Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Slate Magazine on Canning - Uninformed

Uniformed is a nice way of putting it.

The recent increase in the popularity of home food preservation has been hitting the press over the past few months and so, inevitably, there will be a spate of articles taking a skeptical look at the trend, so-called backlash articles. A prime example is this article on canning from Slate by Sara Dickerman (Can It: At-Home Preserving is Ridiculously Trendy).

Time to fisk. I'm a bit rusty, so bear with me.
Preserving food at home has become modish of late. The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and the New York Times have all noted the intense popularity of canning: overflowing classes, new cookbooks, obsessive blogs, and Twitter-publicized can-ins. Another, more concrete indication of the trend: sales of the Jarden Corporation's Ball glass canning jars are booming despite the recession: Its 2010 sales are up nearly 10 percent, and that's after a 2009 increase of 30 percent over 2008.
So far, so good. Canning is increasing in popularity. Premise for backlash article established. Now, the backlash.
It's cute that a practice once associated with grandmothers, 4-H-ers, zealous gardeners with too many cucumbers, and the occasional survivalist, is now a litmus test for gourmandism. But there's a revivalist fervor bottled up in those jars—enthusiasts tout the thriftiness, healthfulness, and environmental virtues of marmalades and dilly beans—that seems overwrought.
Cute. Canning is "cute." Also seemingly dismissed for engaging in this "cute" endeavor are grandmothers, 4-H-ers, and zealous gardeners who are lumped into the same category as survivalists. Presume guilt by association much, Dickerson? I don't know what Dickerson has against grandmothers, but I still hold a good deal of respect for the lessons my grandmother teaches me. As for the 4-H-ers, perhaps Dickerson is still under the mis-impression that 4-H is only for rural children who raise animals to get blue ribbons at the county fair and be auctioned off for slaughter. That is part of 4-H and, heck, that's a good thing - we should all learn more about how the animals we eat are raised and slaughtered. But 4-H is much more than that. It is for rural and urban children, and teaches them many, many things (canning and animal raising among them). In an era when atheists and homosexuals are banned by the Boy Scouts, a much more inclusive organization for children that teaches life skills is something to be encouraged, not dismissed as "cute," or lumped in with survivalists.

As for "zealous" gardeners with too many cucumbers ... is there something "zealous" about growing more than you can eat fresh? Isn't that a traditional part of gardening? Traditional gardeners grow more than they can eat immediately and preserve the surplus for eating when there isn't as much growing, or for some seasonal variety. I didn't think that this sort of gardening was "zealous". But, apparently, Dickerson's gardening friends are more in the dilettante mode, growing only enough to put the occasional vegetable on the table and not growing enough to preserve for the future.

As for there being a canning litmus test for gourmandism, I wish. Although home canning is increasingly popular, I haven't really seen that it has taken off that much in the restaurant world, only along the edges. Fresh, local and seasonal remain the biggest trends in the food world and food preservation is being dragged along behind as people finally realize that "fresh-and-local" aren't actually one word. Local can mean preserved as well. By the way, how many canning recipes did Gourmet and Bon App├ętit publish last year? I don't know off hand, but I don't recall seeing any.

Finally, the focus of the backlash. She can't really attack the flavor of home preserved food, so she goes after the thriftiness, healthfulness and environmental benefits. We'll get back to this point in a moment.
As with many food trends, today's cultish hobby was yesterday's necessity.
I'll skip the rest of the paragraph, as it is mostly just a little historical background. Now we've moved from the dismissive "cute" to the scary "cultish" and the still dismissive "hobby".

Why talk of canning? Why not simply talk about cooking? Yesterday, cooking was a necessity, now it is just a "cultish hobby," or is it? Perhaps, it is an actual lifestyle change, as we learn that eating out or eating ready-to-eat heavily processed foods on a regular basis is not necessarily such a good thing, for our health or the environment. Perhaps we've decided to eat local and seasonal, and have come to the realization that food preservation has to be a part of that to work. Or, perhaps, Dickerson intends to smear all movement towards local and sustainable eating as a "cultish hobby."
It was in the 1970s that home preserving first took on an oppositional message—it was part of that era's homespun chic. If back-to-the-landers tried to exit the commercial food economy altogether by canning their homegrown crops, dabblers could at least put up a few jars of homemade chutney to serve as a tasty, handcrafted no-thank-you to Smuckers. But this fondness for handmade preserves didn't stick around. The anti-corporate-food revolution softened its edge and quickly became indistinguishable from the specialty food industry. Au courant pantries featured jars of preserved food from faraway lands (Italian cherries, say), not one's own backyard.
This paragraph makes my point above. The fresh, seasonal and local movement also had its origins in the 1970s homespun chic. That movement too, softened its edge and nearly disappeared. Now it is back with a vengeance. Canning is just a few years later to the party.

