“Putting food by.”
That’s what my grandmother called it. As a girl, I spent lots of steamy summer days in an even steamier kitchen learning the art of canning. My grand-dad would bring in a huge basket of produce from his garden and the women of the family would get down to business, making jams, conserves, and jellies; putting up jars upon jars of vegetables and fruit; freezing even more. It was a sensory experience: The rich smell of cooking berries or tomatoes or pickles. The sounds of peas being shelled and beans being snapped. The intense green of blanched beans and asparagus. The beautiful colors of the jars lined up on the counter at the end of the day: green pickles, red beets, yellow waxed beans, purple jelly.
I was the kid who loved those afternoons so I inherited the tools of the trade: canning pot, wide mouth funnel, tongs, and several battered metal bowls. All of it is over 80 years old and looks it. I wouldn’t trade any of it in for anything. Those bowls evoke memories of working side by side with my grandmother, learning the secrets she learned from her mother that I’m hoping will interest yet another generation.
So! Today I’m spending the afternoon in the kitchen with my youngest daughter. It’s the hottest day in a Massachusetts July and we’re stirring a pot of tomato sauce that will soon be put into a dozen canning jars. It’s 95 degrees and so humid my hair is curling. Why, you might ask, would any sane person do this job on a day like this when perfectly adequate tomato sauce is available at the local supermarket this week at 10 for $10? Why not be lounging at the beach instead of sweating in the kitchen? Why? Because I now know something my grandmother knew: It’s not just about the tomatoes.
It’s a connection to the family past. Time with the tomatoes is time to tell family stories. It’s a time to say, “When I was a girl. . .” or “When grandma did that . . .” or “Someday you’ll show your daughter how to . . .” Teaching my daughter how it’s done is helping her know the great-grandparents she never met. Learning grandma’s secrets adds to her sense of family.
It’s a connection to my daughter’s present. Have you noticed? The best time to talk to teens is when you’re doing something else. As we cut and chop and stir and taste, we also talk about the latest teen news: The new CD by Leona Lewis; who will win So You Think You Can Dance; what the new boyfriend is like. None of it is all that important, except that it is very important to her. There’s something about chatting over a simmering pot that allows a different kind of sharing.
It’s a connection with women’s art. Now don’t get upset with me. Yes, I know men are perfectly capable of the kitchen arts too. My husband takes his turn at making meals and I’m proud that my sons have been cooking since they were very young. But I also think it’s important for my girls to feel they are a part of the countless generations of women who have nurtured their families with their special recipes and their care with food. The lowly jars of homemade tomato sauce we’re making today link both of us to that long chain of women who have stood over similar pots, telling similar stories.
It’s a reminder that there is satisfaction in doing something that’s hard. Make no mistake, canning in the heat and humidity of July in my part of the country is not a total pleasure. Someone has to be standing over the simmering pots with a stirring spoon. Hot food in hot jars has to be handled and processed in still another boiling pot. The kitchen steams. Faces are pink with the heat. But oh the pleasure when the job is finished. Those jars lined up on the counter to cool are tangible evidence of work well done.
It puts us back in touch with the rhythms of nature. One of the many wonders of canning is that the vegetables, not the people, dictate when work has to be done. We’ve been checking the tomatoes at the local Farmer’s Market for several weeks. Tomatoes imported from another country or state simply won’t do for this project. We want them ripe from the vine, picked that morning. The first of the local crop finally looked ready today so here we are. When the tomatoes are red and juicy and still warm from the sun, that’s the time to clear the schedule and head to the kitchen.
I feel blessed. My grandparents gave me a deep appreciation for good food and taught me the pleasure of preserving summer in glowing jars. Yes, putting food by is hard, hot work but the payback is enormous. My children are learning that there’s nothing quite so satisfying as opening those jars in mid-winter and tasting summer. Oh, we’ve scaled way back. My grandmother shopped out of her own basement shelves all winter long. I’m down to canning tomatoes and peaches and making a few kinds of jam. And it’s probably true that we wouldn’t enjoy doing it so much if storing food were a necessity instead of a ritual to honor family tradition and history. Nonetheless, I’m glad that I’ve preserved the fine art of canning. Every jar of tomatoes opened next winter will be a little reminder of our family’s past and a celebration of something my daughter and I did together.