seems like a very long 45 minutes. Ann throws us a bone to keep us going.

MURRAY: They're looking beautiful guys. Lookin' like my mother's cupboard.

JORDAN: Since Ann's the only one with real canning memories, she shares some.

MURRAY: My dad had a garden - he said that was his end of it, he grew things, didn-t get close to the kitchen. And I just remember it being really hot outside. It was always about this time of the year. And it was always incredibly hot, steamy in the kitchen. was so hot. I just remember it being I felt like my mom was sacrificing a little so we could have canned stuff. But it was always so great to open it up in the middle of the winter.

JORDAN: At the end of six hours, we only have 12 quarts of tomatoes to show for it. Im a little 'disappointed. I mean, it's a good thing we're not in the French military, because we, like, seriously couldn't survive on this.

JORDAN IN KITCHEN: I'm like constantly thinking about efficiency about how could there be more product at the end.
HEWLETT: I feel like the sitting around is part of the social canning party aspect.

JORDAN: They eventually had me convinced that we were productive enough. Until I did some searches on the internet about canning parties. In a 1918 book called Use Your Government: What Your Government Does For You, there are tables listing teams of Kansas canners and their output. If I read correctly, Mrs. P.W. Rieger, aided by 17-year-old Bernadette Rieger, canned 622 AND ONE HALF - 622 AND ONE HALF -- QUARTS of fruit, vegetables, soups and meats. One should never compare one's self to others. I wonder if I'm too old to join 4-H?

For The Allegheny Front, this is Jennifer Szweda Jordan.