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Fresh Vegetables, by the Jarful

JUST PEACHY Jars are bathed in boiling water to create a seal during a University of Connecticut extension class in home food preservation.

Published: August 22, 2008

EACH weekday morning, Pat Brosnan heads for work at a Westchester County bond insurance company, where she gives financial advice to investment bankers and other money managers. A mother of five with a master’s degree in corporate finance, she tries to present herself to clients as a knowledgeable businesswoman moving efficiently through a professional world. Then they notice her fingernails.

“Usually, they’re blackish green from July through August,” she said.

Goth subculture? No, home food canning.

The telltale signs of an evening spent cooking jams and jellies or sorting through ripe tomatoes, zucchinis, apples and pears is not easily eradicated, although she assures clients, “I do wash my hands.”

Juice-stained nails may be in vogue soon.

Driven by increasing food costs, concerns about food safety, green sensibilities and a new appreciation of all things natural, home food preservation is enjoying a small renaissance. Numbers are hard to come by, but Elizabeth L. Andress, project director of the National Center for Home Food Preservation in Athens, Ga., has noticed a definite surge in interest. She estimated that calls to the center had risen 25 percent in recent months.

“It’s been a crazy summer,” Ms. Andress said.

The surge has been noted by canning veterans like Ms. Brosnan, who in her spare time teaches home food preservation at the Hilltop Hanover Farm, a Westchester County farm and environmental center in Yorktown Heights. She was expecting only a handful of people to appear when the farm advertised a recent class. Instead, 14 were there.

Three were men. One was a chef.

People come to learn this new-old craft, she said. And they want to be careful.

“They say things like, ‘I don’t know anything about it, and I don’t want to poison my family.’ ”

Instructions on what sorts of things to preserve and how to preserve them safely are detailed on a Web site run by the food preservation center through the United States Department of Agriculture. Occasionally, there are reports of deaths from bacterial spoilage leading to botulism, but those are rare, Ms. Andress said. A good rule of thumb cited by canners is that if the jar seal is broken or the contents look suspicious, toss them out.

“It’s really not that hard,” Ms. Brosnan said.

Mention canning and most people conjure up images of Granny boiling fruit on the stove or cutting up vegetables to be put into glass jars topped with funny ringed lids. True enough. But, believe it or not, canning had a dramatic birth.

It started with Napoleon, whose war campaigns were being thwarted by limited food supplies (“An army travels on its stomach,” he famously said). When a French newspaper offered a 12,000-franc reward for anyone who could find a way of preserving food, the confectioner Nicolas-François Appert came up with the idea of cooking food, then sealing it in glass jars. These were later replaced on the battlefield with sturdier canisters, called “cans.”

Home canning became a patriotic effort in the summer of 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson issued an urgent plea for women to increase their canning output to help American troops during World War I. “Every bushel of potatoes properly stored, every pound of vegetables properly put by for future use, every jar of fruit preserved adds that much to our insurance of victory,” he said.

Home preservation enthusiasts like Nancy Mion of Bayport, N.Y., would rather make jelly, not war. “One year, I made blueberry jelly, cherry, cinnamon pear, cranberry-orange, damson plum, ginger pear, green pepper, red raspberry, Seckel pears and strawberry jam,” Ms. Mion said. “I also made Victorian spice pears and watermelon pickles.”

In all, she cans about 27 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Most is given away to friends and relatives. There are exceptions, including the time she was given a batch of merlot grapes, which she made into a jelly. “The first year I made that,” Ms. Mion said, “I didn’t give any of it away.”

Some people are born to can. Some have canning thrust upon them. Uldene Weidlick’s husband grew up loving his mother’s canned foods. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to learn how to do this,’ ” she said.

Her mother-in-law walked her through the process 30 years ago. Now, Ms. Weidlick, who lives in Belvidere, N.J., regularly wins prizes for her chili sauce and raw tomato relish at the Warren County Farmers’ Fair.

She has won over her family, too. “My son’s favorite right now is rhubarb jam,” she said. “And my son-in law will no longer eat store-bought applesauce.”

What kind of food can you put in a jar? Pretty much anything, according to Cheryl Rautio of Brooklyn, Conn., who teaches home food preservation classes through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, a cooperative extension effort of the University of Connecticut.

“One time a sportsman said to me, ‘I bet you can’t do venison,’ ” Ms. Rautio said. “I said, ‘Oh, yes, I can.’ ”

She did, too. A month later, she opened the jar, combined the contents with vegetables and tomatoes, and made a venison stew. In her family, salsa is her claim to fame, she said. She makes about 50 jars each summer. By January, it is gone.

So, can you really save grocery money by canning?

Maybe. That has to wait until one gets past the original outlay for equipment like cookers, jars and lids, the preservation center’s Ms. Andress said. Although the cost of the reusable jars has risen, she said, many preservers pick them up at garage sales.

But all that is beside the point, said Ms. Mion. “It’s not the money,” she said, “it’s the taste.”

Ms. Brosnan believes her canning prowess has raised the bar among her brood. They know their preserved food. She said that when her daughter worked at a drugstore, she had to explain what kale was to her boss.

“She’s been eating it since she was 1 ½,” Ms. Brosnan said, “and could explain all about it.”

There is another reason she likes the process of growing and canning her own food.

“It’s a good release,” Ms. Brosnan said. “And vegetables don’t talk back to you.”




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