Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Canning Quest and Revolution

As background, I taught myself to can while living in Concord, Massachusetts in 1984. Yes, that is the town with the famous bridge where the American Revolution began. So I like to say my canning revolution began there!

I was moved to learn self sufficiency skills. I purchased a couple of books and thought it looked pretty easy. All those colored jars were so pretty! I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
None of my friends were interested so I set out alone on my quest to can.
First message I received was a caution about cleanliness and a warning about life threatening bacteria. I cleaned my tiny apartment kitchen with Clorox and water including the floor. I bleached my kitchen towels, tied my hair up in a bandana put on my apron, banned the dog from the kitchen and began washing jars. I did not have a dishwasher. I washed and washed then boiled a canning pot full of water and sterilized not only the jars but all my equipment, lids and rings. I had contracted canning OCD!

I now have a dishwasher in my life which has eased the cleaning process quite a bit. I still clean with bleach before canning to ensure as much bacteria as possible is gone. So my canning OCD is livable now.

The first thing I ever canned was dilly green beans. They looked so pretty when done. The clinking sound thrilled me and has become my mantra. If I could figure out how to do it I would record the sound and use it on my telephone message recorder instead of the incessant beep. My jars were so beautiful that I would not let anyone open them up to taste the pickled beans. My friends knew I had lost it now but I knew I could can anything.

My next adventure was strawberry jam. Instructions were simple, berries were in season and I was confident I could succeed. To my dismay the jam was runny and did not set. I was crushed and did not know what to do until a roommate suggested we try it on ice cream. Now I think ice cream is food of the Gods. Never saying no to ice cream we got some fresh homemade ice cream from the local creamery (in New England homemade ice cream is easily available and the store bought stuff in the cardboard box is taboo). We poured some of my runny strawberry jam onto the ice cream and hesitantly tasted it. I was immediately transformed to nirvana. Hence, whenever jam or preserves come out runny, I call it sauce so I never experience canning failure! Yes, I have tried to reprocess jam once or twice and have had varying levels of success. Usually I chalk it up to experience and have another batch of sauce or syrup for pancakes, waffles, pound cake, spritzer beverages or ice cream.

I still had not under taken pressure canning. I did not dare to try that method till I had moved to Washington and had me a Master Canner. A Master Canner is someone who takes a class with the County Extension Service and has been trained in the safety of canning and has chalked up hours of canning under supervision. In exchange for the course, Master Canners teach others canning skills. Annie told me to come over and we would can up some stew she had made.

When I got to her home I was stunned. She lives in a bermed home on the banks of the Nisqually River that flows from the top of Mt. Rainier. The house was built into the side of a slope and the front of the house was all glass overlooking the river and mountain vista. Just spectacular. Eagles were swooping over the river and catching salmon. Her roof was green and planted with strawberry plants. Her garden had every vegetable imaginable planted in perfect rows without an inch of spare room or a weed to be seen. Even the garden fence was holding up grapes and berry vines. The orchard had several kinds of trees laden with fruit.

I entered the house through a side door into a mud room where we removed out shoes. A couple of steps up and I was in a great room open to the kitchen which was raised one step so that while in the kitchen area you could see out the glass wall and watch the river. The stove was a combination gas and wood fired stove. The wood stove in the living room also had a flat top that could be used for cooking. Her pantry was stocked with everything you could think of including box after box of canned goods from her garden.

Annie had made a beef stew the night before with veggies from her garden. She got out her old pressure canner and I stepped back in awe. Many years ago I had been at another friend’s home to try her beef stew cooked in a pressure canner. While we were waiting for dinner sitting in the living room there was a huge explosion. We ran to the kitchen and the top of the pressure canner had blown off and her entire kitchen was redecorated with a lovely shade of beef stew. The ceiling, walls, cabinets and floor was covered. She cried. We spent the evening cleaning and ordered a pizza.

So here I was to face my fear and conquer the pressure canner beast. Annie had an older American model with a gauge and release valve on the top. She assured me she knew what she was doing. 16 jars later I breathed a sigh of relief and was over my fear. Over the next few months I learned many canning tricks from Annie. A consummate bargain hunter, she taught me to be very resourceful, how to buy in large quantity and store food safely. She showed me how to can meat, fish and poultry and was always available to answer my hysterical calls when I feared I had screwed something up. She taught me the value of going to Saturday yard sales and to never pass up a bargain.

Annie has moved on to the great canning kitchen now but I am sure she smiles when she sees I have taken her spot teaching canning and being called the Frugal Fraulein. Annie I miss you.