Until I moved to the South, not only had I never met anyone who “canned,” but I also never knew the term had anything to do with to preserving. In fact, I had always thought of it as more of a “country” or Southern undertaking. However, since moving here, I‘ve become exponentially more interested in the tradition, cooking process, enthusiasm for, and Southern-ness of it. So when I heard that Andrea Weigl, food editor for The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and author of Pickles & Preserves, was giving a presentation on “canning” at a meeting of the Culinary Historians of Piedmont, North Carolina, of which I am a founding member, I could not wait to attend.
Andrea’s presentation was instructive and the Q and A session that followed animated and engaging. The passion and liveliness of the standing-room-only crowd struck me so much that I bought Pickles & Preserves that night and, with strawberry season quickly approaching, committed to at least trying my hand at her jam.
After Andrea’s talk, several “canning” debates broke out among the CHOP NC members. Some contested the use of alum and calcium chloride (firming agents sometimes employed when pickling) and others the types of pectin (natural thickening agents), but one in particular caught my ear: what to use as a “canning” vessel. Since moving to the South, Mason jars have fascinated me, but, before that, I never really gave them much thought. To me, they simply served to hold food and were as Southern as grits. What was there to think about? Well, that brief conversation led to over a week of research during which I encountered more than a few surprises.
First, Mason jars are used for practically everything down here. They can be seen posing as flowerpots, pencil holders, snow globes, mini pie plates, terrariums, candleholders, vases, fruit cups, soap dispensers, napkin holders, and ice cream bowls, not to mention screwed over light bulbs in lighting fixtures. I know I’m probably starting to sound like Bubba from Forrest Gump, but in many Southern restaurants and bars, short Mason jars are even used as rocks glasses and large ones for everything from beer to sweet tea.
Secondly, the history of the Mason jar started with a challenge by Napoléon Bonaparte. Seeking a way to keep his military well-fed, he put up 12,000 francs in exchange for a new method of preserving foods. As a result, in 1810, French patriot Nicolas Appert invented the process of hermetically sealing, still used today to keep “canned” food safe. The container he used, though, was awkward and inconsistent. In the decades that followed, many attempts were made to improve upon his jar, but all had their flaws. It wasn’t until 1858, in New York City, that Philadelphia native John Landis Mason designed and patented the glass Mason jar, distinguished by its rubber gasket on the inside of the lid and reusable parts. Unfortunately for him, he allowed the patent to expire and, due to lack of demand, died broke.
Following the expiration of Mason’s patent in 1879 and despite his lack of success, hundreds of companies rushed to sell their own variation of the jar. Then, in 1884, the Ball brothers’ Wooden Jacketed Can Company of Buffalo, New York, who were already making glass-lined tin cans, introduced a new version of the Mason jar. It was so popular that, a few years later, the five Ball brothers changed the company’s name to Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company. Over the last 130 years, Ball has fine-tuned the company name, expanded, changed headquarter locations, built factories throughout the United States, absorbed other companies, and spun off a few entities. Through it all, though, Ball has been synonymous with Mason’s jar and the term “Mason jar” has become the generic name for “canning” jars in general (much in the same vein as Band-Aids, Rollerblades, and Scotch tape).
As it turns out, the ubiquitous Southern icon is actually a Yankee invention, predicated on a French military emperor’s subsidy, and was never solely made in the South. Plus, what I always considered a one-trick-pony has far more uses than I ever imagined. Not only did my findings shock me, but I’m also questioning many of my long held beliefs regarding our region’s culture. I guess it’s back to the research for me!
Brian Adornetto is a food writer, professional chef, and culinary instructor. For more information, please visit http://www.loveatfirstbite.net. You can contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org.