Long before refrigerators, and long, long after the elemental powerhouses of food preservation had been tapped — the cold of winter; the heat and drying effects of the sun; and smoke from fires large and small — there was canning.
Putting up preserves, as people used to call it, was once a mainstay of Canadian living, something primarily done by women using garden-grown carrots and beans and beets and berries and fruits picked from meadows and forests.
Kids, or mostly daughters, I should say, grew up watching moms and aunties and grannies colonizing the kitchen in the fall, boiling the water, sterilizing the jars, washing and cutting up the apples, the peaches, the beans, then dunking the sealed containers into baths of boiling water in the dark blue enamel canners on the stove, all the while cautioning kids within earshot to watch out — boiling water! those are scalding hot! — lending a note of pending disaster to the process .
Where were the boys and men in all this? Maybe out fishing. Because even some of "the guys" would can up a day's catch, so that opening a jar of home-preserved salmon or trout would become part of the embedded memory of a good day out with a rod.
Given the traditional gender bias of canning, it's ironic that a man invented it.
Until the Industrial Revolution, notes Alberto Cappatti in Food: A Culinary History, a terrific book put out by Columbia University as part of its "European Perspectives" series, the term "preserve" was used to refer to "fruits, flowers and other foods prepared with sugar or a similar material to produce a sort of paste."
Think of a cross between dried fruit roll-ups and, maybe, quince paste, only flat and cut into squares, so you could travel and eat.
Then in 1810, Nicolas Appert, a Frenchman by birth and a confectioner by trade, wrote a book called: Le livre de tous les ménages, ou l'art de conserver pendant plusiers années toutes les substances animals et végétales or, essentially, The book of all households, or the art of conserving, for several years, all animal and vegetable substances.
The book's popularity was even greater than its title. In it, Appert described his experience with 30 years of preserving by immersing sealed jars in a hot water bath. Vegetables like shelled peas and French beans; fruit; meat; jellies; dairy products including cream and whey — and even those fish — all had been preserved in dark, wide-mouthed glass containers more resembling bottles than jars.
Throughout, the flavour and colour were good. But in some cases, Appert, being an expert confectioner, added a paste of sugar, crushed pulp and lemon juice to fruits like strawberries to bring out the flavour.
But there was a clear discrepancy between the "practical aims of preservation," namely economy, like using less sugar to reduce costs; philanthropy, such as storing food for hospitals and the like; and health (preserving food as protection against common ravages, like food poisoning and scurvy) and preserving for pleasure.
No tasteless, blah canned goods for this Frenchman. Non, non, non. These preserves were appetizing — and expensive — and imitated far and wide.
Fast forward to today, and it's this quality in home canning that is most egregiously overlooked. But the Father of Canning knew better. As does a woman whose preserves you've likely seen at the Whistler or Squamish farmers' markets, or maybe the one in Ladner, and in shops across B.C. including Granville Island's Edible Canada.
Using traditional family recipes and putting up some 100,000 pounds of produce each year — some 20,000 pounds of cukes and 10,000 pounds of garlic alone — Thelma Henderson, the Thelma behind "Thelma's Goodies", must rate as the Mother of Canning, at least around here.
"I learned to preserve at my grandmother's knee from the time I was five or six," Thelma says on the phone from Abbotsford, where I can hear helpers clattering around in the government-approved kitchen behind her. "I grew up on a farm in Manitoba, then at 27 years old I was left with five children, all under the age of eight, to support and feed." Luckily, she already had perfected domestic skills, like canning in a hot-water bath — all without electricity and running water.
After another career, Thelma has now returned to her roots and built up a roaring trade in pickles, jams and jellies. But given her start, she's perfect for demystifying canning for everyone who thinks it's a crazy big deal they could never try. Here's a quickie fly-by.
First, get yourself some canning jars: Bernardin are good. New ones are fine but you can also buy good used ones in places like the Mennonite Committee Centre thrift stores in Abbotsford and Vancouver. If they're the kind that need rubber rings, just buy new ones.
An easy way to sterilize your jars is to roll them in a pot of boiling water on the stovetop. Thelma has even used a roasting pan for this; the lids can simmer in a separate pot.
Lift out your jars with tongs, placing them right-side-up on a towel. If you're making pickles, say, you fill your jars with beets or carrots that have already been cut to size and cooked. Add the seasoning and liquid according to your recipe. If you're preserving fruit like peaches or apricots, you'll need to add Fruit Fresh or lemon to prevent the fruit from oxidizing and turning brown.
Leave a quarter inch or so from the top as you fill your jars. If you fill them too full, they might overflow and break the seal. Screw your lids on tight, then release them a bit to allow for expansion during the hot water bath.
You can buy a canner for the bath, but any big pot with a lid will do. Put a rack in the bottom to keep the jars off of it; fill your pot with water so the level comes up about three-quarters of the height of the jars; bring it to a boil and put the filled jars in, making sure to tighten the lids once they're done.
"Bath time" depends on whether your fruit or veggies are already cooked, as for pickles, or not. Again, that's where your recipe comes in, and I bet your mom or aunties have some good ones.
"It's a great way to keep your family history alive and know what you're eating," says Thelma. All while taking advantage of the great produce around now. Piece of cake.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who thinks she can now try canning.
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