Guest Post: Canning’s Great Comeback

During my 2012 book tour for Get Your Pitchfork On!, Process Media then-publicity maven Carrie Schaff set me up with a contact in Wisconsin. I was super-excited to go to Milwaukee because 1.) I attended first grade at General Mitchell Elementary, south of town, and 2.) Supper clubs. Have I written about supper clubs? I really need to. This blog post is the closest I’ve come. Anyway, I didn’t know my hostess from Eve, but I figured someone 1.) from Milwaukee 2.) who’s a friend of my publisher has got to be cool.

“Cool” does not begin to describe Christina Ward. This braided-hair badass babe set me up for my reading in a cozy bar that was at once retro and modern, and then brought me to her favorite supper club, The Packing House.

The best we could do ... me in front of The Packing House

The best we could do … me in front of The Packing House

Christina is an artist and all-around domestic goddess. She is a bona fide Master Canner (ahem, Food Preserver) in the State of Wisconsin. So we should all thank our lucky stars that she agreed to wrote a guest post! About canning, of course!

Canning’s Great Comeback

By Christina Ward

Part I: History of Food Preservation in America

Before the advent of pumpkin-spice everything, fall was about harvesting and storing the results of hard-won gardening. There are many types of food preservation, but canning is on the comeback and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

See, I’m the Master Food Preserver for my county. (Milwaukee County, Wisconsin).  Aside from the ridiculous title, I actually serve as the resident expert on all things food preservation. Your jelly won’t set? Yup, I get that call. Your pickles are soggy? I can help. Your friend’s aunt who told you about her cousin’s sister-in-law who lost an eye using a pressure canner? I can dispel your fears and tell you the exactly correct way to operate one. (Hint: Think of it as a tool; just like with a hammer, if you do it wrong you’ll do damage.)

The Master Food Preserver is part of the larger university-extension programs, which are vestiges from our Land-Grant Universities. (Thank you, Congressman Morrill of Vermont.) Passed in 1862, the Morrill Act designated newly stolen Native American lands to be sold for the purpose of funding educational institutions focused on Engineering and Agriculture. One of the goals of these new universities was to serve as an incubator for ideas and training for the westward expansion, and to teach migrating farmers the latest and greatest Ag science practices. As well as use those actual farmers as living laboratories.

Wisconsin led the nation in both Ag research and working with farmers and their families. The Wisconsin-Extension program was formally introduced in 1907 and became a model for the rest of the country.  The Extension trained people in their communities on the best practices for growing, seed selection, animal husbandry, stock selection and nutrition, slaughter, as well as home services, like safe food-preservation techniques.  These folks would be chosen for their knowledge, standing in the community, and commitment to volunteerism. And that holds true to this day.

As counties grew more urban and away from rural traditions, so did the Master Food Preserver program. In 2009, I realized that Milwaukee County was on the bleeding edge of the Urban Agriculture and would be well served by bringing the program back. After all, if you’re going to install 500 Victory Gardens in a single May weekend, someone better teach people what to do with all those damn tomatoes.

I begged, pleaded, and cajoled the State of Wisconsin until they agreed with me.

Since January of 2011, more than 2,000 people have taken one of my classes on safe food preservation. Ten of them have gone on to start their own food micro-businesses. And, knock wood, not a single person has given themselves or their families botulism.

So, not sure if you’re canning it the right way? Contact your local University Extension office and ask them to hook you up with the local Master Food Preserver. The MFP may tell you that “You’re doing it all wrong.” If so, listen; they’re trying to keep you alive.

Part II: Reinventing the Wheel

As the “foodie” movement grows, there are now scammy practices I never would have thought of that have become detrimental issues for folks interested in food.

Who would have guessed that ten years ago farmer’s markets would become so chic that local farmers are being pushed out by Big Ag disguising itself. It’s gotten so bad that California passed a law verifying origin of produce at farmer’s markets. Here in Wisconsin, there’s a locally famous “genius” farmer who has his volunteers unpack the Sysco truck then relabel it as from his farm.

I’m seeing it in my little corner of the food world too. Food preservation in and of itself is relatively simple, once you understand the basic concepts and science of why it works. Canning is more putzy than anything else; lots of chopping. It’s often why many people have negative images associated with canning. ‘Cuz gramma was no dummy and made the kids help with all the grunt work. And that’s what folks remember. Hours of cleaning strawberries. Hours of blanching tomatoes. Hours of washing cucumbers.

The honchos at Jarden Brands (the makers of Ball and Kerr canning supplies*) have seen your Pinterest pages. They know that canning is on the upswing. They are also smart marketers. They know that at our core essence of being, we are lazy.

