Jessie Raymond: This country homesteader can't
It’s harvest season, and boy, am I exhausted.
I’ve really only picked some apples out back and brought in a few loads of tomatoes from the garden. But that’s not what’s wearing me out.
It’s the canning.
You may think, with electricity, that no one needs to can food anymore. But you don’t get it. As a flatlander living on an old Vermont farmstead, I feel obligated to do this. I’m just not very good at it.
That’s no surprise. Canning is only one of many honest country homesteading skills I struggle to master. My whittling, for example, is a complete joke.
Friends tell me just to freeze everything. But I have my reasons to stick with canning.
For one thing, it’s harder. I’ve convinced myself that in order to earn Vermonter status — because living 33 years in this state and having a Vermonter husband don’t count — I have to honor the work of my imaginary Vermont forebears.
For another thing, I almost have shelves. Right on schedule, Mark is inching closer to finishing the pantry that I predicted would be done last November. Ever the optimist, I must be ready to decorate those shelves with a charming array of diligently filled Ball jars.
And last, we don’t have a generator. I’d like a small one that, in the event of an extended power failure, could run a few appliances, including the chest freezer. Mark would like a large one that would meet our emergency-backup needs should we ever open a casino on our property.
Our compromise is to have no generator at all.
If the power goes out for any length of time, we’re going to (a) learn that we don’t really get how compromises work and (b) lose a year’s worth of home-raised meat. I’d never forgive myself if we lost six quarts of tomatoes as well.
Water-bath canning isn’t even difficult. It’s nothing more than submerging jars of, in my case, tomatoes or applesauce in a large pot of boiling water for however many minutes the chart says. This vacuum seals them for long-term, room-temperature storage.
It’s prepping the contents and the tools and the water and the containers that wears me out. Canning requires you to cover all the flat surfaces in your kitchen with every bowl, colander, funnel, ladle and stockpot you own, even if you’re only doing a little canning. (Reality: There’s no such thing as “a little canning.”)
Vermonters who grew up canning at their grandmother’s sides don’t worry too much about the details. But as a first-generation canner, I follow the rules. And the rules are, essentially, that you must sterilize your kitchen like an operating room and do everything exactly as outlined, in the right order, for the precise length of time, or you are most likely going to poison your family through the magic of botulism.
It scares me.
Often, for instance, canning instructions say, “Fill jars, leaving a half-inch of headspace.” Why? No one knows. But after a long day of canning — and honestly, all canning days are long — I’ll lie awake in bed, thinking, “A half-inch of headspace? Some of my jars only had three-eighths, at best. I should probably throw the whole batch away. I’d hate to kill anyone, especially right before the holidays.”
But deadly toxins are the least of it. My dislike of canning comes more from how messy and all-consuming the process is. If I knew how to do it without cycling through my entire kitchen inventory, maybe I’d dread it less.
Or maybe I’m just overwhelmed. I need to figure out the optimal garden size for my canning capacity — my mental and physical capacity to can, I mean, not how many jars I have.
And I need to learn how to do it in a relaxed but organized way that doesn’t trash the kitchen or leave me fretting about a good headspace — in terms of the jars, I mean, not of my mental state. (Fine, maybe both.)
For right now, however, the garden is still pumping out tomatoes as fast as I can pick them, so the canning must go on. But, with so much else to do, I’ll be glad when it’s over for the year.
I don’t even want to talk about how far behind I am on my whittling.