In Praise of My Preserves

In Praise of My Preserves

by Sean Patrick Hill of Portland, OR


I wake at 5 A.M. on an October morning, the sky still dark for what will be many hours yet. I slip out of bed, trying to not wake Erynn, put on pajamas and my cotton robe and go downstairs to the kitchen. The linoleum floor is still cold. I start a pot of coffee.

On the counter I sort through several cloth shopping bags of apples and pears, several varieties, all of which my wife and I bought the day before at the Harvest Festival in Hood River, Oregon, an hour down the Columbia Gorge from our apartment in Portland. We wandered the afternoon between huge cardboard boxes of fruit, sampling slivers and ciders, asking Which ones are good for pies? For applesauce? For canning?

I open the closet doors, where the washer and dryer sit. From a plywood shelf I take down a box of pint-size Kerr jars, a pack of lids, and my hot-water bath, basically a big pot with a wire rack. I fill the bath about halfway with water and set it on the electric stovetop, turning the burner on to high. It takes a while to boil but heats the kitchen, too.

I begin with the apples, spreading twenty out on the table. I fill a big ceramic bowl with cold water, adding a little salt and lemon juice, and set it on the table with the thin plastic cutting board. I dig through a drawer to find the new peeler and pull a sharp knife. I sit with my back to the dark window and pull up my sleeves to start peeling.

As the skin curls from each one I make a pile of ribbons, from which I sometimes eat. It seems to me this is what I’d always done, tasting peels, especially when my mother used to prepare apples for her fruit salad. Like her, I challenge myself to get a whole apple peeled in one continuous ribbon. When an apple is skinned I cut it into fourths, slicing away and composting the core, keeping the good chunks in the salted bowl to prevent browning. I core and slice and peel my way through several pounds of apples.

First the water in the enamel bath simmers like a teakettle. When the water comes to a rolling boil, I immerse as many glass jars as I can into the boiling water to sterilize them, doing them in rounds until I have about twenty. In a small cooking pot, I do the same with the lids and screw caps. I set them aside after five minutes of boiling where they wait for the next step.

When the apples are done, I pull out a cooking pot. I add two cups of water and cook the apples until they are soft, then add a cup-and-a-quarter of sugar, bringing the whole thing to a boil, constantly stirring to keep it from burning. Add a little cinnamon, and the apple sauce is ready. It’s hot work, and I take off the robe.

What comes next always seems to me the most frantic part: the filling of jars. Using a plastic ladle – I have no funnel, a good tool – I try to fill the jars as fast as I can to within a half an inch of the jar’s mouth. The lid fits over the mouth, the band gets screwed on as tight as I can twist it, one after another. I get about ten pint-sized jars. They all go into the boiling water for a twenty five minute bath, the heat destroying any bacteria that could grow.

I pour myself another cup of coffee. I wash the peeler, rinse the knife, clear the scraps, and rinse the board. Dawn is arriving, a faint autumn light through the sliding door. By now I am fully awake.

Using a canning gripper I found in a grocery store, I lift out each jar to set on a hand towel to cool. Erynn pads down the stairs, and I pour her a cup of coffee, heavy on the cream. She sits down to start peeling the pears, and I concoct a syrup on the stove. It looks like we’ll fill every jar. A good year.

As society progresses more and more towards an urban lifestyle, and as populations continue to settle in and around cities, our relationships to the landscape change with our migrations. Our relationships with the sources of our food, for example, have shifted to large shopping areas, the ubiquitous “Big Box” store, some which require memberships and ID cards in order that we may shop in warehouses, filling gigantic carts and even handcarts with industrial sized jars of pickles and peanut butter.

With our food coming to us wrapped and sealed with increasing frequency, we can expect our relationship to our food to change. How many of us think not only where these pickled cucumbers came from, but how they were grown, how they were processed, packed, jarred?

Canning, the process of preserving food in both glass and metal containers, was the result of an entire human history of food. As we evolved in our storing of food – from clay jars to drying to salting – we inevitably moved toward perfection, toward a way of keeping our food for long periods of time in a way that was not only safe and efficient, but savory.

Though many of us live in cities, we can still garden and grow our own food. But we associate this with summer, with ripening strawberries in the early season, perhaps red tomatoes later on. And when they are gone, they are gone until next year. If we want apples in the winter, we can buy them in markets, shipped to us from New Zealand. Grapes from Chile. Tomatoes from hothouses in British Columbia, and a host of tropical fruits from around the planet.

What most people don’t realize is that canning their own food is still possible in their own kitchens. Indeed, many supermarkets stock not only flats of glass jars, as well as lids, but also the hot-water baths needed to process the jarred goods, and those crucial tools like tongs to fish hot jars out with.

It is still possible for us to open a jar of summer berries canned in sweet syrup. The reward is that, aside from the taste of those berries, fresh as when they were picked from our own gardens, or nearby farms and farmer’s markets, we canned them ourselves.

I bought my hot-water canning bath, a big enameled tub in which jarred goods are boiled and processed, ten years ago at a garage sale in Bend, Oregon. It came, too, with its wire rack equipped with handles, and also an original circa-1960’s cookbook, courtesy of Kerr Jars. I also bought a number of jelly jars and pint-sized jars which can be used, of course, repeatedly.

That summer I came home from the farms around Corvallis with two paper grocery bags of apples, a couple kettles of blackberry, raspberry, and blueberry, all of which I picked myself. I also had a few bags of peaches I bought from a roadside stand.

