Preserving provides small seasonal pleasures, connecting me to my past and capturing what is good, perfect and in great abundance. Home-canning gives me a delicious and intimate taste of a place. Modernists recoil, but all seems right with the world when jars are delicately clattering in the boiling water of a preserving kettle.
My grandmother had six children, four of them boys—an important detail when considering food supply and demand. Like most women of her generation, born in the shadow of the First World War, she championed frugality. Growing up in an unsettled world made preserving inevitable. Store-bought goods were a lavish expense and not widely available. I wonder if, under these conditions, preserving—urgent and entirely practical—was more a chore and less a pleasure?
I try to imagine my grandmother, already faced with a full domestic day, shouldering in a bushel of beets ready for pickling. Undoubtedly she derived deep pleasure from preserving. I know this because it was one of the last things, along with driving, that she surrendered to advancing age. The last time I went down to her basement, there was the small shelving unit holding her final harvest, proof of the comfort of habitual practice and a feeble assertion of a waning self-reliance.
I have a childhood memory of surveying my grandmother’s basement from a perch on the top stair. It was the during the peak of tomato season and below me was a warren of seething activity. My father, along with a few of his siblings and their spouses, were busy canning. Bushels of tomatoes lay scattered around, a large kettle stood on a gas jet ready for blanching, plum tomatoes bobbed in the water-filled laundry sink like little red buoys while everyone gathered around an old melamine table skinning and packing tomatoes in jars. My grandmother’s house was steeped in tomato stench and debris. Shards of translucent skin, crimson pulp and pips stuck to the most astonishing places.
As a young child, I had the luxury of carousing with my cousins, taking just the occasional peep at the apparent chaos in the basement. Once I hit my teens, it was impossible to talk, beg, sulk or scream my way out of this labour. Feeling like I was caught in Dante’s inferno, the backs of my lower arms tender from the acidic juice running down them, I could not look lovingly on the shelves of jewelled jars in our cold cellar and admire the work of our hands. I could not appreciate the deliciousness contained in those bottles, the sweet meatiness of those tomatoes or the mid-winter elixir that is a canned peach. More importantly, I failed to appreciate that the shared labour of preserving bound us as family in a tender weave.
My grandmother didn’t just can tomatoes and peaches, she made myriad pickles, relishes, fruits and jams too. I adored her pear jam. My uncle David inherited 11 bottles from the final batch my grandmother prepared, and I envied his modest treasure and often tried to sneak a jar.
On the subject of jars, my grandmother’s frugality extended to the containers that housed her preserves. The jar was simply a means of transport, so she supplemented her canning jars by saving the few glass bottles that came into her house. The beautiful pale, maple-wood hue of pear jam would shine out from a Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar. I’m still a glutton for that jam’s ripe sweetness and ladle, rather than spread it on to hot buttered toast.
Only the embers of this tradition remain in my family. My father and uncle still put up small batches of special relishes and pickles, but my dad has recently let it be known that he will no longer produce the one I fondly refer to as “Grandpa’s relish.” The name refers, not to my grandfather’s prowess at making the pickle, but his great love for it; he’d always be sailing the Great Lakes earning his keep during preserving season. I think my father had carried on making it knowing that I couldn’t imagine tourtière at Christmas without a large spoonful of the sweet-tart, turmeric-spiked accompaniment.
So I find myself fanning the flames of the preserving tradition. Embracing a ritual as my family slowly loosens their hold on it, the homely art provides me with some small sense of continuity. I devote much of September and October to preserving. Mango chutney, peach and rosemary compote, chili sauce, pear jam, fresh tomato sauce and Escoffier’s relish (a roasted red pepper pickle) are now part of my repertoire. I love the joys and—yes—the aggravations of preserving; jam, in particular, remains a challenge. I lack the ambition and industry of my grandmother and, while the fantasy of filling a cold storeroom with row upon row of jars is appealing, it’s entirely unnecessary. My production resembles the size of my grandmother’s last harvest so I simply clear a small space in my pantry for each season’s additions.
While nostalgia may be the trigger that gives me the urge to preserve, others are revisiting this simple, unpretentious art as a rebuttal of the fast, the ready made, the characterless and the generic. Brand identities are being fashioned out of preserving materials, the bottles and their contents evoking homemade, traditional and more leisurely values. I have to work harder than my grandmother to forge a substantial and authentic relationship to food, to community and to my local seasons. Preserving is one small measure in support of those ideals, and this year’s harvest of jars in my pantry a reminder of substance in an increasingly trivial world.