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Preserving Our Past, One Jar at a Time

Higher acid foods (such as pickles, relishes and jams) are commonly processed in a water canner.
Kendra Bailey Morris for NPR /
Higher acid foods (such as pickles, relishes and jams) are commonly processed in a water canner.

It's 1979, and I'm 11 years old. I'm sitting at my granny's rickety, kitchen table — the one where an empty matchbook stuffed under the right leg keeps it from jiggling. I'm eating an oversized, fresh-from-the-oven potato roll, doused in butter and slathered in homemade peach jam.

Steam rises from a gently rusted, boiling-water canner set atop the old electric range Granny bought from Montgomery Ward in 1952. Nearby, a row of empty pint jars line the counter waiting to be filled and processed.

Granny frantically scrubs a pile of pickling cucumbers. "Get on over here and slice up these onions," she commands, while reaching for a jug of cider vinegar. "Got to get these cucumbers in ice water, so we can pack 'em up before dinner."

I glance across the room to see more rows of canned pickles: sweet pickles, dill pickles, even Granny's famous seven-day pickles glistening inside spotless glass jars in the afternoon light.

In just a few hours, we'll carry eight more pints of crisp, turmeric-infused bread-and-butters down into the coolness of her basement, where they'll rest alongside jars of whole peaches, pole beans and last year's chow chow relish.

This is canning season, and as a young girl, I'm both fascinated and frightened by the whole process — vats of boiling water, potentially dangerous steam, unusual chemical ingredients like pectin and pickling salt.

For many years, my grandmother's kitchen mutated from the culinary haven of a sweet, little home cook into a mad scientist's laboratory brimming with the unusual. Strange tongs, wide-mouth funnels and chartreuse-colored rubber gloves abounded. Phrases like, "whatever you do, don't touch that" and "back away from the stove" were repeated often and with insistence.

Today, I've witnessed the canning process repeat itself in my mother's kitchen with hours of pitting, peeling, soaking and simmering, coupled with the occasional steam burn or pesky quart that refuses to "pop."

For us, canning is as much a family tradition as holiday turkey. It represents the bounty of the season. Whether it's summer's sweet corn or vats of early fall apple butter, generations of mothers have found deliciously creative ways to store their gardens in immaculately clean jars.

A classic method of preservation thought to have originated in 19th-century France, canning — like drying, pickling or smoking — is simply another way to save foods from spoilage and keep them for future use. The canning method involves sealing the food and then heating it to a temperature that will destroy any contaminants.

Higher acid foods (such as pickles, relishes and jams) are commonly processed in a water canner, while lower acid, starchy foods (corn, peas or meats) should be cooked in a pressure canner and heated to 250 degrees to reduce to risk of bacterial contamination.

The expert women in my life taught me that it's better to start with higher acid foods, then work up to heavy-duty pressure canner foods such as meats or beans — once I got my "canning legs."

Granny even took her own advice each summer, when she opted to focus her attention on high-acid, cooked apples, letting our lone male canner, my grandpa, handle the pressure canning of his homemade breakfast sausage preserved in pork fat.

Granny would fill her apron with Early Transparents (a mushy, pale green apple gathered during the summer from her backyard tree), and then spend hours making batches of her tart 'n' sweet applesauce.

As an adult, I now follow my mother around the kitchen as she creates delicious homemade jams using fresh peaches from the local farmer's market.

One afternoon, I patiently watch her as she tests the jam to see if it's properly "set up," which she does by pouring a little on a plate and placing it in the fridge. A few moments later she shows me the plate.

"See? It looks like honey, and that's what you want," my mother tells me.

Frantically, I scribble down her random aside (which becomes my culinary nugget) and continue to watch as she stirs the sweet-smelling pot with a wooden spoon.

I can see my granny, too. It's as if she is superimposed over my mother, gently directing her to stir with less force or add a tad more sugar to the bubbling peaches. And in that moment, we're all in the kitchen together — pouring, sealing and preserving everything that makes summer wonderful.

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Kendra Bailey Morris