As we gird our loins for the Post-Recession frontier, we're all taking to the canner. Luckily, some of us nerds have been prepared for years.
I was heavily influenced in my desire to can by two factors. One: The Butt'ry Shelf Cookbook. This curiosity, still widely available on the internet, was written in the mid-20th century by a New England eccentric and centered around her family's year as seen through the well-stocked "butt'ry" where she and her relatives industriously filled the shelves with homemade liqueurs, ripening fruitcakes, an ever-increasing store of foodstuffs and, of course, all the homemade jams and preserves a country housewife's heart could desire. It is not surprising that the book, already nostalgic at the time of publication, was illustrated by the author's neighbor Tasha Tudor. It's also not shocking that it was a major influence on my mid-childhood years (tweens didn't exist in the 1980s.) It was under its auspices that I attempted to "cure" meats in the playhouse in our back yard, have a taffy pull by myself, and churn butter in my dollhouse's 4" churn.
It will come as no great shock to regular readers of this space that these efforts met with sincere approbation by my grandfather, the family patriarch and eccentric, whose fear of a vague apocalyptic phenomenon known only as "The Bad Times" had led him to install an enormous deep freeze, build a makeshift compound, and melt and bury various metals under the house. "When the Bad Times come, they'll be eating each other," he'd say darkly, then go to a yard sale and buy another dozen pressure cookers. (Money bonfires also figured in the prognostications.) Some attributed his death to disappointment that none of this ever came to pass; had he but waited a few years...
Naturally, canning and preserving played no small role in our Bad Times Survival Guide. As such, my enthusiastic attempts at jam-making and pickling were encouraged. I didn't know what I was doing; I didn't really think about botulism or sterilizing or mold or recipes. All I knew was that we had to preserve as much as possible. I'd aid my grandfather in preparing the endless jars of nearly-inedible plum jam he distilled from the tree in the yard, or throw some herbs and vegetables in a can, add some salt water, and call it a day. (One particularly memorable jam involved pine needles.) Most of what I made molded before we could enjoy the fruits of my housewifery - despite the mysterious preponderance of pressure cookers, we never processed anything - but I was undaunted.
As I got older, I got keen on the notion of homemade jam as a gift. By 12 or so, I'd read up on procedure and had come to understand the two most important things about canning: 1) It's really, really expensive and 2) It's an enormous, horrible ordeal. Far from making practical use of the overflow of home-grown produce and ensuring a few vitamins through the long winter, for most of us, canning and preserving is an exercise in self-indulgent excess. If you buy farmer's market fruit, even the "damaged" varietal - and what's the point otherwise - it's exorbitant, and that's without even talking about the ready supply of ball jars you'll need. Once you've got your canner, your wide-mouth funnel, your selection of ladles, you're set for life (and those sales of the belongings of a dead old woman by her not-interested-in-canning boomer children are a boon in this regard) you're set, but it's an outlay. Then comes the actual process: whether it's stirring a kettle of jam in the summer heat or minding an insolent kettle of apple butter in the fall or just the sticky, messy ordeal of covering stuff with syrup or processing pickles, it's kind of nightmarish. (And the kitchen cleanup is second to none in its scope and difficulty.) The satisfaction of having that smug row of jewel-hued jars is, yes, almost worth it. But after the process, I find I am greedy: I don't want to give away my expensive, beautiful, labor-intensive preserves; I want to hoard them. If I can bring myself to give some away, I secretly want to ask for the jar back. Just last week I had to suppress a scream of wounded fury when I saw my boyfriend had opened a jar of rhubarb-and-onion relish (I specialize in the kind of thing no one actually wants to eat) to accompany a turkey burger. I guess this is a small taste of the pain of old-timey household drudgery: not just the labor, but the pain of seeing your laboriously-scrubbed floors muddied or hand-washed clothing soiled and the knowledge that you'll have to do it all over again, ad infinitum. In this regard, it really is a taste of the past.
And yet - or perhaps because of - the blatantly farcical nature of modern urban canning, it's becoming a thing. Like quilting, embroidery and all manner of DIY, canning's now the purview of the young, with more than half of enthusiasts, according to UPI, under 40. The "Recession" argument's obvious: we want to feel connection and security and the illusion of self-sufficiency. Maybe the general fuckwittery of the system has motivated a subconscious desire to live outside the grid - or at least cleave to the competence of another era. It makes sense in the scheme of eating locally and seasonally and there's also the little matter of avoiding corn syrup, a near-impossibility with anything mass-produced (and really, the good stuff's as pricey as doing it at home, albeit less of a headache.) As a result, we are seeing a rash of dubiously-spiced homemade jams in marketplaces and boutiques across the land. I succumbed to one amateur canner's "experiment" last week: peach jam with tarragon, for $10. I lived to regret it. But even so, I wondered that she was able to part with it: the sense of achievement, and the security of that store, is, for many of us, comforting in a way money never can be. And anyway, come the Bad Times, only gold will be worth anything.