ABC: Always be canning

The secret to pumping 4,500 meals out of one farm kitchen? Food preservation as continual practice.

| 26 Sep 2023 | 12:13

Over the past 40 years Jack and I have preserved all manner of vegetables, fruits, herbs and meat throughout the entire year. Food preservation is central to our lifestyle because there is no substitute for the quality of food that is harvested at the peak of freshness and appropriately preserved at home. And there is an inherent satisfaction that comes from squirreling away high-quality food during the growing season and then bringing it out to enjoy at times of year when the fresh-grown version is simply not available locally. Plus, you can save a tremendous amount of money on this most important input for your sustenance.

It is very convenient to maintain a large percentage of your food supply at your fingertips, and it makes meal preparation quick and almost magical. I can whip up an amazingly nutritious, healing and satisfying soup in no time flat with a quart each of chicken and pork stock, a quart of pureed zucchini squash, some packages of home-grown kale, peas, green beans, and pureed garlic scapes in oil – all from the freezer – and some onions, potatoes, celeriac, carrots, beets and turnips from the root cellar.

Preserved foods are a form of visual art, too. Shelves full of apple juice, grape juice, and tomatoes in glass canning jars are extremely pleasing to the eye. So are jars filled with dried peaches, pears, apples and husk cherries. Bags of frozen peaches or corn or parsley liberated from the freezer spring to life with their vibrant colors.Preserved food and farm products make great gifts. Who can turn down a jar of comfrey salve or a tulsi tincture, not to mention a bottle of Jack’s famous country wine?

I love this pastime of keeping the harvest because it lends itself so well to being a community project. This is the key to the fun of it, at least for an extrovert like me.

With unbroken farming lines on both sides of my family for many generations, I was born into a culture that centered on raising food. My mom and aunts and grandmother would write letters to one another listing how many quarts (of peas, strawberries, green beans, sour cherries, or whatever was in season) each woman and her children had put up since the previous report. The details were duly noted by all participants as one of the most important measures of each woman’s fitness as a farmwife.

Mom would be proud, and so would Grandma Rawson, the queen of frugality and food preservation. Even my crazy Grandma Fink was in the picture. One of my most vivid memories of this unconventional woman was an afternoon when Mom went out, leaving us with Grandma Fink. She proceeded to lead us in a session of making red and blue applesauce (food coloring, you know). What a hoot! Mom was mad when she got home, but we had such a good time.

And that is the crux of it. Food preservation must be fun! It often involves a lot of mindless, repetitive motion (shelling peas), lifting heavy pots on and off the stove (canning tomatoes), and long hours on one’s feet rushing from the sink to the stove and back while freezing batches of greens.

Sometimes it means burning the candle at both ends of the day at the height of the snap bean harvest. First there is the tedious labor of picking and hauling bushels of beans into the house. Then there are the two to three hours after dark, when all the other essential work is done, for cutting and freezing them. Peach juice runs down one’s arms, processing sweet corn leaves the whole kitchen sticky, and how many times can you crank that food mill around in circles to make applesauce before you cry uncle? It is undeniably hard labor, and the fruits and vegetables get heavier as the season goes on.

The secret to making it fun is to preserve food with someone else who also believes in its importance. Jack has been a big helper over the years, especially in the evenings, when we would process food while watching a movie.

For years I swore that I would keep a log of how many sit-down meals we prepared and fed people at Many Hands Organic Farm. In 2022 I kept careful records, and the grand total of meals came to just over 4,500. Is this prolific urge to feed people due to a desire to please my parents by emulation, or is it a passing-along of gifts that I have received in my own life? In any case, it is a cook’s dream to have so much high-quality preserved food at my fingertips, not to mention at least seven months of fresh produce from the field.

Excerpted from Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson’s new book Many Hands Make a Farm (Chelsea Green Publishing November 2023), printed with permission from the publisher.