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[imgcontainer] [img:canning3.jpg] [source]Juilianne Couch[/source] Jars of dilly beans have emerged from a boiling water bath and now rest on a towel, still hot to the touch. [/imgcontainer]
I’m a devotee of the Laramie farmer’s market, held on Friday afternoons from early July to late September and spread over two downtown streets. It seems half the town gathers there to socialize and shop. I make sure to arrive early to purchase my bottle of locally made salsa. Then down the row to pick up some beans and squash from the University of Wyoming’s student gardening group. Sometimes folks from eastern Wyoming show up with a pickup truck bed loaded down with sweet corn. The vendors from lower elevation Colorado offer lettuce, peppers, pears and tomatoes well before they ripen here. I can also grab locally roasted coffee, freshly made pasta, beautiful breads and pastries, emu oil or homemade dog treats. The market is a moveable feast of goodies, vitamin content palpable in the breezy Laramie afternoons.
Farmer’s market manager and produce vendor Celeste Havener says she’s noticed a connection between the popularity of farmer’s markets in the region and the interest in food preservation, such as canning. “There’s this incredible groundswell. First, people have an interest in where their food comes from. They are concerned about food being produced in places that they don’t know.” She says many people have heard about food contamination problems or have seen movies such as “Food, Inc.,” that call into question the safety of our nation’s food supply.
“A logical next step,” Havener says, “is to figure out a way to can and preserve food, putting it by, and doing it yourself.”
[imgcontainer] [img:canning1.jpg] [source]Julianne Couch[/source] Hundreds of shoppers fill the streets each Friday afternoon during Laramie, Wyoming’s short summers to buy locally grown fruits and other goodies. [/imgcontainer]
I had an urge to do that last fall and purchased a case of peaches at the farmer’s market for a bargain as the market wound down for the day. I consulted about 17 different cookbooks, none of which explained what I wanted to do: freeze the fruit for later baking. In the end I modified several processes and plopped the peaches into boiling water long enough to loosen their skins. From that stage I turned my kitchen counter into a slimy mess of peach skin and fruit, peeling and slicing and adding dissolved Vitamin C tablets for reasons that weren’t quite clear to me into quart sized baggies. Then into the freezer they went.
Fourteen peach pies and 21,840 calories later I’d eaten my way through fall football season.
This year I thought I’d try a different approach. I stopped by a farmer’s market booth operated by Laramie Local Foods and talked to the volunteers there. Jeanne Holland put it this way. “As I age, I increasingly realize how important it is to eat healthily, to know where my food comes from and how it is produced. So I decided to become involved with Laramie Local Foods, an excellent organization which educates persons at all stages of interest–from master veggie gardeners to novices like me.
“In the depths of a Laramie winter, it’s a real pleasure to bite into a peach that tastes like summer,” Holland told me.
With arguments like those, I was seduced into signing up for a food canning class held at the Albany County fairground. For a five dollar fee including jar and ingredients, it seemed like a good deal.
When I was a child, my mother got her canned vegetables from the grocery store. My experience is typical since trends in food preservation tend to skip generations, according to Havener. An expert in ethnobotany (the study of the relationship between people and their plants), Havener says it takes only three generations before a culture starts to lose what it learned about plants. So people whose grandmothers canned, but whose mothers did not, see nostalgia there.
“There is something very satisfying about the canning jars, the colors of the foods. It is much more tactile than throwing things in a freezer,” she says.
Additionally, Havener noted the community building that takes place during a long afternoon of canning. I was interested to participate in a traditionally female work enterprise, to hear the talk and feel the connection to women generations before me performing the same ancient action: snapping beans between my fingers, inhaling the fragrance of dill and garlic and vinegar, watching pots of water that seemed they’d never boil.
I’m happy to share this traditional women’s work with men, so I was pleased my husband and one other gentleman were among the dozen or so women at the canning class.
[imgcontainer] [img:canning5.jpg] [source]Julianne Couch[/source] The author’s husband, Ronald Hansen, plies his knife to the first of many bowls of locally grown green beans that must be trimmed and cut to fit the canning jars.
Chris Pasley and Diane Saenz, the nutrition and food safety educators who taught the class, gathered us along two long tables and set us to work trimming the green beans. The table where Jeanne Holland sat took Pasley’s instructions to heart and produced mountains of beans trimmed precisely to fit into the glass jars sure to impress judges at the county fair where that table’s efforts could debut. My table opted for the whack and stuff method, sacrificing beauty for bounty.
As we worked and chatted about a wildfire whose smoke we could see from the fairgrounds, Pasley and Saenz explained some principals behind canning keeping in mind our elevation of 7200 feet. We were using the boiling water bath method. I was grateful for that after eyeing the pressure canner and pressure canner gauge testing device, both of which looked like something out of Young Frankenstein. It is necessary to use the pressure canner when canning low-acid foods, we learned. Low-acid foods include vegetables like we were using. Then why weren’t we using a pressure canner? Weren’t we about to brew ourselves up a batch of botulism?
No worries, as it turns out, we were using a recipe developed for our circumstances. We were actually pickling the beans by adding vinegar along with the dill, garlic and red pepper flakes included for flavor. Vinegar produces a high-acid food which can safely be processed in a boiling water canner.
Pasley showed us a canning kit that contained a jar grabber, a magnet on a long spear designed to pick up jar lids out of boiling water, and other necessities of the craft. By the end of the three-hour session, we’d stuffed jars with the ingredients for “dilly beans,” affixed the lids, and nestled them into a rack that would lower the jars into boiling water. Once the water returned to a rolling boil we watched the timer tick off 20 minutes, enough time to kill any nasty germs of the sort that afflicted some in the early days of canning.
We learned why it wasn’t safe to use old canning methods in our pursuit of nostalgia. Newer methods are safer because they consider changes in food varieties, bacteria, and other knowledge about food preservation, we were told.
We headed home that afternoon proudly clutching our dilly beans. The jars produced by my husband and by me would likely tie for last place at any self-respecting county fair. They weren’t works of art. But they were produced by our hands, and were as Havener says, “literally a labor of love.”
Contact your local extension service for information on preserving food.