Preserving Food, Cheating Death

Why the pandemic keeps us putting up

The simple canning jar might have seemed like one of the more unlikely supplies to be hoarded by consumers and profiteers over the long pandemic summer, but I wasn’t surprised to see the canning shelves gutted, picked clean except for flotsam like a lone box of liquid pectin and a crumpled twin-pack of silicone sippy cup tops. 

The disappearance of jars—or more specifically, canning jar lids—happened just as the summer harvest was coming on. Though jars can be recycled for years, lids can’t be reused in the hot canners; their rubbery seal softens and molds with just enough cling to vacuum-seal it to the jar once, and only once. So canners, from the rural old guard to urban DIYers, scrambled to secure their supplies for “putting up” their lugs of peaches or green beans. 

And I, among them, scoured the stores, turning up a few dozen lids for my foraged berry jams and pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers. Not enough, this year, for tuna, but because I had already canned beans and chicken stock, I knew I’d have enough to make it through the winter.

That’s what I was thinking: Enough to make it through the winter. Where did that come from? I wondered. I am by no means a rich woman, but one thing I don’t lack is food, as evidenced by my stuffed freezers and overflowing pantry, and I am certainly not facing my very last rainy season. But that apocalyptic fear sprung up and sat in my consciousness as an imperative: PRESERVE!

Sure, it was partly the national upheavals—the pandemic, the projected food shortages caused by an overburdened food system facing a lack of labor and disruptions in the supply chain, the wildfires, the political nightmare—but I knew the words sprang from a well of homegrown anxiety that’s been with me for a long time.

Growing up, food insecurity touched me only occasionally, but it was always in the background, from stories about my grandpa dumpster diving in the Depression to my grandma still furious at her mother decades later because she died without telling the kids where she hid the apples. My family had lived in Detroit for generations, but my sister and I were the first generation to grow up in Michigan’s sprawling, semirural northwest suburbs, where ramshackle barns and tony developments coexist, dotted among lakes and along forested country roads. We had a garden and fruit trees, enough acreage for a budding forager to wonder if she could eat feral things like pears, mulberries, and crab apples. After my parents divorced, there were a few lean years before my mom remarried again, during which we ate curiosities like the pale orange stuff that everyone called “government cheese.” Midwestern thrift paired quite well with the generational trauma that stemmed from fearing hunger.

So preservation skill-building seemed a natural path. When I stumbled across Lane County’s OSU Master Food Preserver program in 2008, while I was writing my dissertation, I found my people and never looked back. After I learned how to put up food, I knew I’d always be able to stretch supplies, ensuring we’d eat even if the university system crumbled or my family dissolved. As the economy tanked, I became one of many food and home bloggers who made up the radical homemaker movement, which sought to increase self-sufficiency through DIY skills. Through homesteading and disaster preparedness, we hoped to weather any tough times ahead. I realized that preserving now meant stockpiling normalcy for later.  

Preserves have created normalcy in American households for as long as we’ve been a country. They’ve long been associated with healing and cleanliness. Blackberry syrup spiced with cloves and cinnamon, for example, was touted as a cure for dysentery in the Civil War era and a recipe for it appears in What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, believed to be the first cookbook by an African American, Abby Fisher, in 1881. Around the same time, American domestic scientists, college-trained women who used science to standardize recipes and promote home economy, were championing preservation as a way to keep produce and meats sanitized and meal-ready for home cooking. These women were the mothers of the home economists and extension educators who still teach preservation today.

But preserves go well beyond health and sanitation; they soothe the soul. In rural communities, they literally embody the labor that goes into a year of growing, harvesting, and saving. Many preservers put up jars of pickles and jams to share this hard work with their loved ones. African American chef and author Edna Lewis, who was raised in a farming community founded by formerly enslaved people in Virginia, describes the annual haul as the pride of her family in her cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking, first published in 1976. She recalls the table set for company “studded with a jeweled array of cut-glass dishes” that held “luscious rounds of jade-green cucumber pickles, dark amber, syrupy, glazed, stemmed Seckel pears, pale green squares of transparent watermelon rind pickle, all interspersed with dishes of rich, clear, wine-colored grape and blackberry jellies, adding an exotic flavor to the meal.” The vivid flavors and colors brightened up the long winter, their very presence suggesting the good year past would extend into the future. 

