For years farm families have relied on the process of canning to preserve summer's harvest for the lean winter days that were fast approaching. Having the luxury of opening the cellar door and finding gleaming jars filled with delicious home-prepared foods in the dead of winter was a particular blessing. Oftentimes when a new neighbor was settling in the area, a basket filled with fresh baked bread and some jars of preserves were offered as a housewarming gift. Canning truly is another way that your garden keeps giving back to you and those you love, even when it’s covered with a blanket of snow.
Home food preservation has risen and fallen on the culinary stage throughout the passage of years. It was an essential part of the Victory Garden initiatives launched during World Wars I and II. Families relied almost fully on their home and community gardens just to put food on the table and to support the war effort. It's only been since the advent of convenience and fast food that home-canned produce became the exception and not the normal fare on the table.
While I love to watch black-and-white TV shows, I often laugh at the advertisements which tried to convince the “modern” housewife that there was no need to slave over a hot stove, instead all she had to do was open a cardboard box and…wala! Dinner was done! Instead of a hearty meal that the family enjoyed planting, picking and preparing at home, they found themselves blindly eating preservatives, chemical colorants and scientifically modified ingredients.
Thankfully we have begun to realize just how valuable our homegrown produce is and that it’s worthy of spending a few extra hours preparing now so we can then pop the jar open for some winter convenience food of our own making. As a child, my parents made it a point to teach me the process of food preservation including canning, drying and freezing our harvest. I am so thankful that I picked up that habit from them and can pass it on to my daughter. It’s a life skill that deserves to be nurtured in the next generation to ensure that they, too, have quality food to put on the table.
Growing up I loved to preserve jams and jellies because they are so easy to make and quick to process in a water-bath canner. While it’s hard to say exactly who deserves the credit for coming up with the bright idea of turning fruit into sugary sweet garden confections, we assume that it found its humble beginnings in the Middle East where sugar cane grew in the wild. Crusaders are credited with carrying the recipe home with them to Europe and in-turn it traveled to America.
So you might be wondering just what are the differences between jams, jellies and preserves? Jams are made from the whole fruit including the fruit juice. Jelly on the other hand is made by straining the fruit juice from the pulp. The juice is then processed using pectin to create a beautiful transparent spread. In fact, if it’s processed correctly and held to the light, a jar of jelly reminds me of looking through stained glass. “Preserves” is the umbrella under which jams and jellies reside.
This summer if you have never canned before and want to get your toe in the water, canning a few batches of jams or jellies is the perfect starting place. Even if you don't have a garden, you can easily visit U-Pick farms or farmer’s markets to amass a few pints of berries or a bushel of fruit. Once you begin the process, it only gets easier and the end result is well worth all the effort. This summer join with me as we reconnect with one of our historic food traditions and preserve food for the next generation.