Tuesday, August 31, 2010
It is canning and drying season again. The dryer hums most nights in the back yard (or in Mark’s office, if he wants a little heat) and the two canners – one steam for fruits, pickles, and tomatoes and one pressure for everything else—sit in the dining room for easy access. At the beginning of summer, I looked at what I set aside last year, what we ate, estimated what I needed to process this year, and made a chart. As each fruit comes into season and is set on the shelf, I cross it off. So far, I’ve done plums, blueberries, green beans, peaches, and blackberries as well as several types of pickles. Two buckets of apples for sauce are waiting in the hall, along with half a bucket of pears; figs and tomatoes are not yet ripe. My goal is ninety percent of fruit eaten in our house is locally grown and gleaned. This means that we eat a lot of dried fruit out of hand in the winter and canned fruit in yogurt, with an occasional banana or mango thrown in when we need something exciting. We are jam, salsa, and pickle independent. I’m working towards tomato independence, including salsa and dried. I just about made it last year.
I did not grow up eating like this. I was a Wonderbread and Oreo child, eating frozen broccoli and peas and pale pink tomatoes on iceberg lettuce all year round. My mother did have a small garden some years and I ate young carrots with the dirt still on them, but none of it was saved for the winter. Even when I grew my own gardens years later, they began around Memorial Day and ended with the first frost in late September. I then went back to the grocery store veggies wrapped in cellophane. Older people made jam or bread and butter pickles and gave a jar or two to my mother, but we never canned anything. You could die from it!
In the back of my mind, though, I was always intrigued. I loved Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, with her specific descriptions of the labor involved in raising your own food and making your own clothes. I wanted to dig potatoes and take my pumpkins to the State Fair. I am also inherently cheap. I hated to see all of that fruit going to waste, falling off of people’s trees into the street, not being eaten by anyone except the local possum and raccoon populations. Apples. Plums. Pears. Wasted. So I made applesauce and canned it using the huge pasta pot I scored when the Italian restraunt next door to the bakery closed. It was easy! No one died! It was tasty, too. And pretty much free. What’s not to like?
Since then, I’ve expanded my operations. I read the Joy of Cooking on jam-making and made so much five years ago that we’re still eating it. I poked in the Ball Canning jar pamphlets and learned to make Dilly Beans and Bread and Butter pickles; last year, I experimented with pickled plums and beets. I can fruit. I slice and dry fruit. I make chutneys with tomatoes and peaches, savory jam with tomatoes and figs. I read books on the subject all summer long, pondering the various ways to save red currants and rhubarb. I am obsessed.
I prefer canning and drying to the more common freezing; we do not have a large freezer and I don’t really want to buy one. I worry about losing power and my food spoiling. That won’t happen with dried fruit in a mason jar. I also like to gloat over the jars on the shelves.
Occasionally someone questions the carbon footprint of my fruit—doesn’t it use a lot of energy to dry all of those peaches? The electric bill does go up a bit in September, it is true, but I haul most of the produce on my bike and glean it from abandoned orchard trees. I buy some of it from local farmers, at the farm, where it is literally half the price of the farmer’s market. But I’m not too worried about the carbon footprint, especially when I consider all of the bananas and imported apples we are not eating. Someday, I’ll attach my kill-a-watt meter to the dryer and calculate the energy I actually used. I’m not sure how to measure the footprint of a prune from the co-op…
So, for the next month, most nights, I’ll be putting something by for the winter. The house will smell of tomatoes, or pears, or salsa. There will be jars on the cellar stairs, lids on the top of the fridge, rings hanging off of the doorknobs. The shelves will slowly fill up until a damp night in October when the figs will split from rain and signal the end of the preserving season—and the beginning of the eating.