Canning preserved by new home economists

An essay in Salon calls the practice of canning "haute," though dismisses it as an inappropriate source of nourishment for people with real day jobs, part of a too-precious do-it-yourself (DIY) craze. The New York Times says we're in the midst of a "canning renaissance" and is more eloquent, loving: "preserving offers primal satisfactions and practical results."

Last week, in The Wall Street Journal, a young reporter signs up for a private canning class with a Slow Food instructor and comes to a wide-eyed combination of the two conclusions: "Although home-canned goods are not exactly a bargain, their taste is dramatically better and, in my view, well worth the labor." Hobby, quasi-political act, the new (more productive!) dinner party, canvolution? How to explain the home-canning craze?

As a blog-carrying member of the canvolution, my bias shows through my late-night bleary-eyed tomato canning sessions and my online bartering for fancy jams (I've got a skein of hand-dyed yarn promised in exchange for a pint of currant jelly: seriously). But I'm doing it for all those reasons, and more. I'm doing it to set my family free.

As indictments of our society go, "convenient" isn't yet near the top of the heap of scathing adjectives, but I'm pretty certain it will become one. Surely, it's not as evocative of our materialism as "consumer culture," nor as redolent of our expanding waistlines as "fast food nation." We're often accused of being desperate for instant gratification, and preserving food is (ideally) the opposite of all this; it's handy, it's slow, it's delaying gratification big time. The first time you decide to eat local and seasonal, if it happens to be February and you happen to be rather unwealthy, if you want tomato sauce you'll just have to wait until July or August. And in those months a fire of many moons of pent-up demand well be lit as you (like me) peel and chop tomatoes long past midnight.

In the Wall Street Journal we are told, "canning has found new appeal as a healthier alternative to the chemicals and preservatives found in many prepared foods," so says Jarden brand manager Brenda Schmidt. Salon's Sarah Karnasiewicz describes canning as a "small, sustainable luxury and a craft" and finally decides the trend is popular because it's a "time-spender" where we can devote our long hours between sending out resumes and picking up our unemployment checks, ignoring except for this statement any mention of the concept that this "DIY craze" has anything to do with concern for food safety. Julia Moskin, writing for the New York Times, identifies the revolution part of canning a little better, quoting June Taylor (a Berkeley, Calif. "pioneer in using local, seasonal produce and as few added ingredients as possible"), "people want to take back their food and their skills from the industrial giants," and writing, "in a time of high food prices, job losses and food safety scares, home canning is booming."

Canning is an unusually clear porthole peering into the odd state of modern American food. Politically powerful and deep-pocketed agriculture and food processing companies have constructed a water-tight vessel clad with the concept that convenience is our foremost desire (not freshness or taste or nutrition, although each of these words is constantly used to describe the foods produced by these companies, with wild and reckless abandon), and over that a layer of fear. The home cook is repeatedly reminded that the nitty-gritty of food preparation and storage is difficult, and that shortcuts and fresh-packs and "meal kits" are the solution to our ineptitudes. We are terrified that we will kill our families with our canning, and every single mention of jam-making or pickling in the media is pierced with referrals to the "deadly form of food poisoning" known as botulism, and to the "rules" of the procedure. It's science, and are you really ok doing this by yourself? the food industry seems to say. Really? Would you bet your life on it?

Instead, they'll do the betting for us, with a wide variety of scientific advances and industrial progress that have served to make our food more dangerous, not less. Sticking animals in close confines and feeding them diets with less variety and less green stuff makes contamination with feces more likely; raising plants in fields where the bugs and weeds have been slaughtered with chemicals reduces competition for harmful bacteria; mixing the output from a bunch of farmers and ranchers together in a factory and then distributing out to many different processing companies makes contamination more widespread, more insidious, harder to track. Devising new and more efficient chemicals to line cans ends up contributing to untold hormonal disasters. And all this packaging? Landfills, baby, unless it's in the ocean, or the preservatives and pesticides are contributing to dead zones and wildlife die-offs.

As they say, better the devil you know. And that's my thinking behind the canning revolution. We may be saving (a little) money, we may be doing this out of a genuine Depression-era-reminiscent desire to use the bounty all around us (my canning adventures are often inspired by fruit falling out of a neighbor's tree, uneaten for as long as anyone can remember). But we're also doing it because it puts the control back in our gardens, kitchens and farmer's markets where it belongs. You go ahead and worry about whether or not your bean cans are lined with BPA, or your peaches are part of that recall; I know exactly what's in my jars, and I know where and when those peaches were picked and whether or not I used processed ingredients (raw honey and basil from my back yard, is all).

It's not that I don't trust corporations. It's just that I don't know the corporations. And I know Amy, who sells me tomatoes, and I know that I care whether or not my children are sickened by my food. I just don't know that the workers who picked and canned and chopped and assembled and packaged and processed the product of the food industry have the same love that I have for my family. Or for the planet.

It's a revolution of love, I say.

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