I spent the better part of several days making and jarring applesauce, blackberry jam, and raspberries and peaches in syrup. I won’t deny this is hot and steady work: apples have to be peeled, cored, cut, cooked and mashed; blackberries have to be cleaned and boiled in sugar, and syrup requires constant watching to prevent burning. And that’s only the preparation.

The canning itself is quick work; that is, you move quickly: fruit goes in the jar to within half an inch of the mouth, they are sealed, the screw-caps tightened, then immersed in the boiling bath for upwards of 20 minutes, while steam clouds the kitchen. Then they are taken out to cool, an hour or so of waiting for the lids to make their characteristic pop that signals a successful seal.

I have continued to can every summer, moving on to pears, huckleberries, and even pickles – which my friends, some of them real connoisseurs, told me were excellent. You can even grow the dill yourself.

This is hands-on work, start to finish. As my wife and I learned from making pickles, one can walk through the entire process from the ground to the table: from planting and watering to pruning and picking, from cutting and packing to jarring, and finally to reaching in the pantry on a winter afternoon and opening a jar of dill spears. Tasting them months after they were processed is to feel a true connection to your work, and you can do this even if you live in a small city apartment.

From drying to salting to smoking, humans have come up with a myriad of ways to preserve food. For many peoples, winter risked starvation – thus Native Americans dried berries, fish, roots, and game to make it to the spring. Europeans, too, suffered bouts of food shortages, as well as early Americans.

It was the French Navy in the late-18th century whose interest in preserving food led to canning. Sailors typically ate packed salted meat, an unfavorable way of preserving both for its loss of vitamins, and thus nutrition, as well as the unpalatable taste. Scurvy was, and always had been, rampant among seafarers.

Nicolas Appert, a French cook, changed everything. Born in 1750 in the provincial town of Châlons-sur-Marne on the edge of the Champagne region, he was brought up in a culture of breweries, pantries, storehouses, distilleries, and wine cellars. By the age of 22 he was already a skilled chef, serving as cook for princes and dukes.

In less than a decade he went into the confectionery business in Paris. It was here he began experimenting with ways to preserve sweets, and he soon spread out to vegetables and meats. He obsessively worked on procedures for hermetically-sealed glass jars that are still in use today, even inventing a widemouthed bottle for easier packing. Eventually he caught the eyes of the French Government and Navy. He delivered his preserves which were tested, in some cases, after months of sailing and in climates south of the equator. The reports were favorable.

His process was simple, once he created his own jars and mastered the cork lids, having found bottles too small for his purpose. Food was packed into jars and tightly lidded with carefully selected cork. It was then boiled for a certain amount of time which killed the bacteria in whatever air was in the closed vessel – though he didn’t fully realize this at the time, chemistry being in its infancy and knowledge of bacteria as an organism nonexistent.

Appert went on to win a number of awards, including gold medals, and to publish a book on preserving that went through numerous editions, even after his death. The English adapted his methods (though it is still disputed whether they did so fairly and by his consent) and went on to preserve food in “tins,” which was later refined to what we know in America as “cans.” Heinz was one of the first American companies to can baked beans, for instance. And, of course, Campbell’s is instantly recognizable for one of the most oft-preserved foods: soup.

But Appert was a humble and generous man, and he shared his ideas liberally. Because of this, in 1822 the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale declared him “Un Bienfaiteur de l’Humanite,” a Benefactor of Humanity, for his tireless work that brought our knowledge of food preservation into the modern age. Appert died in 1841, and his descendants kept his business going, winning more awards.

By jarring at home, you come to feel that you are part of history, one that descends back at least over 200 years.

I remember my grandmother’s garden in Western New York. The tall corn, the sprays of rhubarb, the swarming strawberries – all of this she harvested and canned. I remember her pantry, stocked floor to ceiling with shelves of glass jars, all different sizes and colors.

My family loved her strawberry rhubarb jam, but being so young I had no way to appreciate the work it took her to make it, to jar it. Before she died, she brought her daughter, my mother, a rhubarb to plant in our own garden. My father, who created and tilled the garden, planted it beside the garage. It bloomed for years.

Over time, my father let the garden go. He left it fallow one year, then planted grass, covering it with hay. My mother never learned how to can, but bought plenty of them: canned soup, green beans, baked beans, and tuna – all the classic American products that have been stored in tins for a long time. The rhubarb died one year, and that was it.

Now I live in Portland, Oregon, a large city surrounded by layers of suburbs. I still use my jarring skills to make pickles and pears, berries and jam. I pull down the cookbook – a legacy of Appert, to try new recipes – a legacy of my grandmother.

With my grandparents’ house and garden gone, and with my own family house gone, this is all I have left, in many ways, of that past. I feel that my jarring actually preserves far more than food: it preserves my past, my family history, and most importantly my sense of self, of who I am in this world. When I give jars of preserves away to friends, I feel I am participating in community, in a cycle of sharing.

But the simplest attribute of jarring is, it’s just fun. I enjoy getting up at 5 A.M. to peel apples. I enjoy stirring the sauce and jam, and listening for the jars to seal, then tapping the metal lids to make sure. Most of all, there is the unparalleled joy of being home on a winter night and maybe buying, despite the temperature, a pint of vanilla ice cream, and unscrewing the seal around a glass mouth, peeling back the lid with a pop from a jar of raspberries, pouring them over the cream. And I don’t need a membership or ID card to do so.

I realize I have much more experimenting to do, myself. Despite my years of experience, I still haven’t attempted strawberry-rhubarb jam. I intend to, and soon.

This is what we mean by preservation.