• One Minnesota Writer

EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Canning Lessons

This week, I’ve been trying my damnedest to practice being in the moment, being grateful, and using what I have. Oh, so Zen-like. August has this effect on me, with its reminder that summer is waning and the light is shifting and the garden is giving up its produce for anyone who’s paying attention.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time these past few months not just gardening, but reading about food production, health, and pesticides, and agricultural policies made interesting by people like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve thought about what it means to grow our own food and preserve it for the winter months ahead. Are we using what this place offers to the best of our abilities and in ways that are kind to the environment?

Anyone who has paid attention to the idea of sustainability asks themselves that question over and over. In my case, it sometimes gets phrased as, “Do I really need to go through the Taco Bell drive-thru when I have a fresh tomato from my garden that will make a perfectly good sandwich?”

Sometimes sustainability questions are pretty simple.

Anyway, yesterday, I took finally took my own garden’s produce and learned to can. I come from a family who didn’t grow food or preserve it while I was growing up, although I was surprised to recently learn that my mother canned food before I was born. (Really? My mom occasionally burned Totino’s Pizza on Saturday nights because she just plain didn’t want to stand in the kitchen long enough to watch it in the oven. She really preferred going out.) It’s no surprise to me that I don’t know how to do a lot of things related to growing and preserving food or that I’ve come to this so late in my life.

But at least I got here. And I’m growing cucumbers that are the most prolific things I’ve ever seen that aren’t rabbits.

So I started my own canning lessons with the cucumbers. Yesterday, I canned my first pickles. I followed advice I had heard that the best pickles are made from cucumbers picked that day, so off I went in the morning and gathered these:

Then I set about slicing them. One of the things I love about cooking in general is the slicing of things, how the food feels, how it smells, the beauty of the insides of vegetables and fruits. Cucumbers have beautiful insides.

Once I had the cucumbers and some onions and garlic ready, I followed my recipe’s instructions to add the pickling salt, cover everything with cracked ice, and leave it all in the fridge for several hours.

During the time the cucumbers were sitting in the fridge, I sterilized jars and lids and re-read the canning instructions again. I was a little apprehensive about making a mistake and creating a jar full of something that would make someone else sick. But a former poetry editor ought to be able to pay enough attention to details that nothing gets missed, right?

This is the thing about canning and cooking in general – multitasking is a bad idea. Trying to do something else at the same time makes room for huge mistakes that render whatever food is being prepared inedible. So, my lessons yesterday were not just for the canning process, but for letting everything else I could be doing go. 

Then I did hit a point where all I had to do was wait for the cucumbers’ fridge time to be up, so that was when I did something else. I wrote. And, because I was already in a state of mind where I was very much thinking about that which was right in front of me, the poem I worked on came rolling out of my pen (no computer in the kitchen where I was staying put) in a way that just worked. There is now a draft ready to be revised and sent somewhere. I haven’t had that kind of luck all summer as I’ve dashed from one thing to the next, even though the things I dashed to were summery kinds of things.

It took a day of canning to slow myself down to the sort of pace that welcomed creative work completely.

The pickles turned out pretty well, too. I’ll be thinking of August every time I open one of these jars.

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