Canning them “Mators”

By Troy Bishopp “The Grass Whisperercanning pic

Many have equated food preservation on the scale with national security.  Without the skill of canning, curing or freezing handed down from generations, civilization as we know it would get pretty hungry, pretty fast.  Because eating is a form of self-preservation, there are even food insurance companies providing MRE-like (meals ready to eat) freeze-dried packets in lieu of the real thing, for a family of 4 to survive the next 3 month Armageddon at a cost of 2900 bucks.

While these ageless, reconstituted meals seem incredibly convenient and weirdly nutritious in the bottom of a bunker, I’ll take my chances with foods preserved in our old familiar Ball metal-clasped canning jars made with love and homemade ingredients from our farm.  My palate is much more accustomed to smoked ham, deer jerky, pickles, sauerkraut and canned tomatoes and fruit than a packet of USDA inspected mystery products boiling in water.

Call me spoiled; I mean fresh, for being so passionate about foods that have titillated my taste-buds from an early age. 

My exposure to fermented foods began in earnest at every holiday meal by tasting the year’s first ceremonial sour pickles made in a special clay crock under the watchful eye of my Grandpa Steele.  He had a basic recipe but added a few pinches of alum powder with a smidgen of mystery herbs and watched us closely for the “pucker factor”.  If our faces didn’t squirm he would take the vessel back to the cellar stairs and comment, “Not ready yet”.

The art of preserving as I remember was handed down as a rite of passage from a mother to a daughter while the men-folk shared signature recipes for sausage and hard cider.  As a young lad I guess the sweet smell of fruit preserves and jellies lured me into the kitchen to be with my grandmother and mom.  The reward of spreading jam on warm molasses cookies for helping peel the apples and hull the strawberries with the tin gouger-thing seemed at the time, much more satisfying than watching cucumbers brine.  No offense.

Of all the foods that my family preserved for generations, the site and smell of a percolating canner full of tomatoes tickled my fancy the most.  As Better Homes and Gardens put in, “Canned Tomatoes are like summer saved, all that deep sun kissed flavor ready to be enjoyed.”

I can’t attribute this interest to a specific thing other than the processing regime seems more mechanical and more workmanlike which suits me.  I equate the system to dairying:  Gather the cows, feed them, milk them, store in bulk tank and clean equipment and start the process over tomorrow.  Plant the seeds, stake the plants, prune, harvest, scald, skin, feed the hot jars, process, cool and store then start another batch tomorrow.  See what I mean, it’s more like a job.  I like it. 

When I apprenticed with my mom she started me off scalding and shocking the Better Boys and  eventually moved me up the chain to filling  jars.  I was always careful not to mess with the time-tested recipe; Tomatoes, onion, basil and salt in the proper doses while mixing and squeezing the air out with a spatula.  She always did quality control and cleanliness inspection so that the jars would seal.

It was always understood that a successful canner’s worth of homemade product would bring compensation for the line worker.  The simplest and most enjoyable form of payment for me was and still is a delectable, salty, warm bowl of “mators” floating amongst the basil and onion.  It just doesn’t get much better than that.

The preservation mentoring extended from my mom to my wife who is a culinary genius in her own rite.  Like any good recipe there are some regional or backyard differences in which the diversity of flavors makes the original even better.  My wife grows three to four varieties and colors of tomatoes which add body to spaghetti sauces, stews and chili, to name a few.

As the sound of the lids seal, reminiscent of the board-game, Trouble, I appreciate how important it is to carry on the tradition of preserving food from your own neighborhood.   There is an argument that would say canning or food preservation is more costly than buying processed foods in the grocery store because of economies of scale.  It’s a valid point.  However, in my opinion there are so many more intangibles to growing and processing your own food that it outweighs the concern over worth.

Factor in the fresh taste of the ingredients, the exercise in gardening, the camaraderie in the kitchen and the bountiful fellowship around the dinner table telling stories about the preservation process and you have your answer to the cost question.  Priceless!

published by Lee Publications