Dickerson seemingly actually agrees with this, and her next paragraph pretty much makes this same point. Unfortunately, she continues:
But don't be fooled: Along with independence there is plenty of self-congratulation. These culinary trophies are emblematic of a project-based food relationship that we urban food junkies are prone to indulge these days: athletic all-weekend bouts of cheesemaking, or bacon curing, or jam and pickle making are so much more bloggable and boastworthy than making a decent brown-bag lunch five days in a row (I should know—I'm occasionally susceptible to such fits of showy industriousness, most often guided by Christine Ferber's gem, Mes Confitures.)
Well, I suppose someone could start a blog dedicated to their daily brown-bag lunches, but who would read it? Sure, I blog about some of my more interesting canning, but who wants to read "pressure canned 18 pints of pinto beans today. Sale on chicken, will can about 20 pounds tomorrow," on a regular basis? It's called "writing for an audience." Frankly, I think it would be more self-indulgent simply to record every mundane thing you do (hello, Twitter).

After all, who would read Dickerson if she wrote about the more mundane aspects of her life, rather than backlash articles on popular trends? But, by writing about their interesting experiences and not their mundane ones, canning bloggers have brought down the wrath of Dickerson.
And let's not kid ourselves that home-canning is particularly frugal. It's not impossible to save money by home preserving your food, but it takes a little investment to get set up for it, and you certainly won't cut costs by canning $5-a-pound heirloom tomatoes. Without a source of truly inexpensive produce (like vegetables you grow yourself), you'll find cheaper products in grocery stores. (The more convincing money-saving argument is that canning keeps down entertainment costs: An evening of making and packing picallilly is a cheerful way to pass time with friends, and it might substitute for the cost of a dinner out.)
Imagine, you have to invest a little upfront to save money in the long term. Someone call an economist, stat!

Buying farmers' market produce isn't the best way to save money either. Some canning is expensive and some is cheap. The showy jams are often quite expensive, berries aren't cheap. But I walk around my neighborhood and see tons, literally, tons of citrus going to waste. And, isn't it strange that food preservers are frequently gardeners as well? Hmmm ... what a strange coincidence.
Beyond money, canning demands an investment of labor and organization. In any volume, it can be serious drudgery. My mother, whose family substantially augmented their diet with food grown in their Maryland garden, does not fondly remember her days of putting up vast volumes of green beans, peaches, and tomatoes with my grandmother—though she does admit that the results were very tasty. Furthermore, only select foods are easy to can. Botulism thrives in low-acid environments, so if you're looking to safely process beans and soups and other low-acid foods—on which you could actually base your diet—you get into the tricky business of pressure canning or the less nostalgic, less photogenic, but much simpler, alternative: freezing. If you're not a die-hard, you'll likely only can high-sugar, high-acid foods like jellies, jams, chutneys, or pickles—in other words, condiments.
I'm sorry that canning isn't labor-free. Life is like that sometimes. You want easy, you're not a fan of being organized, go to McDonald's.

It's funny to harsh on canning for requiring organization. The first lesson I learned in cooking school, which is beat into me on a daily basis in the restaurant I work in, is "mise en place," being organized in the kitchen. Might as well dismiss cooking itself for requiring labor and organization.

So pressure canning is only for die-hards? It is slightly more complicated than water bath canning and requires a bit more investment up front, but if you are into canning for diet and frugality it is a necessity. Canning meat on sale and canning beans and soups for convenience requires pressure canning. This is where you can really save money and make better use of your labor. Yes, you might spend a Saturday canning soup or beans, but then, months later, you don't have to expend too much labor using them. So, canning is sort of like a labor-timeshifting practice. Of course, it isn't as easy as just going to the local Megalomart, but hey, do you know what relying so much on those Megalomarts is doing to our health and environment?

As for freezing. It's great. I'm a big supporter ... even have a chest freezer in addition to my refrigerator/freezer. But freezing isn't always the best option. Freezers get full, you know. And, they aren't always easy to use efficiently. Do you regularly rotate your food stocks in the freezer, Dickerson?

As for dismissing water bath canning as only for condiments. Thank you, Dickerson, for your support of the Western diet. Dickerson may dismiss them as mere "condiments," but pickles are a critical part of many diets around the world (just not so much in the U.S.). Is sauerkraut just a condiment? Is kimchi just a condiment? Do the Japanese have pickles with every element of a meal, simply because they are crazy about condiments? I could go on and on about pickles, but to put it simply, I'm a huge fan of increasing pickles' prevalence and using them to add flavor and interest to our plate, without a lot of calories and fat.

