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Eating Local: On the joy and pain of canning

Marilyn Gleason

Long before modern farmers markets arrived in every town with their crafts and organic vegetables and live music to set the mood, the county fair is where folks showed off the fruits of their labor, a lot of it on the hoof.

Last week the Garfield County Fair showcased local agricultural production and practices, as it has for 77 years. The fair has a long memory of breeding, raising and cultivating food locally.

It was Ed’s idea to drive to the Garfield County Fairgrounds before it all came to an end for another year. We had something to celebrate, and he’s working on slipping a little fun in between the endless demands of farm chores and his hundred hives of honeybees.

Fan blades the size of helicopter rotors spin hypnotically above the metal pens in the indoor arena. We strolled past turkeys and stacks of caged rabbits and threaded through rows of goats with long brown ears, shorn lambs and pink-and-black hogs that lolled or slept contentedly in pairs.

In the South Exhibit Hall the open class exhibits include artwork, stunning quilts, floral arrangements, and even a noxious weed display. But I came to see the food preservation entries: canned goods.

This is the canning time of year. Fruits and berries ripen in succession, and vegetables are coming out of the garden. I wanted to see the artistry of cooks putting food by in home kitchens, sealed in those nostalgic glass jars.

Darleen Mackley grew up in Rifle and the 4H club. Now she says it’s time for her 5- and 8-year-old grandchildren to join 4H, as her own children did. Her mother exhibited handiwork at the fair for 60 years, almost until she died at 98. “Mother instilled in me the fair,” says Darleen.

Her jams, jellies, fruit and pickles were among this year’s 146 entries in the food preservation exhibit, where she also registers entries and assists the judge. The food preservation entries doubled a few years ago, signaling renewed interest in home canning.

Each jar is labeled with the type of processing used (water bath, pressure cooker), time and elevation, all variables that affect food safety. Mary Jo Girard, a master canner from Eagle, judges the pickles and jellies and whole fruits by looking for the proper amount of headroom — the space left between the lid and the top of the food or its liquid — squeaky clean jars and signs of rust on the lids. Then she opens them up to check for consistency, floating fruit (bad), the correct amount of liquid, and of course, flavor.

Dilly beans, cinnamon apples, pickled beets, jalapeno peach jelly, sliced peaches, whole cherries, vanilla peach jam, corn and carrots and potatoes layered in chicken stock lined the display shelves. Jams, jellies and preserves made with wine are newly popular, such as cranberry apple and wine jam, or spearmint champagne jelly.

We were reading before bed lately when Ed just had to read a passage aloud to me from “Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass,” a lyrical memoir of traditional farm life. Author Gary Paulsen remembers the dog days of August this way:

“Right then, when it’s impossible to breathe and get out of the heat, right then it is necessary to start canning.

“The wood stove in the kitchen must be fired and made hotter than even in the winter, fired with oak and birch and maple mixed until it nearly glows red and the kitchen becomes, truly, hell. There is no air movement and on the first day of canning by midday it is found that the heat in the kitchen is one hundred and twenty, one hundred and twenty degrees on the feed store thermometer on the wall near the calendar with the picture of the smiling girl standing next to a Holstein bull. The heat mixes with the steam from the boiling canner until it cannot be borne and then, when breathing is impossible and nothing can live in the kitchen, then at last it is ready and canning can start.

“It is all — all food for the winter must be canned. It is everything important. There is not another way to store it — except onions and potatoes and some root crops in the basement. But corn, beets, beans, peas, berries, meat, fruit, tomatoes — all must be canned.

“Nobody misses the work. Every ear of corn must be shucked and cleaned and cooked and the kernels shaved off with the corn knife, and if there isn’t work in the fields and the gardens are weeded and the chores are done and for some insane reason everybody is not asleep or passed out they must can. They must can.

“It is when strength shows, canning. Grace, it is said, comes from equal portions of strength and self-denial and somehow, in the kitchen during canning, somehow there is that strength and self-denial and the beauty of grace.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local periodically for the Food pages.


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