Until fairly recently (certainly within the past couple of generations) families harvested crops in the fall and stored enough food to get them through until the next harvest. Today preserving is enjoying renewed popularity and extending the harvest is HIP! “Canvolution” has quickly entered the digital lexicon.
For our grandparents and great-grandparents, a routine part of housekeeping involved mastering a battery of various preserving skills that customarily were passed from generation to generation along with grandmother’s china, family stories, and a tendency toward red hair or blue eyes.
These days, growing concerns about food safety and security routinely generate frightening headlines, and an unstable economy has us all thinking about cost-cutting measures. But even economic anxiety and contemporary crises can’t distract me from pondering my next meal. A great many of us are looking back at these nearly-lost kitchen arts as a path toward not just health and cost savings, but also a means of making the most of seasonal bounty and producing delicious treats for a well-stocked pantry, meant to be shared with friends and family.
When important principles are followed, traditional preserving methods–freezing, canning, drying and “live” storage (what our grandparents called a root cellar)–do a fine job of keeping food. Beyond these basics, vinegar, sugar, alcohol, and other cures are primarily employed for the additional flavor they impart as well as their effectiveness at prolonging shelf life. Through their almost magical alchemy, food is not just preserved but transformed and elevated into something altogether different to become the fare of festive celebrations and artisan craftsmanship. A cucumber is simply a refreshing salad in summer, but tangy pickles are a time-honored side at many holiday celebrations; fresh peaches may be a fleeting seasonal pleasure, but doused in alcohol, they become a jewel-colored treasure and a glimpse back to the warmth of summer on a cold winter’s evening.
Home preserving may not be for everyone. Busy lives, demanding careers, and precious little leisure time dictate our limits. But generally speaking, those who pursue these somewhat old-school practices are generous–not just with their efforts, but also in sharing their table and resources with those who cannot or have not. We’re on a culinary adventure as we re-learn the resourceful ways of generations that came before us. It’s a path of economic thrift and simple luxuries, rich in flavor and tradition, executed in concert with the seasons and with respect for our environment.
CAA Contributor Lorene Edwards Forkner is a freelance writer, garden designer, and food enthusiast in the Pacific Northwest. She is the co-author of Canning & Preserving Your Own Harvest, and from Sasquatch Books. Both books are based on material original to The Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery. Read more of Lorene’s musings on life, work, home, and garden at Planted at Home.