With heightened awareness about additives in processed food and a renewed interest in edible gardening, canning has become a 21st-century trend. Websites, blogs and canning classes are full of advice, recipes and conversation about preserving the bounty of summer.
CANNING ALWAYS seemed so old-fashioned, the last place I expected to see it take off was on Twitter.
But my computer screen practically sizzled when Seattle food writer Kim O’Donnel floated the idea of a day devoted to peach preserves, cherry chutney and watermelon pickles. People around the area — and eventually, around the country — typed loud and clear that they were ready for a Canvolution. A volunteer group organized to hold canning classes, tutorials and canning parties throughout last summer, and O’Donnel is leading an ongoing Canning Across America celebration this year. (She got the idea from a San Francisco project called “Yes We Can.”)
Like knitting, or naming your kids Abigail or Emma, canning is one of those home traditions that’s acquired a hot modern spin. A handful of new canning books came out last year; this summer, publishers’ lists practically dripped with them.
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As I dipped my own fingers into the world of Ball jars and pectin, though, it didn’t feel like jumping into a trend. Canning fruit, at least (which doesn’t carry the same botulism risk as low-acid foods), turned out to be as simple as baking bread — which is to say, simple when you know how. It didn’t take much more than a recipe, jars and a stovetop. And when I wished for grandmotherly wisdom, my computer proved a good substitute.
Advice poured in when I fretted on Twitter, close to midnight, about my massive batch of strawberry jam refusing to set. (Hint: You’re not supposed to double jam recipes.) When I wasn’t sure my thickening solution looked OK, a photo in an old blog post from Seattle writer Molly Wizenberg showed me I was on the right track. In a survey on Allrecipes.com, the country’s top food site, 54 percent of respondents said they canned. Nearly half were under 40, and, of those younger users, more than half said the Internet was their primary source of canning information.
“Whenever I mention to people that I can, the typical response is, ‘I’d like to learn how to do that!’ I rarely get dismissed as being old-fashioned or crazy these days,” says Marisa McClellan, whose “Food In Jars” blog serves up recipes and preserving advice.
For many, it’s a way to exert more control over what they eat, selecting the fruits and flavors they favor and eschewing the high-fructose corn syrup or preservatives in many supermarket jars. For some, it’s about conserving a peak garden harvest or inexpensive haul from the U-pick patch. For others, it’s simply about making something that tastes great. (It can also be a money-saver, though it isn’t always.)
And oddly, especially given its Internet cachet, it’s also become a way to bring people together.
McClellan, for instance, hopped a plane from Philadelphia to Seattle to teach a canning class last year, finding “so much excitement and activity” around the Canvolution that she wanted to be part of it. Seattleite Amy Pennington is teaching classes this year along with her new “Urban Pantry” cookbook. She wrote in the book that canning “started as a hobby, turned into an obsession, and is now a way of life for me.”
That’s what O’Donnel, whose impulsive tweet led to so many hours of ongoing work, wants to see. She has many other focuses — writing, a new cookbook, an adopt-a-school-cafeteria program facilitated by the White House — but it feels necessary to keep the canning momentum alive. Ironically, before last summer, she had barely done any canning herself. And the very hectic pace of modern life is exactly what makes her want to keep it up.
“One of the things that struck me was, you need to block out at least three hours to can. There is meditation there, there is breaking out of the routine, there are all those pieces that go into this commitment that is putting up food.”
The experience can be infectious, she says. “You do it, and at the end, you’re like, ‘Wow. I might be able to do that with a group of folks somewhere else!’ That is something worth holding onto.”
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance food writer and blogger. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.