Guest post by Aaron Frazier
For many years I’ve watched the women in my family can vegetables and delectable preserves and jellies. I never realized I didn’t pay one whit’s worth of attention to the process. My contribution was in topping strawberries, or stringing beans, the ‘not fun’ part. I completely ignored (or more directly, ran from) the ‘fun’ part: watching the pressure cooker, boiling the juices, sugaring the berries. I realize now how foolish I was in missing out on this great skill.
And thus we come to present day when myself and my wife decided to take advantage of the dearth of grapes our backyard vine had gifted us with thanks to the hearty rains in northeast Tennessee. Grapes, grapes, and more grapes; enough to fill 4-5 gallon buckets and enough left on the vine to fill 4 more. We’d made jelly some last year, but only enough for 9 pint jars, and even then we had to use some store bought grape juice to finish the deal.
So, now we come to the “What NOT to do” portion of our show. First thing not to do: Glance at or skip reading the directions altogether! Look it up online, read the instructions that come with the pectin (if making jellies), something, ANYTHING. Know the process above all else. When we began I asked my wife what the plan was as she was juicing the grapes and she replied, “Not sure, I’m just working off memory from last year.” Being the planner type my blood pressure shot up 10 points. I was however able to mention very politely that if we mess up, we waste a lot of great fruit and our family’s time that came to help us pick. Tally ho!
Next thing not to do: entrust that someone else knows what the plan is. You must know what is going on and find out for yourself if you must. When there was a lull in the action in the kitchen, I scampered off to my iPad to look up the process. I relayed the process to those in the kitchen and promptly found deaf ears as they continued mission. Several steps were done inversely or not at all at this point and caused solidification issues later in the process. Harumph….
Another thing not to do: when things aren’t turning out correctly, do NOT say, ‘I told you so’. This may result in the prompt formation of a bruise or cut on or over one or both of your eyes, cheek, nose or lip. When the first batch of jelly didn’t gel and I reminded her (middle of the 2nd batch) of jelly that she had added several ingredients in the wrong order, left out 1 step altogether and forgot to add water. She asked, very sternly why hadn’t I mentioned it before now. When I advised I had, but she had neglected to listen things turned rather cold in my kitchen.
While everything didn’t turn out horrible, there were some jars that didn’t quite come up to par. We did learn a lot however, and later batches did turn out much better. All the headaches and troubles could have been avoided however by following simple instructions, being patient, and communicating with one another. Hmm, sounds more like a life lesson than a lesson in canning! … and knowing is half the battle.
I’ll leave you with a few things to do that will hopefully improve your first time experience: make sure you have ample supplies in advance. Leaving in the middle of a working jelly production line to get more jars, pectin, lids and centers can be a horrible thing to do. I’m fairly certain this fact lead to the further degradation of our jelly haul. We’d prepared to make about 24 jars. We had enough juice to make over 60 jars when all were crushed and counted. If you are canning, having some left over jars at the end isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So if your budget allows; buy some extra.
Take 10 minutes at the start and everyone read the directions. If you have done this yearly for several years then you may skip this step, especially if working strictly from memory. However, I do recommend at least walking through the process in your head before you get going. My Granny made a mistake once and cost her several jars of green beans and gave rise to a 4 letter word solo that made me blush. Make sure each person has read the directions. There is no such thing as knowing too much. Well, there is, but it doesn’t pertain to canning or food preservation. I digress. Talk about what is going to happen, assign jobs or tasks for each person if need be.
Lastly, try to find someone with experience to work with & mentor you a spell before you decide to jump in feet first. In this day and time this is a difficult step to complete. It may well be impossible for you to find anyone that knows about canning anything. Try to network your friends, preferably those that might have a relative that still holds onto the tradition. When you become an adept at it, pass it along to your friends or children. While canning and food preservation won’t be a skill that disappears, it is definitely becoming more difficult to find people who think it is as simple as going to the grocery store.