This week’s I Eat Local Because I Can Interview is our last but certainly not least and is with the lovely Jennifer a.k.a. Mama Urchin. Jennifer is an old-fashioned mama in Chanel sunglasses. She loves making, the south of France, and the liberty bell. Her home is messy, loud, and full of books. She believes in the healing power of Jesus, the ocean, and a child’s laughter. She might forget to wear her garden gloves but you’ll never find her wearing pants to church. She’s still dreaming that someday she will become a princess.
1) How long have you been canning and how did you learn?
When I was about eight to ten my family lived in a house that had a number of fruit-bearing plants on the property. The pear tree never bore fruit and the apple trees had been neglected too long but there was a grape arbor and a raspberry bramble that we picked clean every season. I don’t think the grapes ever made it into jars but big batches of raspberry jam did every year we lived there. After just a few years my father’s job transferred us to another state and a more suburban home and I don’t remember much canning while I lived there. We still picked sour cherries every June and apples in the autumn but my mom always froze the cherries whole and the apples were frozen as sauce.
About a year after I was married my mother was too busy with my brother’s graduation to pick her beloved sour cherries – her favorite food is cherry pie – so Papa Urchin and I went to pick them and we picked a lot, gallons upon gallons. Some were for my mom but I decided I’d better figure out how to can the remaining pounds because unlike my parents, we did not have a separate large freezer. For quite a few years we only canned strawberry jam, cherries, pickles, and applesauce. About ten years ago I started canning more things, trying new recipes, and now I put by quite a bit — about 400 jars in 2011.
2) Tell us about your canning philosophy. What inspires and motivates you to practice this art?
A number of years ago Papa Urchin and I made a conscious paradigm shift. We began to think of the farmer’s market as our grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, we still buy flour and sugar and soy sauce from the store, but the bread and butter of our meals, both literally and figuratively, comes from our local farmer’s market. We’re definitely loca-vores and eating with the seasons is something we practice and preach. I always tell the urchins in the heat of late summer, “If you want spaghetti in February you have to can tomatoes in August.” I also really enjoy cooking and we like good food, so that’s a motivator too.
3) What’s the best piece of advice you would give to new or novice canners? How about advice for the seasoned canner facing burnout?
To the novice I would say, “Jump in, canning is not that hard. Making strawberry jam is no harder than making dinner. You just chop up the strawberries, add sugar and pectin, and put it into some jars.” Now obviously there are a few more steps than that but canning jam is really quite simple. Start there and get a success under your belt. The other thing is if everything goes awry I try to remember to make lemons out of lemonade. One time the dill pickles turned out way to vinegar-y and really inedible. So we drained them all, threw them in the food processor and chopped them to make pickle relish. Jam that doesn’t gel is a great on ice cream or pound cake. And sometimes, you just empty the jars down the garbage disposal.
To the seasoned canner I say, “Pace yourself.” I usually have at least one week in August where I am canning something every day. The stone fruits are in, the tomatoes have arrived, it’s hot and humid outside and in. Just like anyone I get overwhelmed in those moments and every year at some point in late summer I hit the wall. I feel like I cannot put one more thing in a jar. Usually this happens when there is a bushel of fruit rapidly deteriorating on my kitchen counter. I’m not sure how to avoid this when you can as much as I do. I do think trying new recipes, remembering that you can make small batches, and playing your favorite music really loud can help.
4) Care to share a favorite canning recipe?
This tomato jam recipe uses about 4 pounds of tomatoes, an amount I am likely to have hanging around after a marathon tomato canning session. If you like hard boiled egg, tomato, mayo sandwiches on toast eaten over the sink in the heart of the summer, make this. If you live south of the Mason-Dixon line or maybe wish you did, make this. Even if you are skeptical make this because really, it’s the kind of thing that can take you back to the heart of summer when the north wind blows.
5) Any words of advice for parents wanting to teach canning to their children? How do you tackle canning projects with active children at home?
I have two urchins, aged nine and six, and the most important thing they know about canning at this point is related to safety. They know there are rules about acting wild and crazy near a canning pot and they know not to touch hot jars. When they were younger I would often can during nap time but now-a-days I usually try to send them into the backyard to play while I have the stove going. They do have jobs to help me though, like listening for the ping of the lids and testing the lids to see if they have all sealed. We keep our canning pantry in the basement so they are also responsible for carrying the finished jars down there. Their most important job is obviously taste-tester and one that they take very seriously.
Probably two summers ago a neighborhood child asked my daughter why her mom collected jars (after seeing the rows of empty ones on the shelves in our garage). Katie told the little girl that her mom cans food in those jars and that’s what we eat in the winter. She could have been speaking another language, that little girl had no idea what Katie was talking about. I think one of the greatest gifts Papa Urchin and I will give our kids is the knowledge of where their food comes from and the value of that food. They know how much work it is to grow, pick, clean, peel, chop, cook, and can the apples that make the applesauce they eat with their dinner. So I say just exposing your kids to canning and being honest with them about why you do it, whatever your reasons, might just be enough to give you someone to pass your canning pot to when you retire. I’m hoping it is anyway.