The Lost —And Found — Art of Canning Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments
The afternoon is sinking late and warm on Kavanaugh Boulevard. This is a time to be mellow and unproductive, steaming from the heat of a long spring day, and yet I find 20 people inside Eggshells Kitchen Co. ready for class.
Ok, it’s more leisurely than it sounds.
There’s a lot of food to be eaten, and beers in ice on the counter, two regular guests for any Eggshells cooking class. And there are Jack and Corri Sundell, the couple who reared the Root Café. On the tables, amid burners and cutting boards, are the following culinary items: Arkansas strawberries, asparagus, artisan cheese, chicken salad, doughnut muffins, and brownies. Some of these things will be consumed right away. Others have a longer road to travel, as this gang explores the lost art of canning.
What is it about canning? I don’t know, but it’s played a major part in the Sundells’ story. Before The Root Café opened, canning classes were kind of their forte. I visited Jack and Corri’s house years ago, and the one thing I remember, besides a spiral staircase beheaded by the ceiling, were the jars. Jars and jars of preserved fruits and vegetables and mysterious dungeon treasures. Clearly, this olden time homestead activity held the key to their hearts. In preparation for going full restaurant, Jack and Corri hosted canning classes all over town, the proceeds of which helped them open their restaurant. The classes also added the extra nudging to a higher food consciousness to the community in which the Root would thrive. Their master stroke has been prompting so many people to wear shirts that feature the etching of a jar and the words Yes We Can!
In 20 minutes, the Eggshells group has strawberries cooking in pots with pectin and sugar, and the store smells a mess of Spring fruit. Strawberry jam is in the making. Canning is a seasonal activity, forming a long arc from Spring to Fall and preserving each fruit or vegetable as it comes in season. Strawberries show up for jam, and blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, peaches, and apples will come in turn. Tomatoes will show up for saucing, and okra, cucumbers, and squash for pickling. Cabbage for sauerkraut or kimchi. Or whatever. The combinations and weird ways to stick food into jars are apparently endless.
For some, the beginning of Spring is the beginning of a long canning season, in which hundreds of hours will be spent in hot kitchens, over boiling water and pressure cookers. It’s an exhausting activity of satisfaction and love, made doubly potent by the fact that it’s not necessary. Canning was once a means of preserving food in anticipation of there being none. Now, jam is cheap, and pickles are thrown into sandwich baskets as a freebie. Food is always there. The question thus moves from that of survival to philosophical: Why can, when you don’t need to?
It would have been a good question to put to Eggshells’ canning class, had they not been so busy actually learning. I’m left asking myself, but I’m not such a bad candidate.
Last summer, I spent some time under the Sundells’ wing, pickling this and that over long conversations. It was shortly before that when I caught the pickling bug. It happened when I sampled the Root’s pickled zephyr squash, its long yellow-green spear giving way to something beyond the boring squash. The flavor was sour and salty, dill-soaked and briney. I honestly did not think yellow squash could make the trip to something so delicious. I promptly ate the entire jar, leaned across the Root’s counter, and said, “Show me how to make these.”
It started with pickled beets. Then spicy dilly beans, canned tomato sauce, pickled okra and zephyr squash. I took my jars home like little prizes to leave on the shelf for opening in the dead of Winter. The most basic answer to the question lost above is that what you pickle or can in your kitchen, from fresh, local produce, is going to be a hell of a lot better than the grocery store’s droppings. You’d have the hours of kitchen misery and burns to verify, plus the exquisite taste-bud rapture. I’ve eaten grocery-bought canned tomato sauce next to my own homemade, canned concoction. It’s not worth reporting on; the winner is obvious, and you shouldn’t have doubted it.
But taste is the more superficial answer. It’s literally skin deep. The deeper response comes to those seeking more in their relationship to food. Like lost sheep looking for a little direction, people find canning because they’re trying to reconnect to the way we used to feel about food, hoping to find meaning through action. You’ll catch on with one of preservation’s magical moments, like when the lid’s seal pops onto the jar after its boiling water bath. In succession, the still-steaming jars go tink tink, letting you know the job’s well done, the contents safely stowed until you pry the lids off. For those of us who grew up on Pringles, it’s an act of remembrance and wanton nostalgia, like Civil War reenactments or Renaissance fairs. It’s also an engrossing and rewarding way to spend six hours with someone else, hand-busy but free-minded. I’m just saying, it feels a lot better than Netflix marathons.
Hanging around the Eggshells canning class, I’m not so sure the art is lost.
Canning, I think, didn’t start as an art but an act of necessity. The necessity was lost, along with our cultural tradition of stowing away the earth’s abundance for harder times. So the window is open for canning to transform into art, and you see this all over the Southern food revolution. Restaurants are preserving their own delicious concoctions for their menu, like pickled green tomatoes on pork sandwiches and strawberry wine preserves in pastry. Crazy stuff is showing up, like lacto-fermented carrot-radish-onion slaw and “kimcheese.”
Folks are having fun with preservation, assumedly because they aren’t as worried about starvation as their ancestors of yore. In summation, a more apt title for this little musing may be “The New Art of Canning.”
Sam Hedges was born in Little Rock and attended the University of the South. He is the Director of Operations for the Arkansas Local Food Network and works at the Little Rock Athletic Club. He collects food and then eats it.