JEFF FITZGERALD (this article was first published September 2012)
If you were ever to make your way to my apartment, providing you could negotiate the gauntlet of booby traps, you would first notice the fact that every available space that doesn’t have DVDs or guitars in it is filled either with food or with some item related to food preparation. My pantry would make even the most ardent survivalist recommend an intervention. I blame my Appalachian upbringing for my propensity to hoard canned goods, pasta, dry beans, rice, flour and cornmeal. I blame my irrational collection of condiments on a yet to be diagnosed mental disorder.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, there was a time in this country when there wasn’t a supermarket within a convenient drive from just about wherever you might find yourself (unless you choose to live out in the middle of nowhere, then that’s on you). There was a time, particularly in the South, when people produced almost all the food they were going to eat for the year during the growing season. They then found ways to preserve the bounty and subsisted almost solely on the abundance during the lean months, these being the days before televised football came along to fill all those empty hours.
Food preservation in the South was of the utmost importance from the moment early settlers realized that the farther they pushed inland from the established settlements, the less likely they were to encounter a store or even a Waffle House.(1) Early pioneers employed time-honored methods of drying, pickling and curing foods for the long haul. Unfortunately, those methods produced a relatively narrow diet without much variety of flavor. Human beings innately crave a varied and flavorful diet, the inexplicable success of Applebee’s notwithstanding.
As not only America began to grow, the world became larger and smaller at the same time and more people were experiencing the same dilemma. Though people had existed for thousands of years on sometimes little more than a staple grain and whatever they could catch and kill, the burgeoning market for new flavors and the intellectual challenge of making summer last all year fit perfectly into the spirit of the age. It was an era of exploration and expansion, accompanied by the transition from primarily agrarian culture to a more demanding industrial age. More and more people were not producing their own food, placing greater demands on the food supply. The solution was to be found in the workings of the Industrial Revolution itself.
The history of canning goes back to the late eighteenth century, when the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with an inexpensive method to preserve large amounts of food, mostly to supply Napoleon’s army.
A French brewer named Nicolas Appert noticed that food cooked inside airtight containers did not spoil, and thus developed a method for sealing food inside glass jars. The method, unfortunately, was not called Appertizing, even though that would have been pretty funny even then. It was decided that storing food in glass jars, while effective, was not practical for the intended military applications. Metal canisters, or cans, were invented to take the place of glass and thus was born the era of large-scale industrial food preservation. It is worth noting that the can opener would not be invented for another 30 years, by which time everyone was probably good and hungry even if they’d forgotten what was in the can to begin with(2).
- Benjamin Nicolas Marie Appert, via Wikimedia Commons
Glass jar canning became the preferred method of home canning in America because using tin cans (or, more exactly, tin-coated steel cans) required complex machinery that remains beyond the means of most Americans, which also explains why bondage hasn’t really caught on despite the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey.
The iconic Mason jar, named for its inventor, John Landis Mason, has achieved almost symbolic status in the South. Emblematic both of our resourcefulness and, at the same time, a stereotypical lack of sophistication, it has served as everything from multipurpose storage vessel to a drinking glass to a conduit for “untaxed whiskey.” It now also does duty as a kitschy accessory at the type of place spells “country” with a K, as well as those growing up around large metro centers like Brooklyn, trying to create a sense of space and time.
Because of the enormity of the task, canning was often a communal activity. To this day, a scant handful of community canneries exist in some parts of the South. Provided and maintained by the locality, they give ample space and basic equipment for heavy duty home canning. Friends and neighbors still gather to put up bushels of pole beans, tons of tomatoes, and enough jams and jellies to put an entire mid-sized metro area into a diabetic coma. My mother used to tell the story of a time when she was living in Kentucky and her mother from West Virginia came over so that they could divide the labor of making a large amount of jelly and jam. She went to the store to purchase a large amount of sugar for the task and was later visited by state “revenuers” making sure she wasn’t using all that sugar for making moonshine. She was the kind of person who, if she’d had the wherewithal, would have then gone right ahead and made a batch of moonshine just to stick it to the Man.
