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The Secret of Canning

Canned Whole Tomatoes
Why did they do it? All those grandmothers and a few grandfathers, sweating over a steaming cauldron of water, filled with canning jars. Canning looks so labor intensive. Why not just run down to Stop and Shop and buy a few plastic bags of frozen fruits or vegetables? I discovered the answer while canning tomatoes with my friend Robin.

When I was in my twenties and living the full back-to-the-earth life in Oregon, I grew a robust garden in the back yard. I canned with my husband, with friends, and on more than one occasion, with visitors who had simply stopped in to say hi. “Sit down and start snapping these wax beans,” I said as I put a mountain of golden beans in front of the visitor.

What I didn’t grow, I picked: Queen Anne cherries, pears, apples, peaches. Every nook in our tiny rental house was stacked with gorgeous jars of fruit and veggies. The visual impact was stunning with the golden hues of peaches, brilliant reds of the tomatoes, the vertical stacks of string beans. But somehow, I had gotten too busy to can, moved east, and discovered multi-tasking, the internet, and Face Book.

But here’s the secret that I had forgotten in the rush of progress. Canning is about friends. You can’t really do it alone. (I have but it’s terrifying. I don’t suggest it.) I drove out to a farm stand where I bought a bushel of the most beautiful tomatoes. Then Robin arrived the next day. She is heir to all of her grandmother’s canning knowledge and she was the captain of the ship on our expedition. We set up an assembly line of parboiling the tomatoes, removing the skins, slicing them into quarters, ramming them into sterilized jars, following all the directions that keep us safe from botulism, arranging the jars in her grandmother’s special canning steamer, and setting the timer for 45 minutes. Then we did it again. We listened to the sound track from the old TV series, Northern Exposure, and Aretha Franklin. When the jars were done, it looked like we had created a work of art.

That night I wrote about all the women in my family who had canned and how delicious and memorable their creations were. I still remember a jar of green beans that I opened only weeks after my grandmother, Nanny, had processed them. They tasted like sunshine. You don’t get that from the plastic bags in the frozen foods department. This winter, I’ll invite Robin over for a tomato sauce that I’ll make. We might just taste sunshine.
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