Okay, maybe I was unfair to the Home Canning Lobby when I made disparaging remarks in my column about the wax beans and tomatoes I had to eat as a kid.
I am not against canning. It was only a few years ago I last spent an entire July weekend joyfully peeling, cooking, seasoning, and canning applesauce—about twenty-four quarts of it—from apples from the gnarled and aging Golden Transparent apple tree in the backyard. The product of those weekends every July was delicious. I have been genuinely disappointed that the tree has yielded no fruit for the past two years.
Also, when we first moved here in 1981, we planted an ambitious vegetable garden of carrots, green beans, tomatoes, and strawberries. For several years we canned tomatoes and froze about a gazillion bags of beans, carrots, and strawberries. Unfortunately, when the owner of the pasture behind us sprayed herbicides to kill off the broadleaf weeds one year, he also killed off our garden.
Putting up part of summer’s abundance for winter appetites confirms a sense of purpose. When I was a kid, we kept apples in a barrel in the cellar. By spring we were finding more bad ones than good ones, and even the good ones were wrinkled and leathery by then. But pulling an apple out of that barrel when the snow was flying outside gave me a sense of survival, the kind squirrels probably get when they find a long-lost nut. After all, I was the one who picked them and put them in the barrel in the first place. It was one of my assigned chores.
Another of my chores during the summer was to rid the garden of potato bugs. This job has little to recommend it, trust me. But there was a definite sense of achievement when the mound of freshly dug potatoes grew to shoulder height one mellow day in October.
My dad had a wooden bin in the cellar for the potatoes. The onions were harvested with their stalks on, and these were twisted together and hung from nails.
I have good memories about gardens and canning: steaming kettles of dark red plum juice waiting to be transmuted into sweet, fragrant jelly; light-amber jars of apple jelly; currant preserves; quarts of sugar pears canned with slices of quince and scattered whole cloves; citrus preserves so sweet they made your teeth itch just to think about them; and bread and butter pickles, mellow and tangy. I used to take a personal inventory of these delights on Saturdays in the cellar and calculate how many more slices of bread slathered with blackberry preserves I could look forward to.
I used to inventory other stuff in the cellar, too. Wax beans were at the top of my hate list. It wasn’t that they were bad, it was just that we had so many of them. My parents had green thumbs. They could coax a garden to abundance on bedrock. Moreover, they had a special talent for growing things that man was never intended to eat—parsnips, okra, rutabaga, and, of course, wax beans. I remember my mother sitting at the table completely hidden behind a gigantic pile of wax beans harvested in just one pass through the garden.
And, naturally, whatever the garden grew got cooked and steamed and stuffed into quart jars. And then we had to eat it—every day for the rest of our lives. My greatest joy one winter was when something turned the canned beans bad. I eagerly volunteered to help empty the soured jars into the compost pit outside. I could barely contain my joy as I loudly counted all forty-eight jars as I emptied them.
I know now that feeding the family was more difficult that year. It wasn’t that we had less than others; nobody had much in those days. Growing a garden and canning the yield was a necessary part of staying alive. Everybody did it.
But I’m also sure that everybody secretly rejoiced a little when the wax beans turned sour.