Canning: A Disappearing Art

Stocking up comes naturally to me. It’s second nature to grow, freeze, dry and can anything our family loves. The tradition of storing foods goes back a long way in my mother’s family. They began as humble, southern country folk living off the land. It’s a tradition that extends far beyond preparing for winter and leaner times. The art of “stocking up,” connects us to the earth, to nature and to each other.

I recall many a balmy summer afternoon, marveling at my grandmother as she seemed to float about her kitchen, stopping on occasion to wipe her brow with her fruit stained apron. Her canning kettle, combined with the scorching heat of Eastern Washington’s high desert, made it barely tolerable at times. I endured it because I knew it was an honor to share space with this incredible matriarch. She had given birth to 2 sets of twins, 12 children in all, and had mastered the art of cooking for many.

Her orchard and massive vegetable garden rewarded her and her large family long after winter’s snow had gone. The earthy smell of her root cellar continues to linger in my memory as does the rows upon rows of jars, carefully placed on wooden shelves; winter's larder. There were canned pickles, okra, tomatoes, beans, corn, peaches, pears, boxes of potatoes, onions and more.

Although I tend to prefer freezing and drying foods for storage, I decided this year I would make some pickles. Since I didn’t grow any cucumbers this year, save for a couple pots of lemon cukes, I ventured to our local cucumber farm. Although I do my best to buy organic, there are farms that grow without chemicals and because their farms are small, they cannot afford the costly price of organic certification. Always inquire. Get to know the farmers in your area.

Upon arriving I was informed that the cukes had “sold out.” “Already?” I asked. “They’re just about done for the year,” was the reply from the young gal at the register. (I had momentarily forgotten that hints of fall were everywhere.) She suggested I come before they opened the next day. Determined to get my pickles, as I call them, I arrived 30 minutes early. There was plenty of time for Rick to walk Scampy, and for me to chat and glean garden and canning wisdom from the elders in line behind me. We all agreed that canning was becoming a “lost art.” With heartfelt remorse, I knew entire generations would not experience the time honored ritual of growing, gathering, and “stocking up,” while bonding as a family.

With patience and apprehension, we watched as the young folk emptied their 5 gallon buckets upon the wooden trays. Whispers of cucumbers and making sure everyone got what they needed, was reassuring. I turned to look at the faces behind me. Accessing their smiles and body language, I felt relaxed enough to joke about stories I’d heard of people getting aggressive and going wild at store sales. It was agreed we’d all be civil, until an older gentleman piped in saying, “I don’t know, I really want those cucumbers, I don’t know how friendly I’ll be.” His wide grin told us he was joking and the smile lines etched upon his face confirmed it.

When the rope went down we were informed that the cucumbers were smaller than normal and crooked. Everyone agreed they didn’t mind and that'd be just fine. We peacefully wandered to the tables, relieved there would be plenty for everyone. Those were the kind of folks you’d want with you floating upon the ocean in a life raft. Confident and wise. It was a good day for pickles…

Please share your favorite recipes or thoughts on the “Disappearing Art of Canning,” below.

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