It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but was afraid. What if it doesn’t work and I give someone food poisoning? How can I keep everything sterilized? What if the recipe I am using is unreliable and all this food and time is wasted?
Throughout the years I’d made a lot of excuses about why I didn’t have the courage to tackle canning, preserving, pickling or jelly-making, but this summer it was time to conquer that fear of the unknown.
My vegetable garden was bigger than ever, and I needed a better way to preserve the harvest. Typically, I would just freeze the overflow, but there’s only so much a freezer can hold.
I decided I couldn’t do this alone. I am a visual learner, and if I really wanted to understand the process, I couldn’t learn from a recipe. Plus, I had too many questions, so I needed a tried-and-true expert to show me the ropes.
Most people learn canning and preserving from their mother or a grandmother. My mother doesn’t can and neither did my grandmothers. I would have to go back three generations to find a great-grandmother who was proficient in the craft.
I decided to call on my friend, Linda Walton, who actually won a blue ribbon in 2007 from the State Fair of Texas for her chow-chow relish. Last summer, she also made the best jelly I have ever tasted from some wine grapes that another friend was growing.
“When I am canning I feel that I am channeling my ancestors. My mother’s family was all farmers and grew their own food and preserved it for the future. In my mother’s family this meant storing the canned goods in a dug out to keep them cool in the summer and protect them from freezing in the winter. In most early days canning was a necessity for families rather than a hobby,” Linda explained to me.
“One of my early memories of my mother was helping peel peaches for canning. I didn’t like doing it then and I don’t like doing it now, but I do enjoy canning,” she said.
Along with her award winning chow-chow, she is known for her vanilla peach jam. But making jam is not advised on your first attempt at canning, so I needed to start with something simpler.
We debated for several days what vegetable to do. She wanted to teach me pickled jalapeos, but no one in my household, other than myself, tolerates spicy food. I was afraid it would take too many years for several jars of pickled jalapeos to be put to good use. We finally settled on pickled okra that also contained a few carrots, garlic and spices to add more flavor.
When I arrived at her house the smell of vinegar filled the air — a sure sign that the pickling process is underway. Anytime vinegar is boiled the aroma is strong.
In the kitchen all of the jars, rings and lids had been washed and warmed and were set out on a tray. Two large pots were on the stove. One contained the vinegar, water and pickling salt and another larger pot was filled with water and fitted with the canning rack.
She had already blanched the okra for a minute and let it cool to room temperature. She also had some sliced carrots, jalapeos and whole garlic cloves to add to the jars.
She put a couple of carrot, garlic and jalapeo pieces in each jar with a tiny bit of dill seed and then passed the jars to me to start packing in the okra. A bay leaf was then added to each jar and she moved the tray of jars to the stove area.
She then ladled the hot vinegar into each jar using a canning funnel to prevent spilling. A careful wipe around the rims removed any excess moisture.
“If there is any liquid around the edges the lids may not seal properly,” she said.
Then, using a magnetic rod, she began lifting the lids out of a bowl of hot water and placing them on top of each jar. As she put the rings on top of the lids she pressed a finger in the middle of the lid to secure it with finger-tight pressure.
“Don’t put the rings on too tight. You can tighten them later when they are cooling,” she said.
The jars were then lifted into the pot of boiling water with canning tongs and placed in the canning rack. The jars boiled for 10 minutes.
After they came out and began to cool, the indention in the middle of the lids began to pop.
“Oh good, did you hear that? It’s like music to my ears. That’s how you know it worked. If the lid doesn’t pop and seal, then it didn’t take,” she said.
I never knew that was part of it. I just thought you boiled the jars and hoped for the best. If I had known there was a sure sign of success, then I probably would have attempted this process years ago.
Not all of them popped right away. Some didn’t pop until after they completely cooled. You can tell by pressing the center of the lid. If the indention bounces back that one goes in the refrigerator and is eaten soon.
If all goes well and the lid pops, those jars are good for a year or more.
“A friend of mine found some of my vanilla peach jam that I made for his mother after she died. It had to be at least a couple of years old. He ate it and said it was still good and the best he’d ever had,” she said.
While we were waiting for the jars to cool and the second batch to boil, we had a chance to talk about the tradition of canning.
“When I start to can anything, I refer to my 1958 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that was a gift to me in 1958. For me, this is the Bible of canning,” she said. “But if I want to can something truly vintage, fruit or vegetable, I consult my grandmother’s 1928 Methodist Women’s Cookbook.”
This is where she found her award winning chow-chow recipe.
“Those recipes were written in the vernacular of that time, such as cook until it looks done, but the recipes still include the basic ingredients. I draw the line when making my chow-chow when the 1928 recipe suggests putting the ingredients in a muslin bag and hanging it in a tree overnight to drip,” she said.
“I am not the only one in my extended family who still enjoys canning. Some of my male cousins still can pickled okra and my niece, Bonnie Ward, has developed a cottage industry called Granny Buttermaker. She grows her own produce and cans her vegetables, sauces and jams for sale,” she said.
“Canning may be a dying art, but it is my wish that those of us who still enjoy this endeavor will be able to pass it on to future generations,” she said.
For me, I still have a lot to learn if I want to can tomatoes, make jam and preserve some of the other short-lived summer favorites like figs and peaches. But now I can look at the process as a fun challenge instead of something I fear and find hard to understand.
Besides, help is just a phone call away. And I look forward to setting a date for my lesson in jam, jelly and preserves.