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

It’s beautiful to me to have traditions that tie me to the seasons. Progress has gone to great lengths to insulate us from the natural rise and fall of the year; air conditioning and gas furnaces keep us the same temperature all year; car trips extend that same homogeneity to travel; it doesn’t much matter when the days get shorter because the lights are always on. The cumulative effect is that we feel we can effectively ignore the sun, the moon, and the weather almost all of the time--except as the subject of light conversation. The year grows flat and featureless. 

But the seasons still have so much to do with our awareness of the passage of time; they provide us with benchmarks for our growth, our work and travels. Like sleep at the end of the day, the cold, dark months are a time to draw inward and restore ourselves after the exertions of warmer times. Gardening and putting up food draw me closer to these rhythms, and the result has been a stunning proliferation of different things to look forward to, every season of the year. 

It’s easy to characterize these cycles as “the natural patterns humans left behind,” but the uncomfortable fact is that they’re also human patterns, as hard as we work in the Developed World to ignore them. To conform to the seasons is to conform also to the grand scope of human tradition--traditions of coping with the basic pattern of dearth and abundance that turns up everywhere in nature. Since time immemorial, cultures around the world have applied their infinite ingenuity to the problem of getting food to last longer. The results are astoundingly varied and equally delicious: anything smoked, cured, dried, salted, pickled, brined, fermented, sauced, brandied, jammed or jellied is likely the result of creative people trying to prolong the shelf-life of their diet until the next time of plenty. 

The only exception to this rule might be freezing, another form of food preservation that happens a fair amount in our household; it’s fast, convenient, practical, and altogether uninteresting. This is for the simple reason that whatever you take from the freezer comes out the same as it was when you put it in--aside from the exotic dash of freezer burn. 

Freezing works fine to prevent waste, but really exciting foods benefit from the extra invested effort. Like any kind of cooking, they involve a bona fide alchemy that transmutes raw food into something new and wonderful.


Canning season corresponds inherently with the peak of the summer and the year. It is a time to savor and also to look ahead. Already the days are getting shorter in August, but the fish are jumping and the cotton is high, as the old song goes. In Minnesota, it is as hot and humid as it can be, and my garden grows with a vigor that is almost unsettling to me, its supposed caretaker. It is this time of year when, bolstered by heat and rain, the trim, orderly, well-spaced plantings of May become finally unrecognizable beneath the huge, verdant mass of growth.

It is that energy, that sunlight incarnate, that the canner captures in a jar and sets on the shelf. Though the food is processed, it tastes and appears suspended in time, nearly as vibrant and full of life as the day it was picked. 

Northern people everywhere understand that it takes more than calories and thick coats to survive the trial of a long winter. These jars contain a kind of nourishment you won’t find in any grocery store: not in the bland, anonymous imported produce that passes for fresh at that time of year, and certainly not in the canned food section--the vegetable’s equivalent of a morgue, and I suspect one reason why so many people grow up hating them. 

The food I put up is food I love, especially the way I’ve learned to make it, though that’s as good a chicken-and-egg scenario as you’ll ever find. A full pantry gives me a reason to look forward to the half of the year that many Minnesotans spend the other half of the year dreading. And who can blame them? The winter here is bitterly long and wearing. But on a January morning I will wake up amid the cold and darkness and have for breakfast a dose of strawberry picking in bright June, spread thickly across a wedge of toast. At a table with friends over the winter holidays, I will open a jar of dilly beans, pluck one out with my fingers and be transported to an evening spent puttering in the garden, listening to the swell of the cicadas and snacking on whatever is at hand because it is too hot to do much weeding. No matter how many we fill and empty again, each jar of food is a special occasion, a celebration of glory past that also promises warmth and fruitfulness to come.   


As near as I can figure, that’s the best reason why I’ll spend this evening in the kitchen again in lieu of more glamorous pursuits, and I won’t be surprised if it keeps me up late. The winds are battering the windowpanes today, threatening to blow the last vestiges of warmth away and sweep autumn in out of the north, and there are apples waiting to be sauced before the last of the tomatoes come inside to ripen on the vine. Last year was a good year and we ate tomatoes that way into November, but unless I’m mistaken there may still be a few fresh ones from that harvest in the back of the cupboard, waiting until I need them.


Here's my wife's simple, winning family recipe we're calling "Cutler Apple Sauce:"


Apples (experimenting with and blending varieties is half the fun)


Sugar (we don't use it, but you might like to depending on your taste and chosen apple varieties)


Use as many apples as you want, but I'd recommend at least 6 lbs. To give you an idea, our 8-quart pot full to the brim with quartered apples yields 3.5-quart batches of sauce. If you're canning, first prepare your water bath, jars, and other canning equipment. (For other recipes, a healthy dose of caution, and general canning wisdom, I always refer first to the indispensable Ball Blue Book of Preserving.) 

Wash your apples and cut them into quarters--as many as will fit into your largest pot. Put them into that pot (skins, cores, and all) with just enough water to cover the bottom and prevent scorching. Cook them on medium heat with the lid on, stirring occasionally until the apples become so soft that they fall uniformly apart. (Be advised that different varieties will disintegrate at different rates.) Run everything through the fine setting on a food mill and return the sauce to a boil, being careful of spattering (yourself) and scalding (the bottom of the pot). Again, if you're canning, ladle the sauce into hot jars, remove air bubbles with a knife or chopstick, screw on lids, and process in a hot water bath for 20 minutes. Otherwise, enjoy it fresh after you mill it; this apple sauce, like the autumn in which it is made, will be gone before you know it.

Miss part I of this story? Find it here.

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.