- Photograph of a confiscated moonshine liquor still photographed by the Internal Revenue Bureau at the Treasury Department, Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C., circa 1921–1932, via Wikimedia Commons
I’m of an age to remember having a canning room in the basement, and drawing from vast stores of everything from tomato juice I helped make, to wax-sealed drinking glasses filled with Mom’s damson preserves once made with plums grown in our backyard until my herbicidal father took down the trees in yet another step in his overall plan to clearcut our entire property. And every year, during the summer, I ponder doing some small-scale canning, putting up some pickled okra or having a go at my own damson preserves. And even though I have enough hillbilly cred to avoid being lumped in with the fad followers, the task remains sadly beyond the physical abilities of an arthritic humorist and a willing but essentially useless parakeet.
The thing that I miss the most, and the one that is hardest to find made “the way Mom used to make it” is chow chow, a type of relish introduced to the South by the Acadians (this was, of course, after they were thrown out of Canada(3) and headed to Louisiana for its Francophile leanings). Mom made chow chow as a kind of end-of-the-garden catchall, made with the same improvisational flair she brought to most of her cooking. Subsequently, no recipe exists and my memory is sadly lacking the details of her method.
Of course, the development and popularity of canning didn’t do away with the older methods of preservation such as pickling, curing and drying. Southerners were adept at all three. We pickled everything from okra to green beans to beets. Appalachians tended to cure more pork than we barbecued. And we dried everything from venison jerky to fruit leather to leatherbritches. As a kid I’d sit down on the front porch with a bushel of pole beans with my family and several neighbors, stringing and snapping the beans and then threading them onto long strands of fishing line. These festive strings of organic decorations would then be hung out on the screened-in back porch to dry. Come winter, the dried beans would be slowly cooked with some fatback. Leatherbritches, also less commonly known as poke beans, were a staple on the holiday dinner table.
Mom also pickled traditional Appalachian favorites like bread and butter pickles, sauerkraut, and corn. And as simple kraut and pickled corn may seem (three ingredients, and two of them are salt and water), there was still an element of old-time knowhow to the process. Mom making some pickled corn once that just didn’t turn out, it was mushy and awful. She were relating the story to my great uncle, who was versed in all the old mountain ways, and he asked her what day she’d made it. She looked at the calendar and told him. He consulted the almanac and informed her that the reason it had failed was because the sign of the moon on that day was in the bowels. For it to be successful, the sign of the moon needed to be in the shoulders or head. She consulted an almanac, chose a more favorable day, repeated the process exactly, and the corn turned out perfect.
Sad to say, most of the old ways are going if not yet completely gone. Canning and preservation are no longer considered survival skills for the average person, the old folkways largely relegated to the same dusty and neglected status as alchemy and quality network television programming. Though pickling-obsessed hipsters may prolong its demise, it’s only a matter of time before they grow out of this phase of their lives and move on to whatever impermanent fixation comes next(4). There is still a glimmer of hope, though, in the likes of young Southern chefs like Sean Brock(5) who keep some of the old ways alive. And in organizations like Our Beloved SOFAB and the Southern Foodways Alliance, who carry the flame by example, education, and documentation. Through their combined efforts, it is to be hoped that future generations may know that it’s just foolish to make pickled corn when the sign of the moon is in the bowels.
Still, each year on a brilliant October afternoon when a local orchard invites members of a nearby church come make apple butter on premises, I feel a sense of impending loss. The time-consuming process is fascinating to watch, the hours of stirring the apples in a huge copper kettle over an open fire, and the final product is well worth the wait. I take home a jar every year, determined to make it last till next year, but it never does. For one thing, it just goes so well on a hot biscuit that it almost feels like I’m depriving it of its created purpose if I don’t use it in such a manner at every opportunity. Also, because it makes me slightly wistful, seeing that plain Mason jar amid the array of factory-made goods in professionally-designed packages. And finally, because if and when the year does come that the ladies and the copper kettle don’t come back, there would be no sadder thing than a nearly-empty jar of the Last Handmade Applebutter.
(1) Over 1,600 locations to serve you.
(2) The shelf life of canned food is generally one to five years.
(3) Which, believe me, takes some doing.
(4) Let me suggest Chinese foot binding.
(5) Fellow Virginian and pork aficionado.