The Madness of Canning

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The other night I spent three or six hours canning three pints of ketchup. I lost track of when I started, when I finished; when I wrapped up cleaning up and when I actually went to bed. It was a long time, and for the whole time the stove was on. For much of the time all four burners at full blast. Two heating a gigantic kettle of water, the other two heating a roasting pan filled with boiling watery tomatoes. Next year we'll plant Roma types.

Canning isn't economical. The time involvement is high: planting, watering, harvesting, cooking, canning. The fuel cost isn't cheap: 3-6 hours of constant flame, x the number of evenings/mornings/afternoons/late, late nights spent at the stove. Not to mention the hours spent slow roasting tomatoes in the oven.

A can of tomatoes costs what, a dollar? It makes more $ sense to let a big company do the work on a large scale and then pluck a nice can off a shelf. We have a big-name tomato processing factory in our town. At least, they used to process tomatoes there. Among the scents of my childhood is a particular spicy tomato smell. We could smell it from where we lived, just over the hill from the factory. Semi trailers loaded with tomatoes would roll through town. I think our factory makes soup now.

It's a kind of madness* to put up tomatoes. To put up any kind of produce.

"The next question is," my dad says, looking at jars of canned kale, "who is going to eat this?"

It's a good question. We have jars upon jars of strawberry jam that never set, two years ago. I've canned things in such quantities that I never want to see them again, so I don't ever look at the jars.

I feel differently about the tomatoes this year. Maybe because I'm more fully committed to this place, or because I made a point to only preserve what I know I'll use. Maybe because there are only a few jars of each. Roasted, stewed, crushed, juice, ketchup. Maybe because I enjoy the work.

Finding Canning for a New Generation helped. Good recipes. Good, tested, improved-on techniques. A very reassuring "use the equipment you have" mentality.

I suppose madness breeds more madness, because now I'm thinking of the big wood-burning cook stove, faithfully collecting mail and odds and ends. It sits next to the chimney, waiting all these years for a pipe. And on these cool days and cold nights, I think about wood vs. propane and wonder what it'd take to get that thing piping hot.

*Madness without even mentioning the risks. One of my biology teachers said flat-out: never eat home-canned goods. It's not worth it, she said.

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