By Andrew Rodman
I am wild about home canned food. I love prying open those Ball jar lids and hearing the pop of the air seal. I love the deep aromas that infuse home preserves. I love that the best food is found in the plainest of packaging, that vivid flavors are often encased in jars with hand-written labels, not found inside flashy packaging that demands our attention.
With the harvest heaping this time of year, I often yearn to learn more about the art of food preservation and creating my own food cache. I am buying local after all. I want to go to my musty cellar instead of the bright corner store.
When you start eating whole, live foods, you begin to change your life. When you start growing (or buying from farmers) and cooking food, you can start to reclaim your autonomy from the cyclic relationship we have with the grocery store, the eatery and the restaurant.
Apparently, I am not alone. There is a movement of home provisioning afoot that aims to expand the practitioners to novices like myself.
I found the Infarmation event in Portland (Every 2nd Tuesday of each month at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison), which delved into the topic of Householding. The featured panelists included Harriet Fasenfest, author of The Householder’s Guide to the Universe, Tressa Yellig, owner of Salt Fire and Time Community Kitchen, Virginia Yoder, octogenarian farmer-now-gardener, and Myo Demayo, householder with a third-acre in NE Portland, and Carol Boutard, Ayers Creek organic farmer and householder.
On their website, Friends of Family Farmers states that “house-holding … fits into the larger picture of supporting family farmers and ranchers… supporting the bigger sustainable food system and balancing a sustainable life for ourselves and our families.”
It makes sense that there is more than wholesome foods getting sealed up in those jars. What is being preserved is a whole web of interactions I support, from buying smartly in season from farmers, or bartering with neighbors, to collaborating with strangers at canning parties, to building community through our relationships. These common-sense behaviors are antithetical to the isolated consumer mold into which we are bred.
Mayo Demayo spoke of building connectivity along with her small business of greens growing from her third-acre. “We just started a market in my neighborhood, Cully, a community market. As people came through to my booth. I said, ‘Where do you live?’ And every one of them said Cully neighborhood. And they would tell me, ‘Oh I live up on 72nd.’ I was so excited that there were actually neighbors setting up booths, selling stuff that they had grown to neighbors walking to the booths, buying stuff that they had grown.”
What would it take to extend community participation in canning, while the trends toward buying locally have been so well established? It boils down to access to equiptment and finding like-minded folk to work with. Grange halls offer kitchen infrastructure in rural areas, yet surprisingly, Metro Portland offers resources as well.
Tressa led the discussion from the perspective of her urban community kitchen. She envisions a network of spaces where people of all experience levels can come and work together towards food sufficiency through canning sessions. Her classroom for cooking techniques is a start in this direction, as a community-scaled model for food preparation. “So whatever that means, however you interpret it, that’s a community-supported kitchen.”
So much of what I was hearing spoke to larger issues around householding. There can be greater interactions with producers and eaters. There can be skill-sharing across cultural divides, where inexperience meets experience. There can be a shattering of the isolation that so many of us experience. We could be buying bulk and distressed produce for canning. We could be sharing the over-abundance of fruit from our backyard trees. We could be cutting our food budget. We can honor our values by directing our money to deserving people who are doing great things.
Mayo put it nicely, saying, “When you start eating whole foods, that’s the beginning of changing your life. Then you start growing food, and then you start cooking food. And then you start, little by little, adding the pieces on. It isn’t an instant cure, but it’s trying to find the systems that will connect the local farmers to the people who are buying the food.”
Disaster planning for our households and neighborhoods is critical to survival. In the realm of the larder, our food stores could be kept bubble-wrapped and off wobbly shelves. More importantly, neighborhood and community resilience to a crisis can be fostered in advance by the relationships built by coming together to share skills around food.
But still there is a learned bias against eating from a food jar from your neighbor’s cellar.
Harriet Fasanfest urged lessening the fears around home-canned food safety, reminding us all that this practice has a long-running and clean reputation. Her book The Householder’s Guide to the Universe offers a treasure trove of insight, recipes and tips, and a journal from her experiences getting her family off the retail food grid. To her right, sitting quite quietly during this free-wheeling conversation, was Virginia Yoder, an octogenarian farm wife and life-long home homesteader. She married a farmer in her early 20s and has been canning ever since. Virginia felt awkward in the limelight. To her, self-reliance via home-stored foods was simply what you did.
But how can you estimate the amount of food you need per family member?
Virgina offered a handout from the Family Food Preservation Plan, from Washington County Extension. This chart goes a long way towards finding out what the canned-food needs of one person per year are in some of the most basic categories. I learned that if I want a serving size of a half-cup of meat served four times a week, I had better can 18 quarts in my larder. If I want to enjoy citrus fruits and tomatoes seven times a week, with an serving size of one cup, I will need 63 quarts overall. (Information from Handbook of Food Preparation, by the Home Ec. Association and Freezing and Canning Cookbook from Farm Journal.)
There sure is a lot of pre-planning involved. A canning party could take up a whole weekend.
The best time to can is when the produce is the ripest. That happens at inconvenient times. Harriet said that she would love to know who to call at six in the morning for an emergency harvest. She is organizing canning “flash mobs” through the Householder’s Guide on Facebook.
Small wonder we don’t adopt this lifestyle. As a practical revision of priorities, householding is antithetical to our consumer-driven culture of convenience and blind out-sourcing. It challenges us to put our time and money where our values are.
At Holocene, the harried waitress served drink and dinner orders to the at-capacity crowd. As hungry as I was, I reminded myself that pre-planning and active participation could result in long-term food security into the future. Anyone for a taste?
As I left the cheerful gathering at Holocene, I was back on the busy streets of the big bad city. These streets that advance consumerism and foster isolation.
This is not the way it has to be. We can gather together and share skills. We can learn from each other and rebuild community through the acts of conscious buying and selling of vibrant food. We can complete the circle of seed to farm, to the jar to the fork. We can be one small part of a larger revolution.
That rush of air that pops the safety lid of my home-canned food is the rush of possibilities and connectivity I want to be a part of. It is the breath of life, coming in to fill a vacuum.
For more info on Friends of Family Farmers on inFARMation (and Beer!) visit www.friendsoffamilyfarmers.org.