Better Homes and Gardens. A version of this story was published last Thrusday in the Mormon Times section of the Deseret News:
Oh fall, glorious fall! When an old woman’s heart turns to thoughts of canning peaches and other horrifying tasks.
Last night in a bookclub meeting the conversation was heavily spiked with talk about canning peaches and various other things. It was obviously on the mind of many because they were up to their sticky elbows in the process. It created a pang in my soul. One of memories, good and bad; guilt because I am not doing it; loss because I am not doing it and sheer comfort and joy because this year I have canned nothing.
Canning is an art form—a hunter-gatherer endeavor packed in our DNA to preserve food for our families as we perceive our role to provide sustenance. Recently I read a bunch of letters that my grandmother received from her sisters in the 1930s and 40s. The correspondence was filled with tales of what they were canning at the moment. It surprised me that this pursuit would merit so much hand written space in their letters.
As a young woman I saw canning as a right of passage into married womanhood. It was so much a part of my growing up that there was no question in my mind that I would do it too. My mother was obsessed with canning. She preserved everything and anything she could get her hands on to the tune of hundreds and hundreds of bottles of food yearly.
Canning began mid summer when the green beans came on and ended with the last fruit of the season. My mother canned all kinds of jams, fruit, tomatoes and pickles. She loved to make pickles and mastered the art of every variety. When I was growing up there was always a plate of various pickles on the table when we had dinner. I think it was a holdover to the time when fresh produce wasn’t always available.
A typical canning event with my mother began early in the morning on a day that would end very hot in a house that didn’t have air conditioning. Often we would try to find a place to pick fresh fruit for a reasonable price. Door to door fruit peddlers were common and we often bought from them. A canning day ended with my bedraggled mother, in a chaotic house, standing in front of a counter full of sparkling jars, her hands on her chest in ultimate pride. The jars would stay there for a few days and often I would catch my mother gazing at them like I do a work of art I am especially proud of producing.
Once my mother fell out of a peach tree and tore her hand open very seriously needing many stitches. My father didn’t do well with blood. I had never seen him more sympathetic to my mother. The injury wasn’t good but the event helped me to see he had some empathy for her.
So, I canned. Not like my mother but I did a little fruit, jam and tomatoes if I could get them free or reasonable—a few dozen bottles. We ended up planting some fruit trees in the back yard and when they produced I couldn’t get past the guilt and canned the fruit. I also planted a lot of tomato plants in my garden as they were my favorite finished "put up" product because they tasted so much better than the store bought varieties.
The last time I canned peaches went like this: I bought the peaches from a local farm for $12 a bushel which was reasonable compared to what they are selling for now. This week at a farmers market I saw them for $20 a box. Maybe the box was half a bushel. On this fateful day I canned all day. My youngest hanged on my leg and cried most of the day. My stove blew up because of the intense heat it was pumping out hour after hour. At midnight I was mopping up a sticky kitchen from a few bottles that had broken in the process. I did a calculation of how much the peaches cost me per bottle and with the supplies and the blown out stove I was in the hole big time. I went to bed with a promise—no more home canned peaches. That promise has been kept. I still put up a few tomatoes and jam. One year I did apricot nectar when we had a bumper crop. I can’t quite shake the desire totally but as an empty nester I can say, "been there done that."
Recently I spent some time with my brother Cliff and discovered something about him I hadn’t known. He said he loved canning and every summer put up everything he could. I was stunned. I think the canning gene went to him instead of me. I felt relieved. The canning guilt faded away. Actually, it has been gone for a long time and I didn’t even need therapy to get there.