Monday, October 26, 2009

The Cult of Canning Exposed

Since I'm a huge fan of canning now, even though I get a slightly queasy feeling in my stomach every time I think about how you can't smell, taste, or see evidence of botulism, I like to promote it mercilessly (although I try and stay away from bragging about the tons of tomatoes and hundreds of pounds of apples I have put up). This is a reprint from the High Country News.

I hate this time of year. The leaves crackle underfoot like the bones of tiny children. And the light takes on a 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 dose of self-medication, but there's one autumnal rite that nothing can help. Beginning in August, adherents of this practice descend on U-Pick orchards like magpies on road kill, and by September, this cult – and yes, I think it can be called a cult – is engaged in a primitive ritual involving steamy kitchens, boiling water, blistered fingers and sterile jars.

Yes, it is the season of canning, when people obsessed by food prostrate themselves on the altar of the root cellar of yore and "put up" the harvest. Then they brag about it.

"I put up 60 pounds of tomatoes this weekend," one of the followers told me the other day, her voice sticky with self-righteousness. "And today, as soon as I get home, 10 bushels of pears await me!"

I thought about saying, "I made it through 200 pages of Infinite Jest, and I think I finally understand the plot." But that would only prompt a reply like, "Oh, is that an heirloom tomato?"

Last week, the cult came close to home when my wife and mother spent a full day preserving tomatoes and salsa. This worries me. My mother generally avoided the kitchen when I was a kid. When forced to cook, she relied upon Kraft dinners and frozen enchiladas in tinfoil platters. My wife, Wendy, meanwhile, is alarmingly blasé when it comes to food-borne illnesses and ignores "sell by" dates. She probably figures if she poisons someone, she'll never be expected to cook again, which is fine by her. Still, the two of them forged ahead into the battlefield of boiling water and sterile jars.

Wendy's description of the ordeal was so awful that guilt compelled me to agree to participate in the next session. I wanted to educate myself first, though, and soon discovered that there's lots of lore on the subject. Indeed, there may be more people writing about canning than doing it. The cybersphere has exploded with blogs extolling the virtues of "putting up," and one even advocates a "canvolution." Another goes so far as to compare canning to sex.

Then, in the scariest chapter of one book, I discovered that canning really is like sex; that is, if you do it recklessly, it can cause various forms of bacterial infection. Canned stuff is a leading cause of botulism, the nerve toxin that can 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 the lime-free salsa made in my kitchen, 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 apparently slur my words beyond recognition, for neither my mom nor Wendy seems to hear me.

"Couldn't we just freeze these?" I manage to 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? No cult is complete without an apocalypse, and the canvolutionary's version of Armageddon includes freezers sans electricity regurgitating rotten produce. As with all end-of-days scenarios, the canners' version separates the saved –- that is, the people who have put up plenty of green beans and peaches -- from the damned -- those who put up nothing and now must spend eternity, or at least a few minutes a day, wandering the supermarket aisles.

So I throw plenty of bacteria-killing garlic, lime, and chili into the salsa. After the third burn-blister erupts on my hand, I ask myself: Wasn't technology intended to free us so we could spend time doing the things that make us human, like reading or watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica? Isn't that why our grandparents gave up home-canning in the first place? Or is it just because canned fruit is merely a slimier shadow of its former self, not unlike Mickey Rourke?

But five hours after it begins, our canning ritual is complete. I have to admit that the salsa looks beautiful in those jars. And it's going to be tasty come mid-December. I get the canning thing now. 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.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (, which he edits in Paonia, Colorado.

comment by Sharon Karpinski
Posted by Jodi Peterson at Oct 07, 2009 01:22 PM
I both read and can, therefore I gotta protest one item in the Cult of Canning article. Tomatoes are NOT particularly prone to botulism. In fact, tomatoes, along with other acid fruits, are the only garden products that you can safely "put up" in a water bath rather than breaking out the pressure cooker, which is the correct approach for serious, industrial-style food preservation. Recently, some varieties of hybrid tomatoes have been bred to be lower in acidity, which is why the canning manuals tell you to add lemon juice to any tomatoes headed for jars but it's a precaution, NOT an indictment of tomatoes as botulism-prone. They aren't.

