Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why Aren't You Canning?

It is August, which means prime canning and food preservation season here in the Midwest.  However, there are always those who find out that I can my garden produce and feel that it is something beyond their abilities, so I have decided to address a few common myths about home canning:

Myth:  Canning is difficult.
Fact:  OK, you do have to pay attention to what you are doing, and the first few times you will feel like everything is happening at once, but very quickly you will hit a rhythm.  I think canning is very relaxing, in the same way I enjoy knitting and crocheting, and others enjoy assembling model airplanes.  And, just like these hobbies, you can start with something relatively easy and work your way up.  I recommend starting with jam or pickles.
Myth:  Home Canned Food is a Huge Botulism Danger
Fact:  I kind of blame the USDA and other typically helpful agencies like state and county extension services, which tend to sound vaguely alarmist in their canning instructions.  Even my beloved Putting Food By takes an extremely cautious tone.  Botulism is certainly nothing to mess with, as it can kill, so instructions on home food preservation urge you to take every precaution.

But really, according to Grit magazine, there are 145 cases of botulism in the U.S. each year, about two dozen of which come from foodborne sources.  And how many people are eating food in the U.S.?  All but the three that are presumably on a hunger strike at any given time (yes, you can get botulism from Master Cleanse, so Demi Moore was until recently still at risk).  Twenty-two cases divided by the U.S. population is an incredibly small risk per person.  Avoiding home canning because you are afraid of botulism is like not shaking hands in this country because you are afraid of Ebola.

Myth:  I can't make anything of value.
Fact:  This myth burns me up, especially when I saw a recent article that predicted that interest in home canning would wane because all you can make is condiments.  Yes, pickles and jams are the most common products to can, and they count as condiments.  However, this overlooks the fact that almost every culture on the planet has found a way to make pickled vegetables and include them as a food source; it is our food culture that mandates that pickles are used as a slice on a burger rather than a pile on a plate.  And, water bath canning is an easy method for preserving tomato chunks, sauce, and juice, none of which are condiments and all of which are dead easy to make.  Finally, let's not forget the economic (and enjoyment) value of avoiding buying all those condiments in the store and instead enjoying your own.

Myth:  I'll just lose money and fail spectacularly.
Fact:  If you have to start your canning operations from scratch, you will not be making money the first year.  You will have to buy jars, lids, a canning funnel, and a water bath canner (stock pot with rack) at minimum.  However, you will reuse all of these every year except the lids, which I think are about $1.49 a dozen.  After that first year, you will be saving money.

As far as failure, we have quite a little sub-genre of books that address the spectacular failure angle of home sustainability, supposedly to humorous results.  The $64,000 Tomato, Farm City, and My Empire of Dirt are all variations on the theme of innocent person who decides to embrace sustainability all at once and winds up investing 16 hour days and a life savings into rehabilitating a residential lot and trying to live off it.  The protagonists fail or have only limited, possibly Pyrrhic, victories.  No wonder people think this is hard. 

Remember, though, that sustainability is all about taking one step at a time.  I started gardening on my current property with only a small garden patch, and we did not pay off the mortgage from pickle savings that first year.  However, I now grow and preserve enough food to take about $2,000-3,000 off our food bill every year depending on how you do the math.

So there you have it.  I urge you to give home canning a try; here are some resources to help you out:

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