Next to fire, food preservation is probably one of the most vital discoveries to civilization. No sooner than vegetables and fruits are picked, cells begin dying off, and they begin to spoil. Fortunately, humans figured out how to keep food safe for consumption, first by drying it in the sun to remove all the water that fostered bacteria growth.
Civilizations from 14,000 years ago left evidence of this, and subsequent cultures devised ways of preserving fruits, vegetables, eggs, poultry and meat according to what was available to them: the sun for drying, ice and snow for freezing, wood for smoking, salt for curing. Even honey with its antiseptic and antibacterial properties was used by ancient Greeks and Romans to preserve fruits.
By the 1700's, long distance travel and exploration were not unusual. The French military offered an award of 12,000 francs to the inventor who came up with the most efficient and effective means to preserve food. This challenge appealed to a Parisian chef and confectioner named Nicolas Appert, and he experimented for more than a decade utilizing his experience as a winemaker. He took the prize in 1810 with his method of filling heavy glass bottles with food, leaving a little room at the top, sealing the bottle with a fitted cork, wrapping the bottle in canvas and submerging it in boiling water to heat the contents.
T-L Photos/GLYNIS VALENTI
Home canning is a traditional craft that dates back 200 years. Food at the fair is judged on color, texture, consistency and presentation.
Later that year, his cookbook on food preservation was published (the first of its kind), and shortly thereafter he opened the first plant outside of Paris dedicated to his method of bottle preservation.
The science behind this method is in the heat and vacuum seal and is still the basis for modern day home canning. During the remainder of the 1800's, enterprising researchers worked on improving and streamlining the process and came up with better bottles and jars. These included an American, John Mason, who, in 1858, developed glass jars with threads for screw-on lids very similar to the jars used today by home and commercial canners.
As society became less agricultural and more industrial, commercial food canning and freezing allowed urban dwellers and those with city jobs to enjoy fruits and vegetables without having to grow them. Many people have memories of mothers or grandmothers standing at the stove filling jars with grape jelly, applesauce, peaches, carrots, green beans and pickles to be savored over the winter. Some may have even cleaned the beans or peeled the carrots that ended up on neat, full cellar shelves.
Recently, though, there is renewed interest in home canning. Observers note several reasons for the increase. The movement to purchase locally raised fresh foods has grown over the past decade. After the economic crash in September 2008, people lost investments and jobs and began economizing. Growing a home garden became one way to supplement the family groceries.
Along with growing and buying locally, more people have become interested in health and what goes into their bodies. Growing and preserving allows control over any chemicals, pesticides and sugar content in the food that one eats.
Local canner Kacey Orr, of Bullard-Orr Farm, says her dad was the family canner, and she grew up helping him every year on their farm. "If it was cherries, I was the pitter. If it was tomatoes, I was the skinner."
She says she has attended "every 4-H summer camp since she was nine years old," but it was a desire to change careers last year that brought her back to her literal roots, and she decided to grow a cottage canning business making jams. Orr thought that if she could make a living by selling her farm produce and jams for one year, she would continue in agriculture on the land where her family has lived for more than 110 years.
"I made up 50 jars of strawberry rhubarb jam for the first [Wheeling farmers] market in May thinking it would carry me through the summer," Orr recalls. "I sold out the first day and went, 'uh oh'."
Since then, she has developed two to three new recipes every week based on the available fruits and vegetables, nearly all of them from her organic gardens. Because of the overwhelming response to her jams, Orr recently took on a partner, professional chef Scott Roskovich. His structured routine complements her intuitive flow, and they have been able to increase both their repertoire and production over the last two months.
Orr and Roskovich admit that they "aren't getting rich," but they enjoy the creativity, the process and the sense of accomplishment and contribution. She adds, "It feels good because I'm doing something that's not only good for me, but good for everybody."
So far the strawberry rhubarb was the big crowd pleaser, but Orr notes that the apple pie and peach cobbler flavors are close seconds in the sweet jams. In hot jams, the blueberry jalapeno and red raspberry Thai chili are the two popular sellers.
For "putting up" fruits and vegetables in the jam style (rather than pickling) in a very small nut shell, the process involves first thoroughly cleaning the fruits or vegetables, taking care to remove all traces of dirt or blemishes that could affect flavor or bacteria growth and possibly removing the skins as well. The produce is boiled in stages with sugar, pectin and, possibly a little acid.
Meanwhile, the jars and lids are in other pots of boiling water to sterilize them. When the food is of the right consistency, the jars are taken from the water, and the mixture is spooned into the hot jars, leaving space at the top for steam and expansion. Lids and rings are placed on the jars, and the jars are submerged back into the boiling water for at least the time specified in the recipe. They are removed from the water to cool overnight, and, if using the metal lids, the lids will pop as they seal.
Orr offers some advice for those who want to venture into home canning. First, use the freshest, highest quality fruit and vegetables available. Ideally, it would come straight from the garden outside to the kitchen, but the worst products to use would come from the grocery store. "That produce was picked unripe at least a week ago, and you have no idea what pesticides or waxes it's been treated with. It will have no flavor once it's cooked. Taste a store-bought tomato, then taste an heirloom tomato from the farmers market. There's no comparison." The point is that the process of canning takes time and energy which is all but wasted if the food lacks flavor in the first place.
Also, careful as one might be, "You're going to get burned," Orr says. "You're going to drop a jar, and you're probably going to have to throw a batch out. It's not an easy process. There's a total learning curve." Start with small batches, and cook them gently, being careful not to overcook. A hard boil could cause the sugar to crystallize and evaporate the pectin. Overcooking can also cook out the pectin (which helps the jam set) and give the food a burnt flavor.
Beginners should taste often to find the balance between sweetness and acidity. Near constant stirring is also important to get the proper consistency. Follow recipes to insure that food has been cooked long enough and jars sealed properly for safety. Lids should be firm when the jar is cool before opening the first time. Store finished jars in a cool, dark place to retain food color and flavor.
Books from the library and online sites offer lists of equipment, recipes and information on pectin, sweeteners and acids. Watching or helping a friend or relative could also be beneficial before venturing on your own.
The canning process has been basically the same for 200 years. It's a practical, traditional way to save money on food costs and is a seasonal ritual for others. Orr notes a bonus of spending more time with her father this year than in years past when they've gardened and canned together.
And though canning may be chic and trendy for some, Orr and Roskovich think people like the idea of lowering food costs, experimenting with new flavors and keeping a supply of food on hand. Plus, canning harkens back to simpler days and fond memories.
"It's amazing," Orr adds. "It's like channeling another time. It's history, geography and agriculture all in one jar."