If you want to discuss the cult of canning in depth, you need to get into the real nitty-gritty of simmering kitchens and sweaty women hovering over that pressure cooker,which is how you process non-acid foods like the two hundred pounds of moose Sarah Palin probably packs up every fall. Pressure cookers truly are scary, right up there with food-borne death. My grandmother once blew up hers, along with four gallons of vegetable soup and part of the kitchen, when a carrot fragment clogged the relief valve. You could see where the cooker's lid hit the ceiling for years afterwards. Scariest of all: pressure-cooked, home-canned wild mushrooms. They can get you three ways, a must-have staple for the homicidal cook.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Farm Animals Adapting to the Modern World

I hadn't been at the barn in a couple of hours, so when I returned to hear a beeping, I was immediately worried. A beeping? It didn't sound like a smoke detector. The horses were all fine, the truck doors weren't open. An apartment window over the barn was open, and I though Oh, maybe Anne left her alarm on, but when I walked directly under it the sound was coming from inside the barn.

Now I was nervous. There's a room in the barn that contains all the hot water heaters and electrical boxes for the apartments upstairs. What if it was some kind of alarm for a malfunction? We had a hot water heater malfunction and nearly burn the place down earlier in the year, so I ran to that door and threw it open... but nope, the sound was not coming from inside.

The bathroom was clear of any beeping. The wash stall was silent. My office? I opened the door.

My chicken cocks her head at me quizzically. She's perching atop my phone, looking for all the world like she's trying to figure out how to dial out. The phone is off the hook, beeping incessantly, and flashing, "invalid number."

No more 900 calls, Henny Penny.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

When the going gets tougher...

I rode out from the barn solitary and slightly off-kilter. I had my machete and a bottle of water, my wild rag and my multi-tool. Why was I feeling like I was driving a car and had forgotten to fasten my seat belt? Oh right, my chinks. It was a bad day to forget my chinks.

Gunner and I blazed trail, looking for a new way up Second Creek Ridge. I've never ridden in Texas, so I cannot comment on the tortures of cholla cactus, but let me tell you, if it's anything like scrub oak, it's hell. The going was so rough I rode home with my wild rag in shreds and my boot sole torn off. Unsuccessful: no new trail today.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bad Day Under the Aspens

It was her tone of voice. Over the radio, a brief call: "Ciara, this is Jessalin. We're up at Safari Cut. I need you here."

I'd been forking partially moldy hay to a bunch of stray cows we were holding in the arena for some neighbors, but I jumped in the Dodge and spun the tires to get back to the barn. Cisco was still saddled, and I was wearing spurs. We ran that half mile without hardly breathing.

Jess told it like this: "I don't know what spooked them. Yosemite jumped and I grabbed the bit, but it only kept me in the saddle a moment longer. I thought I was probably the only one who had come off, but when I gathered my wits and looked back, I could see a pair of legs here, a pair of legs there. I radioed immediately; I didn't think it would help to wait until I had done a full check. Thanks for getting here so quickly."

The owner of the ranch sits grimly, holding her arm, a black eye developing. Her friend and guest lies in the fetal position, complaining meekly. A trained First Responder arrived forty seconds after I do. Things are neatly packaged, efficiently handled, wrapped up within and hour, and we ride and pony six horses back to the barn.

First real accident of the year, with a little more than a week left to the season. Doesn't that just figure. My poor wrangler has stiffened up and is limping. I send her home with an ice pack.

I finally get back to the cows at the tail end of this long day. Their water trough is empty by now, and I turn the hose on and they crowd around, nine of the thirteen pushing around the fifty-gallon tank. They raise their heads and with their flat noses shiny and wet, ask with big dark eyes, "What could possibly have been more important than us?"

Friday, October 2, 2009

Nature's Way of Making a Joke

Archery season ends on Sunday, and we are still elk-less. Yesterday we drove up the forest service road and spotted a herd of nine cows and a large bull grazing near the top of Little Sand Mountain. We crossed the river on foot. "It looks like there's a game trail up that draw," Levi said, hopefully. Or, there's a choked mountainside of low-growing scrub oak, so thick you cannot see sunlight on the other side, interspersed with various boulder fields where no rock lies stable, capped with a near-vertical, hand-over-fist climb up a sandy slope growing only with dead shrubs that trick you into thinking they're securely rooted, only to break off in brittle clumps and threaten to leave you sliding backwards on your head. Of course, when we got to the top, the elk weren't there.

The Birth of Applesauce