One Way to Solve Pantry Envy

Someone's Been Canning AgainThe day I left home for college, I promised myself I was through with canning and freezing for the rest of my life. Supermarkets offered cheap food everyday, which made the thousands of hours I had already spent blanching corn and processing tomato juice seem wasted. My anti-putting-thing-by vow lasted until 2008, when we bought a real freezer. I thought my wonderful mate wanted it, and he thought I wanted it, and then there it was: we owned a freezer. Last summer I spent a few more hours on processing kale and applesauce than intended, but mostly we like having a freezer more than I dislike doing the prep.

Some foods are such freezer gimmes, requiring no prep at all while adding a lot to the in-house eating options when they are out of season. Blueberries, blackberries, black raspberries and red raspberries are particularly painless freezer foods. And since I am going to make all our applesauce from scratch anyway, having the freezer means we spend the winter eating fantastic applesauce made from Reed Vally Orchard Macintosh, Cortland, and Jonagold, picked at the peak of flavor, rather than taking potluck with the expensive Granny Smiths at the grocery store in February.

Canning is another story. I disliked it even more than freezing when I did a lot of both. I consider a pressure canner a perverse type of torture tool. I have no trouble recalling in perfect detail the miseries of the dirty, sweltering August kitchen when all the bushels of fresh tomatoes had to be canned or sauced so the work of growing them would not go to waste.

I have been a bit surprised to learn that some people actually like canning. My ever-so-kind and handsome younger bro, for example, likes canning well enough that he has developed an efficient, productive system that stocks my pantry with wonderful colors and tastes. A young friend lights up when she talks about canning. She sees canning as the ultimate key to the kingdom of eating local foods year round. Even that astute notion did not make me want to renege on my vow and re-start my life as a home canner.

Instead, one thing tugged at me, just one little word: Flavor. The flavor of homemade pickled beets from Dad's garden and the flavor of homemade tomato juice from my brother's garden and the flavor of homemade strawberry preserves from a friend's garden - these are flavors that supermarkets forgot to offer. So flavor was the first seduction that threatened to pull me back into canning.

Then, of course, there are all the higher-minded reasons. Canning makes it possible to eat from local sources for more months of the year, decreases food miles and carbon pollution, adds to food security since we can know all about the provenance of the foods on the shelf, and possibly even saves money - as long as one considers oneself a "canning volunteer" and does not compute the costs of time involved.

This year, I had a few visions of rows of pristine quart jars on my pantry shelves, holding multi-colored heirloom tomatoes, tomato juice, pickled beets, pickled okra...but for reasons not in my control, it did not work out. No canning happened in our kitchen this year. My pledge is honored once again, by default!

Just in time, here comes news of another option for stocking pantry shelves with trusted, flavorful, local canned foods: Community Supported Kitchens, where careful, high-minded people turn local raw ingredients from one or several farms into delicious, stable canned foods, sold for a subscription fee. Yes - sign me up!

Our big food system is still mostly about trucking in the cheapest visually appealing food from somewhere, with no attention to taste. We have a lot to do to reach a situation where most people are eating fine, flavorful food that is grown near them. Yet the ways smart people continue inventing new, mutually beneficial farm-to-consumer market structures fill me with hope that I can fill my pantry without touching a pressure canner. If Kentucky producers hurry up -- and I bet they will -- I may yet be able to keep the "No More Canning" portion of my old pledge while still eating the fine local foods I love.