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Monday, September 28, 2009

To can or not to can

I hate this time of year. The leaves fall, and crackle under the feet like the bones of tiny children. And the light takes on certain harshness that reminds me that, even as I grow closer to death, I have gotten no closer to realizing my dreams.

Most of that is made tolerable with a healthy dose of self-medication. But there’s one autumnal rite that I can no longer obliviate with gin. Beginning in August, adherents of this practice descend on the U-Pick orchards like magpies on roadkill; and by September, this cult – yes, I think it can be called a cult – is fully engaged in a perverse ritual of self-flagellation involving steamy kitchens, boiling water, blistered fingers and sterile jars. Sometimes even death and disease.

Yes, it is the season of canning, when certain Caucasians of elevated socio-economic brackets come together and prostrate themselves on the altar of the root cellar, and “put up” the harvest. And then they talk about it.

Like any cult or religion, this one has its evangelists; and its guilt. “I put up 60 pounds of tomatoes this weekend,” one of the followers of the cult said the other day, her voice sticky with self-righteous, semi-competitive verve. “And today, as soon as I get home, ten bushels of pears await me.”

Seeking my own accomplishment, I imagined replying. “Well, I made it through 200 pages of Infinite Jest this weekend, and I think I finally understand the plot.” But I suppose that would only prompt a reply like, “Oh, Infinite Jest? Isn’t that an heirloom tomato?”


Last week, my wife Wendy, apparently feeling a bit inferior with all the canning chatter, and my mother, who since moving to Hotchkiss has joined the Locavore sect, spent a full day preserving tomatoes and salsa. This worries me. As I was growing up, my mother generally avoided the kitchen. When forced to cook, she relied upon Kraft dinners and frozen enchiladas in tinfoil platters. Wendy, meanwhile, is alarmingly blasé when it comes to foodborne illnesses, and has an inherent oblivion to “sell by” dates. I suspect that she figures if she poisons someone, she’ll never be expected to cook again, which is just fine by her. Still, possessed by some back-to-the-earth demon, they forged ahead into the battlefield of boiling water and sterile jars.

Wendy’s description of the ordeal was so awful that I was overcome with enough guilt to agree to partake in the next session. I wanted to educate myself first, though, and I soon discovered that there’s a plethora of literature on the subject. Indeed, there may be more people writing about canning than actually doing it. In addition to several books, the cybersphere has exploded with blogs extolling the virtues of “putting up”. One advocates a Canvolution; another goes so far as to compare canning to sex, which leads me to think that my sex life, which only occasionally involves boiling tomatoes and finger-scorching jars and food processors, needs some spicing up.

As I read, I try some of the salsa canned before. Not bad for salsa without lime, or salt, or a hint of chili pepper. Then I reach the scary chapter of the book, where I discover that canning is like sex; that is, it can lead to various forms of bacterial infection when done recklessly. Turns out, canned stuff is a leading cause of botulism – a nerve toxin that can paralyze and even kill you. Tomatoes are especially prone to the bacteria, and so, the book says, one should always add acid to them before putting them up.

As I take another bite of lime-free salsa, I feel my eyelids drooping, and I have a hard time moving my arm. And when I ask whether they boiled the jars for long enough, I must slur my words beyond recognition, for neither my mom nor Wendy seems to hear me.

“Couldn’t we just freeze these?” I ask, eying the pile of tomatoes that we’re about to can. I receive a caustic look in return; it’s just not the same. And besides, as the manifesto of canning explains: What if the power goes out? You see, no cult is complete without an apocalypse fantasy, and the canvolutionary’s vision of Armageddon is as frightening as any, with pesticides and disease; GMOs and Peak Oil; and deep-chest freezers without electricity regurgitating rotten produce. As with all good end-of-days scenarios, the canners’ version include those who will be saved – that is, people who have put up plenty of green beans and peaches; and the damned – who put up nothing, and now must spend eternity, or at least a few minutes a day, wandering the supermarket aisles to ensure sustenance. The Bible tells us that the Prince of Darkness will one day burn in the flames of Hell. In the canners’ version of the Rapture, the CEO of Monsanto will spend his eternity trying to eat his way out of a pit of the North Fork Valley’s excess zucchinis.

Okay, so forget about the freezer. We’ll can the salsa, already. I throw in as much bacteria-killing garlic, lime, and chili as I’m able. After the third burn blister erupts on my hand, I ask myself: Wasn’t technology intended to free us from such chores so that we could work less and spend more leisure time doing the things that make us human, like reading, doing art or watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica? Isn’t that why our grandparents gave up home-canning in the first place? Or was it just because canning sucks? After all, canned fruit isn’t even all that good – it’s basically a less tasty, slimier shadow of its original self. Not unlike Mickey Rourke.

Five hours after beginning, our canning ritual is complete. I must admit, the salsa looks beautiful in those jars. And it’s going to be tasty come mid-December. I get it. Okay? I get the canning thing. And to prove it, all of you canvolutionaries can come try some of the salsa I put up. Don’t worry. I sterilized those jars really well. At least I think I did.

1 comment:

kate said...

This reminded me of recipe testing crabapple pie -way too thrifty-back-to-the-old-days for me. Do you know how long it takes to harvest and slice a pie's worth of crabapples?
But making preserves is fun, since I don't have a hyper-productive garden trying to kill me.