The Code of the Mason Jar. A Canner's Manifesto, Part I

Making homemade pickles has been a whimsical annual tradition in my family since I was a boy, and when I first lived with my bride-to-be out West, we thought it would be nice to carry on the tradition despite being far from home. The enthusiasm that produced those first few jars of pickles soon begat small batches of jams and jellies, experiments with dilly beans, a few stewed tomatoes, some apple sauce, and so on and so forth. 

We have always cooked and gardened together, and soon found out that canning is very much a logical, aesthetic, and creative extension of those activities. Each year we have done a little more of each, and each year the three pastimes have fed one another, producing always more abundant, delicious, and inventive results. This trend has continued happily and unabated into our marriage and through our move home to Minnesota, but recently I’m growing concerned about its proportions.

I am writing in late September, and there are homemade canned goods squirreled away in nearly every room of our apartment; before I go to sleep, I invariably trip on a flat of full quart jars that doesn’t quite fit under the bed. The thought of publicly enumerating those jars makes me shudder--whether with modesty, embarrassment, or fear of a solemn intervention by my loved ones, I couldn’t say.

This year, as every year, we undertook our most ambitious “Pickle Day” to date, despite my having sworn to scale back and be reasonable. The process spans an entire Saturday of uninterrupted work, ranging from an early visit to the big farmer’s market in St. Paul, to our various gardens to harvest, then into the kitchen to soak, scrub, string, peel, and slice the seven or eight different types of vegetables we pack into every jar. I don’t believe we actually started to do any canning until about dinnertime. 

Though my wife’s patience and indulgence is apparently without limit, her ability to endure without sleep is forgivably not; she went to bed at about one o’clock in the morning, and I was left alone to finish the job. This has happened often enough before and always the conundrum is this: to let all of this beautiful, fresh-as-can be produce go to waste, or to press on into the night? Press on, I always say! Though I regret it in the morning, I’m always glad for this decision in the months to come. (Though I know the stance is unreasonable, I never consider the obvious third option, which is to let the food sit overnight and finish in the morning. Always a purist at heart, I tell myself that if we’re not going to can it fresh, we may as well get the stuff from the grocery store.)

Still, in those small hours of the morning--so-called, I assume, because they pass by in such a blur--one can’t help but get a little reflective. When, for the second time during the night, a quart of pickles shattered in the water bath just before 4:00 AM--requiring that I empty, clean, and re-boil the 4-gallon pot of water before proceeding--my reflections turned bleak and existential. I was alone in the kitchen in the pre-dawn hours: burned, cut, sweating, bleary-eyed, cleaning up broken glass, and still not done putting up the food. 

It occurred to me then for the first time how strange this all is, how far we’ve come from putting up those first few jars for fun. It’s times like these that we can’t help but reexamine our intentions--or, in this case, examine them for the first time. 


Within a mile and a half of my apartment there are four large grocery stores. Three of these are supermarkets belonging to national chains, and the fourth is a cooperative grocery; this last one is much like the others, except that people smile inside, it is full of appetizing and nutritious food, and I can willingly pay premium prices for that food in exchange for some moderate alleviation of my nagging consumer guilt. 

My point is that, even discounting restaurants, I have a historic and inconceivable abundance of food at my disposal, 24 hours a day, every day of the year--and some of it is very good. That leaves very few, if any, practical reasons for me to preserve my own food for the winter. 

In light of this abundance, here’s a practical reason to try canning at least once: the feat of putting up sixty pounds of tomatoes in one go (for example) is arduous enough that you will likely wake up every morning thereafter grateful that your life doesn’t literally depend on repeating some version of that process every day, all summer and fall, every year. If you say evening prayers, you might find yourself thanking the Lord for supermarkets, and refrigerators, and California. Gratitude is practical because it helps us to see clearly.

Another reason might be to save money. Cooking and gardening are often touted these days as creative ways to trim the household budget, and in my experience they can serve that end well enough. Both simply require discipline, and that we spend time (which is scarce) instead of money (which is scarcer). Canning is the same, though I would guess it probably doesn’t start to save you too much money until you grow your own produce or buy it in preposterous quantities. 

That said, canned goods certainly do seem to make pleasant, thrifty presents--though I’m not sure my family would say the same after all the jam they’ve gotten these past few years. 

More to the point, I think that a desire to live frugally may be an excellent reason to try home canning (or gardening or cooking), but it seems to me that one must discover deeper, more compelling reasons to continue doing these things. The desire to save a few dollars here and there utterly fails, for example, to explain the pickles under my bed. The truth is, if I didn’t have any pickles in the house, I probably wouldn’t go out and buy any.


My wife didn’t even like pickles until the first time we canned them together. This is a story I’ve heard repeated many times pertaining to the kitchen as well the garden, and I think it speaks to the old saw that everything tastes better when you make (or grow, or ferment, or raise, or harvest) it yourself. You will find a maybe-unfamiliar freshness and purity there, to be sure, but what’s really at work is this: few things taste better on the tongue than a bit of self-sufficiency. 

Kristi’s discovery of pickles also reveals something astonishing about the age of industrial food: there are innumerable foods, even entire categories of foods, that many of us have only ever experienced through restaurants and supermarkets. I had such a revelation at a favorite breakfast café out in Portland a few years back, a charming little place that serves potatoes with a small dish of homemade ketchup. This struck me as bizarre at the time, since I had practically never heard of anyone making ketchup except the H. J. Heinz Company. Let me tell you: that thick, herby, deep-colored spread I ate with my breakfast had nothing to do with that lowliest of American condiments we all know so well. 

The real problem was: I didn’t know what ketchup was supposed to taste like. Kristi didn’t know what pickles were supposed to taste like. We have to make these things ourselves to find out. 


Go to part II of this article!

Of Course I Can poster thanks to: Dick Williams. "Of course I can! : I'm patriotic as can be-- and ration points won't worry me!" via the UNT Digital Library.

Michael Pursell is a St. Paul-born, Minneapolis-based freelance writer and journalist. Among his chief passions and interests are the production, distribution, legislation, preservation, preparation, fermentation and oh yes, consumption of food and drink. His last article for us was Farming: Coming To A Neighborhood Near You.