Everything Old is New Again
by Rosie DeQuattro
In the summer of 1920, the New York Times reported that the city was facing a sugar shortage.The price of many foods was rising. Mrs. Louis ReedWelzmiller, then deputy commissioner of markets, responded to the crisis with a three-prong attack:
First she organized a citywide program “to teach housewives the art of canning without sugar or preservatives.”Then, she made arrangements with all the large hotels in the city “for demonstrations in cooking and the economical making of palatable dishes.” And then, she arranged to take “groups of housewives through the markets to teach them the
rudiments of scientific marketing.”
How’s that for an example of good old American “can do” (Yes, We Can!) spirit?
In 2009, people are talking again about ways to save food dollars. Preserving, cooking at home, re-using, planting more gardens—these are high-ranking keywords in the current food landscape. TheWall Street Journal recently reported that consumers are “cutting back restaurant visits in favor of eating at home.” Last season, Slow Food Boston offered classes on pickling, dehydrating and fermenting, which all sold out. Local hardware stores report an uptick in the sale of canning jars and food-storage containers.
Online, too, there’s a buzz about back-to-basics self-reliance. On Chowhound, threedogs writes: “I bake my own bread… know where to buy the most economical meats, veggies and fruits, etc., and make just about anything from scratch. Being picky and choosy helps lots.” Toastnjam writes: “I manage to produce enough tomatoes to keep us
going through the winter.When apples & stone fruits [and raspberries and blackberries] are at their peak I buy them in bulk and stew them, then freeze them.” Countless websites on preserving food populate the internet (see sidebar). For the faint of heart, there are do-it-yourself videos with step-by-step instructions that will eliminate any fear of poisoning your family.
Locally, folks are learning and sharing ways to preserve the harvest. Most use the old, tried-and-true methods of canning, cold storage and drying; but not all preserve for reasons you’d expect.
Susan Allison of Boxborough has been preserving foods for at least 15 years. Allison is a teacher, a Certified Raw Foods Chef, a Raw Foods & Nutrition Coach, a consultant for companies regarding USDA nutrition labeling, and the co-owner of Thoreau Foods (thoreaufoods.com). Her newest business, still in the planning stages, is an
in-home food preserving service. Allison knows a little something about food. And she “shops the perimeter.”
“My father was the owner of several grocery stores, and back in the late ’70s the stores were quite progressive with a very large produce selection,” she says. “I remember the discussion of how the perimeter of the store with all the fresh items needed to be our focus. I try to stay on the perimeter of the grocery store these days as well, where the fresh,
most nutrient-dense, preferably organic, foods are.”
Allison’s preservation method of choice is dehydrating. “If you get the moisture content really low, then bacteria can’t grow,” she says. She owns two professional-quality dehydrators, and also uses the sun to dry herbs. Dehydrators allow you to preserve the harvest when abundant fruits and vegetables are at their peak of flavor and nutrition. Other benefits of preserving foods the slow, low way are that fruits get sweeter (and can substitute for added sweeteners) and vegetables become easy snack foods. In addition to fruits and vegetables, she explains, seeds and nuts can be
dehydrated and blended along with fruits to provide delicious and highly nutritious versions of crackers, granola, spreads, breads, even pizza crusts.
Nowhere is the urge to preserve more evident than on the farm. Soon, farm stands will be brimming with products from the field—canned, frozen, pickled and dried. When Cider Mill Farm in Amesbury gets cranking, owner Glenn Cook says that “jars of apple butter go flying out of the store,” and, he says, he always runs out. Cook, a 28-year
veteran of the farm, does most of the work himself using both a 5-gallon and a 50-gallon steam kettle to cook the apples grown on his farm. He sterilizes and fills the jars, too. He doesn’t have a group of employees
dedicated to processing, but says he could use it. Demand for his preserved foods is outpacing supply yet he can allocate only one day out of the season for blanching and peeling and freezing apples.
“I would love to put up more but there’s not enough time and help.We retail everything we grow; sometimes it feels like our land is shrinking.”
