My Grandmother Williams lived in southeastern Ohio near the town of Gallipolis. She grew up poor, with her parents and later her husband working as poor tenant farmers. She was uneducated in terms of schooling, but knew a lot about cooking and working on the land. She and my grandfather together raised seven children, only one of which attended high school. Most of the others made it through eighth grade, which was a one-room schoolhouse at the time.
My grandfather borrowed a mule and wagon from a local farmer. Every morning he hitched them together and rode out along dirt roads to a hunk of land that he leased. There he grew corn and beans, staples of the family’s diet all year long. As they became more prosperous, my grandparents bought a house on a hill overlooking the Ohio River. That is the home that I knew, the place where we would come annually for a visit.
It was not a fancy house. Out back was a pit toilet that I despised. Not only did it smell atrocious, but it contained numerous spider webs dangling from the roof and swarms of flies buzzing around the “seat”. Heat was from a coal-burning stove that took up a sizable chunk of the front room. The roaring flames terrified me. When the door was opened to shovel in more fuel, I thought for sure that I was looking into the depths of hell.
My grandmother cooked on a wood-burning stove. How she created such marvelous meals with such primitive tools, I never knew. Even as a child I recognized that her task was not an easy one. On top of that, she set aside fruits and vegetables grown in her garden for consumption later on in the year. This was the time of year that we came for a visit: so that my mother could help with the grueling task of canning all that my grandparents had harvested. I did not have to help except for the shucking of corn and the snapping of beans, thank goodness, but I was expected to stay in the boiling hot kitchen until the task was complete.
The outcome was shelves full of glistening jars of a variety of tasty treats. No matter when we came to visit, there was always a something special to be opened and food to be shared.
At home my mother carried on the tradition. Out in the backyard was my mother’s garden. She grew tomatoes, strawberries, corn, green beans and many other vegetables. A neighbor had fruit trees, and so we picked apples, peaches and pears from her yard. It all meant work. Almost every day throughout spring, summer and fall there was something to be canned. As a young child, just as at my grandmother’s, I participated minimally, but when I became a teenager, my mother expected me to stand at her side and work as an equal. I hated it.
The work was hard. It meant endless hours of standing, peeling, pinching, pulling, plucking. My fingers ached. My feet and back complained. Perspiration streamed down my face and neck. There was endless washing of jars and sorting of lids. Standing over a hot stove, stirring whatever the product was at that time. Eventually it was poured into jars and the lids screwed on.
The next step was the most challenging. The jars were gently placed into a pot of boiling water. Then we waited for the water to return to a boil and for the sealing to take place. There could be no talking, no music, no noise of any kind. One by one the lids would “pop”, signaling that the seal was complete. If six jars went into the pot, then we waited for six “pops”. Sometimes there were only five or four. Then my mom had to test each jar until she found the ones that refused to seal. Back into the pot they went, this time with new lids. The entire process lasted not just for hours, but for days, until every last piece of fruit was canned. Every day was the same: working, stirring, waiting for water to boil.
I grew up thinking that this was a woman’s duty, albeit a tedious one. The rewards were obvious. As fall turned into winter and the snows fell turning the world into a crystal palace, all we had to do was walk into the garage and bring in a jar of treasure. Summer would blossom forth once again as sweet strawberry jam covered out toast or tasty green beans filled out plates. My mother’s efforts were welcomed and appreciated.
When I became a stay-at-home mom, I accepted that the tradition was now mine to embrace. I decided to can so that we would have jams and fruits all year long, just as I had from my childhood. I got out a cookbook and found the directions for canning. I went through all the preparation steps as carefully as I could. Each piece of fruit was peeled and cut. If I was making jam, then the fruit went into a giant kettle for cooking. I stood over the pot, stirring continuously to keep it from burning. When the pectin thickened the mixture, it was poured into jars. Lids were carefully applied.
The jars went into the pot of boiling water. And I waited. And waited. Sometimes I would hear a pop, but most times I didn’t. I re-boiled the errant jars. And waited and waited. Some days it felt as if all I was doing was waiting for the water to boil.
While I did not can as much food as my mother or grandmother, I did put aside applesauce, strawberry jam, pickles, tomatoes, peaches, and apricots. The problem was that I didn’t trust the safety of my work. What if the water wasn’t hot enough? What if I had become distracted by a good book and didn’t hear enough pops?
All that waiting for water to boil, for what? Uncertain products and the possibility of poisoning my family. Nevertheless, I canned for several seasons in a row. At no point did I feel that my results were as good as those of my grandmother or mother. Nothing reminded me of home and nothing seemed worth the effort.
Fortunately for me, my husband did not expect me to can. He realized that I was a better mother than a cook. On top of that, it was so much easier to blanch vegetables and then put them in the freezer. It required much less work, was safer all around. And no waiting for water to boil was involved.