Romantic notions vs. reality in preserving food

Romantic notions vs. reality in preserving food

“I bet we’re the first people to ever listen to Maroon 5 while snapping green beans,” my husband said one evening. We were half way through a five-gallon bucket and a third of a way towards our goal of putting up 100 quarts of green beans.

By putting up, I mean canning, and by canning, I mean taking gallons upon gallons of green beans, washing, snapping, cooking, pressure sealing and cooling them until every shelf in our house was completely full. We put our Northwestern Beans, on the shelf in the living room as part of our sports décor. The mixture of golden wax and green beans were an attempt to be clever, but I doubt Martha Stewart would approve.

A common assumption is that canning to preserve one’s own food is only done by, well, older folks while listening to big band classics of course. This is no longer the norm.

The collision of several food movements has made canning and freezing by young adults a mainstream activity again. People are watching what they eat for a variety of reasons; diet concerns, healthy food concerns and the locavore (eating only local foods) movement. Other reasons for canning include families who want to be self-sustaining, or just want to know where their food came from. Extension services and USDA offices have cited the economic downturn as another reason for increased home canning.

As with many fads, canning has had its ups and downs. During WWII it was encouraged to have a Victory Garden, and as a result, preserve one’s own food. In the 60’s the trend came back as a green movement, and now, young adults like myself are back in the throws of another canning era.

I know all this talk of such a mundane summer chore as canning green beans can seem tedious to gardening and canning veterans. But, I’m the new guy on the block (literally and figuratively), and prior to this year’s adventure, I had never canned anything. In the past I would be the lucky recipient of someone’s extra dozen tomatoes or one bag of green beans. I would ‘put them up’ and proudly show off those little bags in my freezer. But, now, as I look at my 100 quarts of Northwestern Beans, 50 bags of frozen corn and a growing number of jars of tomatoes, I realize I was living in a starry-eyed fairytale when it came to food preservation.

For years I have wanted to practice the concept of community gardening, eating local, being green and eating healthy -and all the pretty, happy things that I thought went along with those ideas. I know what you veterans are thinking, someone needed a reality check!

Canning is not pretty, or easy, or any of those romantic ideas the ignorant may think about preserving local, or organic, or self-grown foods. Using dainty baskets to put your tomatoes in? Nope, try a wheelbarrow and a five-gallon bucket. All the produce you need to save is ready at once. If you don’t have a plan and the staff to implement processing it all in a very short amount of time – you may end up suffering from Post Traumatic Canning. The thought of even slicing an apple makes my heart race.

My aspirations were noble – lots of cheap, wholesome food grown with love, to share with friends and family. While I daydreamed about fresh peas and green peace signs, and frolicking through gardens with the neighbors, my better half was busy doing some actual work.

Important things like spacing, tilling and timing of ripe produce were planned. Weeding, mulching, insect control and harvesting needed to be done on a daily basis. Our garden, through no fault of our laborer I must add, did not cut us any slack for being first year gardeners. The beans didn’t produce like we planned – we would be lucky to get 10 quarts of green beans.

Thankfully, our family and neighbors, in hearing of our quest for, as we came to find out, an obscene amount of green beans, and noticing our, well, lack of green beans, came to our rescue! In sharing their abundant harvest and living out the true spirit of my romantic notions of a community garden, we were able to reach our goal of 100 quarts!

Trends come and go. Some trends are work, some are fun. Some, like canning, are productive and still bring folks together. Thanks to all the neighbors who aided us in our first-year garden. Soon the snow will fly and we’ll be looking at seed-catalogues planning next year’s garden with a little more real-life experience and a few less romantic notions.