He says, “I feel people are knocking down the door for food that is ready and fresh and local. They want more—they still want fresh and natural but mixed with convenience.” CiderMill Farm opened onMay 1 and will close the evening beforeThanksgiving.They’ll need the rest.
In Belmont, Kathy Martin (who writes a popular blog about her garden, carletongarden.blogspot.com) gardens every day, either at her home or at her community plot a mile away.Martin is a molecular biologist and has been a gardener for 30 years. She started gardening in high school as a member of the local 4H Club. The first time she showed-off her veggies at theTopsfield Fair she was hooked. She grows lettuce, beets, broccoli, carrots and other plants.
“I’m trying to grow all we need,” she says, the “we” referring to Martin, her husband and her teenage son—who has a limited palate when it comes to veggies. “He’ll only eat fresh, but he’s gradually expanding.” So she plants varieties he’ll eat. “This year I’ll do popcorn for him,” she says. “It’s a nice challenge trying to grow everything we need. I can
avoid going to the grocery store from June to October.” In the winter, she supplements her food stores with a CSA winter share, and mainly goes to the grocery store for lettuce.
Remarkably, interest in her community garden has surged this year. “This is the first year we’ve had a waiting list. We have 120 plots in total and have had to turn many people away.”Martin says she thinks interest in gardening in general “is going way, way up. There’s more of an interest in doing it yourself, having healthy, good quality, tasty food.”
Although she does a little dehydrating using the solar method for the popcorn and the chiles she grows,Martin mainly puts food by in her refrigerator or in her basement. In the refrigerator, in tightly sealed plastic bags, she’ll have enough beets, carrots, celeriac and parsnips to last through 3–4 winter months. When we spoke in April, Martin was still eating beets she had stored in December. Potatoes and winter squash, garlic and onions will be preserved in metal bins or on wire trays or in paper bags in her basement.
Ultimately, what motivates Martin to grow her garden is not for the food or for the independence it brings. “My real reason for gardening,” she confesses, “is for the beauty—I got that from my Dad.”
So, I charge you: This season, go forth unto your local farmer’s markets, where the tables will be draped with gorgeous, ripe things, calling out to you. Lose the guilt. Let yourself be seduced into buying more than you can possibly use. Just remember: “Yes, You Can!” and preserve it!
THUMBNAIL HISTORY OF CANNING
In the 1700s and early 1800s, when France and Britain were repeatedly at war with each other, more soldiers died from disease than from battle. Food spoilage was suspected.
The processes involved in food spoilage were not well-known during this time. It was widely believed that air caused food to spoil—microorganisms hadn’t been implicated yet.'
Leave it to the French, of course, to save the food day. It was a French chef, Nicolas Appert (1750–1841), who, in 1803, developed the “canning” method of preserving food for the troops. Appert chose a glass container believing that it was the air that caused the spoilage, and glass is a material least penetrated by air. Cans hadn’t been invented
yet. Appert filled glass bottles with cooked food (beef, peas, beans, etc.), then closed the bottles with cork stoppers, wired the corks to the bottles, sealed the closure with pitch, and boiled the whole contraption in water. Boiled and airtight, food kept. But the French still lost the war.
Use of the word can began in Boston. An Englishman namedWilliam Underwood (sound familiar?) used Appert’s process to bottle lobster and salmon at a factory he set up in 1821 in Boston. For practical reasons, the factory later switched to using metal canisters, but the word stuck and was applied to foods preserved in either metal cans or
ONLINE HELPWITH FOOD PRESERVING
The National Center for Home Food Preservation, a USDA program, offers a free, self-paced, online course on home canning and food preservation. At uga.edu/nchfp/ you will find information on canning, freezing, drying, curing, smoking, fermenting and pickling— even a slide show. The book So Easy To Prepare (5th edition), published by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, contains the latest USDA recommendations for safe food preservation.
For a PDF with step-by-step instructions on canning go to