A Canning Party
By Chris Sims
The canning party began innocently enough. One young mother, living far from her own mother, wanted to learn how to preserve her garden’s bounty. Casually, at church, she asked if she could come help me can. We set up a time, and Sarah and I spent a happy couple of hours pressure-canning green beans.
Sarah has friends. Many friends. She and her husband lead the Navigator Christian Fellowship at the University of Vermont, where Sarah discovered that at least three or four of the students in their group also wanted to learn some old-timey food preservation skills. Could they all come at once, Sarah wondered, and turn it into a canning workshop? I agreed, and we set a date at my house in early September. The students would harvest and can, I’d teach, and in the end I’d serve them all a turkey dinner with everything but the biscuit ingredients and salt coming from our own little Jericho homestead.
The day came. I typed up three pages of basic instructions and general recipes, and printed out six copies. On a dry-erase board, I listed vegetables that were ready to harvest and one or two options for the preservation of each.
By the appointed hour of 3:00 p.m. almost all of the students were there. One of them, walking up the driveway, introduced herself, then sheepishly confessed that she’d brought a friend and hoped that was all right. Other students brought friends, too. I had mentioned the workshop to one of my own friends, and she’d been so intrigued that she wanted to come, too. Come, she did—with a friend. Later, the friend of the friend asked if she could call her husband. Another student wanted to call her husband, too. In the end, there were 13 of us in a 10-by-12-foot kitchen, with spillovers into the dining and living rooms.
We presented the harvest list and invited the students to choose what they’d like to pick. The bush beans had been neglected and really needed to be harvested. There were several green and red cabbages of good size, plus leeks, turnips, kale, garlic, beets, chives, carrots, bell peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers, oregano, cilantro, parsley, sage, rosemary, and, of course, thyme. We took a tour of the garden and I handed out large bowls.
My husband, Reed, set up a pre-wash station for the root vegetables outside on a folding table. Everybody washed their harvest, came inside, and started following the written instructions. Within minutes, the house rang with talking, laughing, washing, peeling, chopping, slicing, pounding, simmering, snipping, plucking, packing things into jars, and spreading herbs on trays. I mostly ran around getting pots, pans, bowls, jars, and lids, finding extra ingredients, answering questions, and orchestrating a fine balance of timing. The beets had to be boiled while the beans were being washed; and the beans had to be out of the pressure-canner before the beets were ready to go in, but the cucumbers had to be washed before the beans, lest the pickle makers stood by twiddling their thumbs while waiting for sink space. There were harvest bowls to empty and wash so they could cool hot beets, and the beet pot would soon be needed for cooking the garlic jelly. (One brave soul decided to try garlic jelly).
The students were on it. An assembly line morphed into being. When seven jars were full of beans, we poured boiling water over them, put on the lids, and started up the pressure canner amid reassurances that the modern units do not tend to explode like the old-fashioned ones. Meanwhile, on one corner of the dining table, three students chopped cabbages, leeks, carrots, a turnip, and some peppers to be preserved by lacto-fermentation.
On another corner of the dining table, our intrepid garlic jelly maker peeled clove after clove after clove. You know how it is when you get to talking: I’d set a whole bowlful of garlic bulbs in front of her and, before she knew it, she had peeled enough garlic to make 60 half-pint jars of jelly. She decided she’d better not make that much, but the extra peeled garlic was not a problem. Much of it went into the lacto-fermentation mix, and the rest we roasted in the oven and froze for later on.
In the living room, Reed and several students sat around the coffee table, enjoying one another’s company as they snipped chives into bits or plucked herb leaves off their stems. We used to have an electric food dehydrator, but we gave it away. Now, we use the solar dehydrator out in the driveway. Said dehydrator also happens to be the family car, but when it’s just sitting there in the sun with the windows closed, it does a fine job drying herbs.
Back in the kitchen, the second batch of beans was under pressure in the canner, and the cooked beets went into a bath of cold water to slip their skins. (The skins are certainly edible and full of vitamins, but they turn tough in the pickling process. I put them aside to feed to the chickens.) Armed with a simple recipe, the students boiled up a syrup of vinegar, sugar, and spices. While it cooked, they sliced the beets into hot jars.
Speaking of vinegar and sugar, did I mention cucumbers? The pickle students opted to make both sweet pickles and dill. The small cucumbers went into a gallon jar to be covered with a cold solution of water, vinegar, and salt—an age-old, crock-pickling recipe. (That’s all there is to it. Dump them in and wait three weeks.) The long, Asian cucumbers became sweet sandwich slices with onions and a little garlic thrown in, seeing as we had extra. That required a boiled syrup, too, but the students finished making it just in time to wash the pan and turn it over to the students who needed it for pickling beets.
Amid the craziness, we ran out of vinegar. Reed had to make a run to the store for more. I got the turkey started in the oven, boiled potatoes as soon as a pot was empty and clean, and baked biscuits beside the roasting garlic.
When it was finally time to eat, we stood to survey our handiwork: a gallon and a half of sauerkraut, 12 quarts of green beans, 2 quarts of canned beets, 10 pints of pickled beets, 8 pints of sweet sandwich pickles, half a gallon of crock pickles, 2 trays of drying herbs, and 8 half-pints of garlic jelly.
Talk around the dinner table turned from enthusiastic and cheerful to enthusiastic and serious. Several students wanted to start a homesteading club, noting that with the imminent decline of oil as we know it, we’re all going to have to know a lot more about raising and preserving our own foods. The students noted that one day’s canning barely put a dent in what we still had growing out in our garden. Reed and I feed ourselves year-round with the vegetables we grow ourselves, and we only have two-thirds of an acre—in town, yet! The same was true years ago with teenage children still living at home. We’re not self-sufficient by any means, but we do grow an awful lot. We get protein from homegrown dry beans and our free-ranging chickens and turkeys. More than half our fruit comes from berries on our property. Ten percent of the grain we eat comes from grinding the flint corn that grows well in the sunniest spots in our garden. If our transportation infrastructure should collapse, we might be hungry, but we would not starve.
The guests stayed to talk until about 9:30 p.m., leaving behind a clean kitchen with all the dishes hand-washed, towel-dried, and put away. Reed and I were grateful for the students’ help. The students appreciated what they’d learned. We all enjoyed the local dinner and the sharing of ideas. Certainly, the success of the event rested largely on being organized and keeping things moving, but the most valuable ingredients turned out to be flexibility and an unwavering sense of humor.
The canning party did more than impart a few skills. It also left us with the confidence that greener, more sustainable living is not only possible but satisfying and fun. The UVM students may not be able to go back to their dorm rooms and grow carrots, but the knowledge will be there for them like a good jar of garden beans, ready to be opened and enjoyed, just as soon as the time is right.
Photo courtesy of Chris Sims
Good-by, and Keep Cold
by Robert Frost
This saying good-by on the edge of the dark
And cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard away at the end of the farm
All winter, cut off by a hill from the house.
I don’t want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,
I don’t want it dreamily nibbled for browse
By deer, and I don’t want it budded by grouse.
(If certain it wouldn’t be idle to call
I’d summon grouse, rabbit, and deer to the wall
And warn them away with a stick for a gun.)
I don’t want it stirred by the heat of the sun.
(We made it secure against being, I hope,
By setting it out on a northerly slope.)
No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
“How often already you’ve had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-by and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below.”
I have to be gone for a season or so.
My business awhile is with different trees,
Less carefully nourished, less fruitful than these,
And such as is done to their wood with an axe—
Maples and birches and tamaracks.
I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard’s arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.
“Good-by and Keep Cold” from the book, The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright ©1923, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright ©1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.