You may think jarring jellies, jams, onions, cukes and even lobster is a weirdly out-of-date tradition, but thanks to the pandemic and the rising cost of everything, canning is back
I could see by the way she parked her shopping cart — blocking access to the shelf that contained the last box of rubber-sealed mason jar lids — that she was not to be trifled with. Young and fit, she wore a high-end track suit and a pair of couture sneakers that are supposed to make their owners think they walk through life on a cloud. But not this one; this one understood the gravity of her situation.
“Is this all you have? Is this it … really?”
The store clerk looked dumbfounded.
“I dunno … maybe?”
“Well, I’ve got lobster to bottle, and it’s not going to cap itself.”
Grab about 30 canners (little critters about a half pound each) off the nearest wharf, cook them, crack them and soak their meat in a bucket of brine for an hour. Then, break them into bite-sized pieces and pack to an inch below the lips of 12 sterilized jars. Freeze overnight. Next morning, top up with salty water, cap and freeze again. That’s it.
Not only have you guaranteed yourself a year’s worth of chowder fixings; you’ve also protected your bank account until the next pandemic plays havoc with the global supply chain, and the price of this delicious marine bug goes through the roof again.
But only (repeat: only) if you have the right lids.
Nowadays, that seems more important than ever.
“Canning — a method of preserving food in jars at high temperatures, which dates back to the early 1800s and waned in popularity for some time — has seen a rapid resurgence with the onset of (COVID),” writes Kristi R. Garabrandt in a recent edition of the Cleveland, Ohio-based Daily Jeffersonian. She goes on to say that while many saw home food preservation as a dying art, it’s now a means of self-preservation for some. “The shortages of food on grocery store shelves has led some to look for other means to feed themselves and their families.”
And not for the first time. Remember the Great Recession of 2009?
“Preserving food at home has become modish of late,” wrote Sara Dickerman for Slate magazine in 2010. “The Wall Street Journal, NPR and the New York Times have all noted the intense popularity of canning: overflowing classes, new cookbooks, obsessive blogs and Twitter-publicized can-ins …There’s a revivalist fervor bottled up in those jars — enthusiasts tout the thriftiness, healthfulness and environmental virtues of marmalades and dilly beans — that seems overwrought.”
Maybe, but I get it. Back in the early 1980s — when the interest rate on a government-backed student loan in Canada was 28 per cent and unemployment was, across the Maritimes, about the same — my wife and I picked rose hips in the ditches that lined Halifax’s burgeoning highways. Somebody told us we needed more Vitamin C in our diets, so we made jam. It would have been dumb not to. When was life ever so commodious on the Canadian East Coast that homemade food preservation didn’t make sense?
Almost everything that can be canned in this part of the world, has been. Theresa Mazerolle of New Brunswick, for one, hosts the YouTube channel “LivingOffTheLand,” where she shows viewers how to jar lobsters, bar clams, quahogs, beef in red wine sauce, pork and beans, chickpeas, corn and the usual assortment of jams, jellies, onions, zukes and cukes. “I am very passionate about food preservation, gardening, being outdoors,” she says in the intro.
So is my brother-in-law. He’s from Yorkshire, England, but he’s been a Nova Scotian since the early 1990s, just around the time he taught me how to make a perfectly decent pumpkin soup from discarded jack-o-lanterns. His daughter, who grew up on the South Shore, has figured out how to can the figs she miraculously gets from the tree she tends in the allotment near her home in Sheffield, England. Canning, to both of them, is like life: good, bad or ugly, it’s what you make of it. And, yes, lids are important.
“I find that I’ve had mistakes when I’ve tried to cut corners with the jars,” my brother says. “I’ve always tended to use mason jars. If the tops are not in perfect condition, I’ll buy new tops. They come in standard sizes and they’re easy to sterilize. That seal is critical to keeping out the mould.”
And, maybe, the panic of the times.
The woman in the workout gear was beginning to lose it. She hadn’t grabbed the remaining lids before the other preservation maniacs had begun to circle. I shrugged and reached into my cart. “I like my toast plain, anyway,” I said, handing her the two boxes I’d snagged earlier.
She grinned and walked away as if a giant weight had been lifted from her shoulders. I noticed she was wearing a pair of Cloud 5s shoes. Retail value: $179.99.
Strawberry jam, forever!
Messy, time-consuming and daunting? Or, intricate, absorbing and fun? Canning can be either or both, depending on how you approach it. All good eats, though, begin with planning (and sometimes sugar, but we’ll get to that).
Thanks to Google, you can get free recipes for just about anything. But start with something simple: strawberries, for example. You can pick them or buy them, and if you wreck the prep, you can still eat them. (Try doing that with an over-garlicky jar of zucchini salad!)
At Chez Bruce, we just made the following: 5 lbs fresh, hulled berries; ¼ cup lemon juice, 7 cups sugar and a 3-oz package of pectin. It makes four pints. You will need eight standard mason jars with rubber-seal lids and caps. You can find easy strawberry jam recipes online.
Rule No. 1: Follow the recipe you’ve chosen.
When, for example, it calls for 7 cups of sugar for 5 lbs of strawberries, don’t skimp. Alternatively, choose an explicitly sugarless recipe that uses artificial sweeteners to produce the same result. Don’t mix and match.
Rule No. 2: Although you can prepare most common jams and jellies without using a pressure cooker (their high acid content naturally prevents botulism), to inhibit the growth of other contaminants the water that baths your jars must come to a rolling boil. In fact, sterilize all your tools: jars, lids, caps, funnels and tongs.
Rule No. 3: Keep it simple. For ease, you’ll want a canning pot, tongs and 12 half-pint jars, all of which you can buy online from Amazon or from your grocery store for under $75. That’s it. Rest assured, it’ll be the best jam you’ll get yourself into all year. Enjoy!