In the past few years, they have gone R&D cuckoo coming up with products no one needs to make canning “easier.” The Automatic Jam Maker, the Freshtech Home Canning System … have you seen this one? It’s the equivalent of a bread-maker for jam … you throw everything in the pot, push the button that says “strawberry,” and whammo, jam. And it’s only $299.95. (By the way, you still have to wash, hull, and cut those damned strawberries.)

What else? Oh there’s the Sure-Tight Band Tool to help you get your bands screwed on. Really? You need help with screwing on a band? Okay, pay them $9.99.  I could go on about the frivolity and excesses of Jarden, but they’re not alone. Kraft (maker of Sure Jell) is getting in on the act.

This past summer Kraft caused a huge kerfuffle in the canning community. For the sake of making it “easier,” they changed and “simplified” the directions included in all their packages. That simplification in combination with a colossal snafu (they mixed up the preparation directions for cooked versus freezer jam), caused jelly-makers across the country to have conniptions. Heck, I’m the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, MFP and I was fielding distress calls from Arkansas and Oklahoma.

And now Jarden is at it again. They’ve decided that you no longer have to “boil lids.” Sigh. Um, yeah, you do. But even saying that is a misnomer. You never did boil them; you’re supposed to soak them in very hot water (preferably taken from your canner) for a few minutes to soften the rubber.

Why? They’re claiming it’s not needed. Truth is, they’re using less rubber on the lids. They’re afraid if you take “boil lids” to heart that you’ll boil the rubber right off. I can tell you that the quality of the 2014 lids has been far below that of previous years. And that’s not just me saying that. We MFPs around the country, we talk to each other. We recognize trends and are the first to hear when something goes hinky.

These are specific examples of issues in the New Food movement I never thought I would see. Staid and boring food preservation is enjoying its moment in the spotlight. From every farm to table restaurant serving “haus-pickled vegetables” to bars concocting drinks with home-preserved syrups; every Tom, Dick, and Mary is putting it in a freaking mason jar. What’s the pH? Do they even know why a food needs to be acidified? And if I even see another jar of Bacon Jam on a shelf I’m going to poke someone with a sharp stick.

Really, I’m all for more people canning—in fact, it’s my mission. BUT, and my but is very large here, BUT trends should never trump safety. And safe food comes only from using safe food-preservation techniques. No short cuts. No gadgets. No making it up as you go along.

Have your read Wisconsin Death Trips? It holds a special place in my heart as it was primarily culled from my gramma’s homestead area of Jackson & Clark counties. People starved to death if they didn’t preserve enough food to get them through the winter. They resorted to boiling shoes and killing pets to survive. And even if they put up enough food, germ theory was still not fully understood and the techniques so primitive, they were often taking a chance on poisoning themselves.

Christina Ward "in the act of mixing some macerating fruit while talking to my buddy"

Christina Ward “in the act of mixing some macerating fruit while talking to my buddy”

Here’s the rule I begin every single class with: If you’re going to poison someone; do it on purpose and not accidentally. In case you think botulism is a rare bird; oh no. It, too, is making a comeback. Bad beets in Georgia. Bad pickles in Oregon. Bad elk in Washington. And saddest of all, three people died in 2012 in Vancouver from botulism-tainted watermelon jelly.

These shortcuts, these “time-saving devices,” these on-trend makers, only divorce you from the origins of the food you eat. Food is not easy. It takes time, skill, and labor to grow, to prepare, and to preserve. We do ourselves a great disservice by relying on a Thing versus relying on ourselves. And if you don’t want to grow, make, or preserve it yourself, find someone who does and support them.

If you’re in the mood to scare yourself food-safe, here’s my favorite food safety blog: http://www.barfblog.

*NOTE: Jarden Brands owns both the Ball and Kerr brands. They’re made in the same factory in Muncie, Indiana … so don’t pay more for the Kerr-branded stuff.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Canning’s Great Comeback

  1. Lori says:

    Great read! I like to refer to her as, Ma Kettle! There’s nothing this lady can’t do and do it right! What wit, what talent…proud to know her and call her my friend! Her passion for canning is so inspiring it makes you realize if you believe in something and share what you know it can change the landscape of anything!

  2. I loved reading this! You inspire me! I’m close to being incurably addicted to canning. I’m about to start trying dehydrating also! I’ve already discovered I can grow a lot more than I ever expected in my small gardens! I only want to can safely! I insist on it! You are so appreciated! THANK-YOU!

  3. Kate says:

    Yes! This is great, thank you for posting. I just started canning this past year and it’s been an interesting learning process because unlike other things it’s really just not safe to jump right in, and I’ve had to combat my natural tendencies toward learning through experimentation. Hasn’t been easy! I keep doing high acid fruit jams because that’s my safety zone but I’m getting tired of it. I have a new book and one of these days I’ll hunt down a class. Determined to master this!

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