Erin Berens was always intrigued by the food canning process. However, she was a little intimidated about tackling what looks like an overwhelming job.
Then, when the pandemic struck last year — affecting supply chains for food and other necessities across the country — the wife and mother of four decided it was a good time to begin. She started with the surplus from the family’s home garden.
“I decided maybe we could eat a little healthier if I canned my own vegetables, and pandemic-induced shortages nudged me to move on it,” says the Wayland resident.
Approximately 60 jars, a mixture of quarts and pints, were the result of her summer’s harvest. As a result, green beans, spaghetti sauce, salsa, pizza sauce, and tomato soup were at her fingertips for meal prep throughout the winter and beyond.
“It’s really not as hard as I thought, but it is time-consuming,” Berens says. “The tomato products were really helpful because we use a lot of it. My kids don’t like frozen beans, and everyone likes canned beans.”
This year, she plans to preserve more of the same and try canning chili, corn, and whole potatoes, as long as the garden produces beyond what the family will use through the summer.
Berens’ biggest success was overcoming her fear of the pressure canner, a large and loud kitchen appliance that hisses, steams, and jiggles, and conjures disaster stories of exploding devices that create epic messes. Her experience was smooth and pleasant.
She says another accomplishment was the beginner’s luck of having no failed seals.
Last year’s investment was high since she had to purchase jars, but Berens feels the investment will pay off in time. She expects savings in the family food budget, especially since she preserves only what they grow.
“I highly recommend canning if you are at all interested,” she says. “I am just having fun with it and enjoying the process.”
Passing the baton
Laid off since March 2020, Kim Lillibridge, of Bravo, had the time to take over the canning normally done by her husband, Mark Ludwig.
“He told me how to do it; I had helped before, and mostly complained about the mess,” she says. “He planted an apocalypse garden last year, and we had so much produce.”
Salsa, tomato soup, stewed tomatoes, and dill relish were all part of her solo canning experience.
Her husband already owned more than enough jars, and stocked up on lids early in the pandemic, afraid of being without when produce was ripe.
Lillibridge enjoys giving her creations as hostess or housewarming gifts. But the best part of canning is simply going to the basement for food. “I don’t like grocery shopping, and there is nowhere close to get groceries anyway,” she says.
She admits making rookie mistakes, like occasionally forgetting to dry a jar lid before adjusting the metal lid and ring prior to cooking, a sure way to produce failed seals.
“It was also hard to get the salsa spicy enough, and I am a little disappointed with that product.”
There is no real plan for 2021’s canning season, but Lillibridge says the job will probably revert back to Mark once she regains employment.
Seasoned with experience
While some were tackling food preservation for the first time because of a pandemic, it was summer as usual for others.
Amy DeKruyter, of Holland, and Joan Donaldson, of Fennville, went about their normal canning routines, preserving fruits, jams and jellies, tomatoes, vegetables, pickles, meat, sauces, and pie fillings. Mostly, they stick with methods and recipes they’ve used for years, though they occasionally try a new recipe to use up all the produce in their extensive home gardens. Their full pantries require minimal supplementation throughout the winter.
Farmer and homesteader, Joan Donaldson didn't change her approach to canning last season and filled her pantry with food from their large garden.
Combined, the two women have nearly a hundred years of canning experience. Both learned while working at their mothers’ and grandmothers’ sides, working together as a family, sharing the tradition, passing it to the next generation.
“It is a heritage and tradition,” DeKruyter says. “I love canning over freezing; it is so satisfying to go to the pantry and see jar after jar, dozens of jars prepared by me for our family. And almost all of that is free stuff from my garden or our farm, and we have all that wonderful food to eat for the year.”
Donaldson began canning in earnest in 1975, the summer before she was to be married, knowing that she would soon be a young bride on a slim budget. Since then, as a farmer and homesteader, canning she says, “is just what I do.”
“I went to the church ladies, my mother, and grandmother and got some cans to start with, and I still use them today,” she says.
“When you can, you don’t throw away the jars, you don’t buy something in plastic and throw it away,” DeKruyter says.
Donaldson has been using some jars for more than 50 years and thinks about her ancestors who performed the same tasks using the same utensils as she uses today.
Besides satisfaction, both agree that canning is an art form that manifests in colorful pantries and tasty food.
“I think it is a creative process,” DeKruyter says. “Yes, maybe you are sitting around the table with family members and peeling a whole bushel of pears, but maybe you add a different ingredient or do something different that adds to the creative process.”
Controlling the source of a family’s food consumption is something both women hear as common reasons beginners want to learn. Many are looking to avoid dangerous pesticides used on a lot of purchased produce.
From the vantage of her organic u-pick blueberry fields, Donaldson noticed customers asking more questions about canning and a growing interest in home food preservation even before the pandemic.
“I tell them to get a Ball Blue Book, where they will find sound information on how to preserve foods and good recipes that put the produce to use,” she says.
Interest revived in heritage and tradition is as satisfying to the soul as nutritious food is to the body. Both women hope that renewed interest will continue as they welcome new members to the canning way of life.