As for jellies and jams, yes, they are to be used in moderation. But using home made preserves, which usually have better flavor naturally, as well as being suitable for other flavor options you'll never get in any store, can bring flavor to a meal and satisfaction that outweighs the calories they bring. Would you rather eat more flavorless commercial dreck, or would you be more satisfied with a smaller amount of delicious homemade preserves? Your call.
And that's OK. There's nothing blameworthy about the pickling and preserving fervor, but let's be honest: It's not about producing serious food for the future, and it's not about shaking a fist at industrial food. (After all, it's not Claussen and Heinz that eco-conscious consumers worry about so much as suppliers of meat, milk, and produce.) Rather, it's about making and sharing delicious, idiosyncratic things that are also, not insignificantly, very pretty. There are few more photogenic scenes than a row of home-canned goods lined up in a sunny window (for proof check the sunlit cover of every recent preserving cookbook). And months later, that gleaming jar of blackberry preserves functions as a postcard from summertime sent into the dark grey winter. While Eugenia Bone advances political motives for putting food up, she is more convincing on the emotional tug: "Preserving is not about immediate satisfaction (for that, eat the cherries fresh). It's about anticipation. And in that sense it's an act of optimism."
Really, it isn't about producing serious food for the future? Really? I'm very serious about this. I sent in a grant letter of intent a few days ago in order to do a feasibility study for a community canning and food preservation center in Los Angeles. Maybe I won't be invited to submit a grant request, but I think I made a compelling case for such a center, not because this is trendy, but because it can be an important element of our local foodshed. Such a center would support local community gardens, which would be encouraged to grow lots and lots of tomatoes (for example), because they knew there was a facility that could assist them to efficiently and effectively can those tomatoes. Farmers could take advantage of the facility, as would the food banks, who sometimes find themselves with an excess of fresh produce that would go to waste without proper preservation. I could go on, but I believe that food preservation is a serious element of any future food policy.

As for the emotional pull, there is much to be said for it. I could wax poetic on the beauty, flavor and emotions that preserving creates., but if you are reading this, you probably already know the emotional draw of preserves. But a sound case can be made that food preservation is more than just a "cultish hobby," it is an art, craft and science that needs to become a more important part of our relationship to food.

Any points I missed? Please comment below.


  1. Thank you for this response. Very well said.

  2. One big reason I can (and I do can important parts of my diet, not just fancy extras) is to reduce waste. I throw out the plastic wrap on the case of jars one time when I buy it, and I use new lids each time (obviously). If I use a case of commercially canned tomatoes or soup, that's 12 jars going into energy intensive recycling or the trash. I love that home canning lets me to reuse jars over and over again with no more energy that simply washing them.

  3. Ernest, thanks for pointing out this article and taking so much time to address it. I left a comment at Slate . . .

  4. Actually, I used to subscribe to Gourmet, and one reason I liked it is because there were sometimes canning recipes in there. Usually condiments, yes! But great ones!

    I think Dickerson's experience of people who can is limited to the sort of people who are much as she describes. I don't really think she's talking about long-time, dedicated canners. As a couple of commenters pointed out, she is certainly not talking about rural families for whom canning is a generations-old way of life. For us, it is not a trend that's going to pass in a few years as the foodies turn to new excitements. I don't like her assessment of 4-Hers (heaven knows what she would think about FFAers), but I think there is a difference between the subsistence type canning taught in 4-H and by grandmothers and the frou-frou canning done by her friends in NYC or wherever.

  5. Britt: Thank you.

    Paper Dolly Girl: Good point. I've got jars that are decades old. I can't imagine how many times they payed for themselves environmentally speaking. And thanks for you canning posts on your blog.

    Shae: Thanks. And thanks for your post on Slate. It's great that seeing that fruit going to waste brought you closer to your food. I wish more people saw it that way.

    Julie: Thanks for the tip on Gourmet. They should do a canning book! I'm going to keep my eyes peeled for old issues and see what I can find.

    I agree that Dickerson's experience of canners seems awfully limited. But I think that the trend will continue to grow, even among the urban. Sure, some of it is a fad, but I think there is going to be a long term increase in and recognition that food preserving is important for both rural communities (who never forgot) and, especially, urban communities.

  6. My canning philosophy is this: never can anything that I can buy cheaper readymade of similar quality. That's why I don't can tomatoes (I can buy excellent local canned tomatoes at the grocery store for a great price) but I can salsa, bruschetta topping and other sauces out of those tomatoes because even a cheap jar of salsa costs $3-$4 and I make one that's a ton better for $1.

  7. Great deconstruction of this article! Thanks for discussing it.

  8. Mom: That's a good philosophy. Though homemade is often much better in quality.

    Julia: You're welcome.

  9. Thanks - I'm tired of Slate's uninformed staff writing bitchy pieces about things they clearly don't do themselves. I hope you are right and that there will be a long term increase in the recognition of the importance of food preservation.

  10. Great post! I found my way here from your comment on Slate. I'm excited to dig into the archives! I have never canned before but plan to dive in wholeheartedly this summer.

    My husband loves to garden and has provided us with food in our small gardens over the years. But we've just purchased a house (haven't even moved in yet) and he's already got tons of seedlings going in anticipation...

    One thing I haven't seen mentioned is BPA. I use canned tomatoes all the time and I'm always worried about the BPA leeching into my food. I can't wait to use tomatoes we've grown and canned ourselves!

  11. incidentalice: me too.

    Marta: Excellent! Good luck. I recommend starting with the Ball Blue Book of Preserving. Canning with someone who has some experience would also be good.

    As for BPA, you should know that the lids used for canning have BPA. However, since the food shouldn't be in contact with the lid, this is not that big an issue.