Sunday, August 23, 2009
CAPTURING SUMMER IN A JAR
From glowing cling peaches to corn-and-bean
succotash, each jar is filled with bits of summer
and pieces of tradition.
Some of my earliest and most pleasant boyhood memories had their genesis in one particular corner of the cellar which ran under the hundred-and-fifty-year-old home place. My father had built a storage area made up of glass-fronted shelves salvaged from some previous location, and it was behind those hinged doors that my mother stored the bounty of woods, orchards and gardens – the provender which would grace our table during the cold weather months of winter. One of my great pleasures was to make my way to that corner, and count the jars of “canned” tomatoes, corn, beans, beets, fruit, pickles and relishes my mother had carefully lined up there. Some of my favorites were the tall quart jars of wild blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and huckleberries I had helped to pick myself – each jar just the right size to make one of Mom’s prized pies.
Behind each of those bail-lidded Ball jars was a story: the green tree snake I met up with picking huckleberries in a Jersey swamp; the smell of kerosene into which I dropped hundreds of Japanese beetles from our concord grape vines, the sheer labor of turning the crank on the food chopper from which poured the minced ingredients of Mom’s famous pepper relish, and the arm itch I always suffered from picking green beans and their yellow-wax cousins; the surprise rain storm which caught us when harvesting blueberries in the pine barrens, and my father’s devotion to Stone tomatoes, Country Gentleman sweet corn, and Early Wakefield cabbage; and then there was the salt shaker he carried in his back pocket for “sampling” good things from the garden as we picked.
In our extended family today, the rich chili sauce my mother taught me to make is every bit as much of a mainstay as it was in the household over whose kitchen she presided seventy years ago.
The ethic of “home canning” which is so much an American institution actually had its birth on the other side of the Atlantic. During the Napoleonic wars, France experienced widespread food shortages, especially during the winter months when even the traditional grains and other dry staples the world had long depended on became scarce. In 1791 the French government offered a prize of 1200 francs to anyone who could come up with a method of preserving otherwise perishable foods from season to season. Around 1809 an inventive citizen by the name of Nicholas Appert discovered that by heating fresh garden vegetables and fruit to various high temperatures before sealing them tightly in suitable containers, spoilage could be greatly delayed or halted. His experiments caught the attention of Peter Durant who patented the process in England in 1810. Neither Appert or Durant had any idea why this method worked; it remained for Louis Pasteur to discover what was first called “the germ theory”, finally identifying bacteria, yeast and mold organisms as the culprits which for tens of thousands of years had limited the possibilities of intra-seasonal food preservation.
At first the search for the “suitable container” led down several paths: earthenware crocks and jugs sealed with paper and wax; small-mouth bottles capped by hard-to-find corks of various sizes or tin cans with lids soldered into place. In fact it was a 26-year-old New Jersey tinsmith named John Landis Mason who came up with the idea of a threaded glass container, to which a metal cap with matching threads could be screwed down over a rubber gasket making an airtight seal. Here at last was a viable commercial procedure which could be duplicated in the home kitchen. Patented in 1858, the famous “Mason Jar” would revolutionize the science and practice of food preservation and lead to a succession of improvements and challengers. Mason’s main competition came in 1882 from Henry W. Putnam’s “Lightning jar” which featured a wire bail securing a glass cap over a rubber ring, a system which allowed the jar to exhaust air during the heating process, and yet be firmly tightened by depressing the loosened bail immediately afterward.
In 1885 the Ball brothers began manufacturing their line of canning jars, destined to become one of the two most well-known and long-lasting brand houses, turning out first bail lid jars, and then mason types. In 1903, with nothing behind him but $100.of borrowed capital and a deep religious faith, Alexander H. Kerr established his glass company in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, introducing a whole new concept with his two-piece cap and lid sealing system on the traditional Mason jar foundation. Despite the fact that over the years there have been more than 400 jar manufacturers serving America’s army of home canners, Ball and Kerr (now owned by a single corporation), remain the dominant names in a field which claims a one hundred year history and en epic which has seen an estimated 150 billion jars produced.
The popularity of home canning received a big boost with the advent of World War I, and a gigantic impact from the Great Depression years of the 20s and 30s, reaching an all-time high with Pearl Harbor and the food rationing spawned by the Second World War. During the 1940s, it is believed that up to 60% of America’s fresh and preserved perishable food came from home gardens and canning kitchens.
Today, at a time when some of the same economic issues face us, I take some comfort from requests from our grandkids to teach them the nearly-forgotten art of home canning. Meanwhile, I get the same thrill I felt as a kid each time we open a jar of last year’s corn relish. Now . . . if I could only find a patch of wild huckleberries.
Antique canning jars from a personal collection
reflect one hundred years of preserving history.
(Blue glass indicates age & silica sand origins.)