Like Lewis’s watermelon rind pickles or sweet Seckel pears, a spoonful of sweet-tart blackberry jam spread on a slice of warm, buttery toast in the dead of winter evokes love and hospitality for the recipient, but also preserves memories. The winey scent of blackberries wafting from a jar, for example, takes an Oregonian right into a Proustian remembrance of family outings decades ago, picking berries in the countryside brambles under the summer sun. 

Therein lies the power of preserving. Stockpiling normalcy means so much more than the arrest of rot exactly at the moment a fruit or vegetable crosses death’s door. It means more than gifts to share at a time we see fit. Preservation subverts time’s march by capturing successful work and good times and the moments we cherish most, allowing them to be opened again when we need a little sweetness. As my friend and fellow Master Food Preserver Brook Hurst Stephens relates, “When I am able to capture the essence of a day or a time in my life and store it in my pantry, that feels a little bit like magic.”    

During this challenging year, preservation has become all the more valuable to those who understand its magic. Not only does canning sanitize food, the process gives us a way to work out our anxiety. Several Master Food Preservers told me they have been engaging in “stress-relief canning,” as Lane County MFP volunteer Fyberella Percy so aptly puts it, and have been putting up more food for their families than usual, forgoing experiments and gifts (because who has lids for that?).

“I think all of my preserving projects have a Zen-like quality to them,” Stephens says. “A sense of calm comes over me when my hands are busy pitting, peeling, and chopping. I also get some of my best creative thinking done during these times; I’ve intentionally used prepping produce as a way to brainstorm about other things I am working on in my life.”

Stephens even cans fruit on vacation. (Did I mention how much I love these people?) 

Kristen Liberty, another Master Food Preserver, believes that the act of preservation anchors her to a collective ancestry of women who put up food. “As a White person, without culture,” she says, “I do feel like it connects me to my ancestors. Maybe not my ancestors, but someone’s.” For Liberty, preservation not only represents a link to the past, but also acts as a barometer of her hope for the future, sorely tested this year. “Canning is a good sign of my mental health. [It means] I believe there is a future where I am going to use these items,” she tells me. 

In a Facebook chat, my friend Heather Arndt Anderson, a culinary historian, expressed her thoughts on our emphatic need to preserve. We met during the radical homemaker movement of the late 2000s, and we share the feeling that canning soothes our reptile brains’ fear that we won’t have enough to eat. But for Arndt Anderson, it’s more complex than stimulating the basal ganglia. “[The movement] made tangible my time spent in the kitchen and garden,” she muses. “Canning was also a way to underscore my autonomy as an educated former career woman. I was so worried that motherhood would come to define me as it does so many women. My abilities as a homemaker needed to go beyond parenting and keeping a clean house.”

In gaining agency as a canner, Arndt Anderson embodies the pride and independence that often gets overlooked by so-called feminist critiques of domestic scientists then and now. With its educational and experimental mission, the radical homemaker movement provided an alternative form of community shared largely online, encouraging a mostly young, professional, urban crowd to explore their local foodsheds and create relationships with farmers for purchases of bulk produce, to understand land use and environmental issues in their communities, and to seek knowledge from elders still involved in traditional preservation practices. 

Preservation, in this regard, stimulates alliance building at a time when we need community most. It has the potential to reduce anxiety in ways that go beyond having stores in case of emergency. It’s where the personal meets the political.

And where the personal and political really clash in the preservation world is in the art of fermentation, which has become a subculture of its own. An older and wilder form of preservation, fermentation eschews the model of sanitation and scientific accuracy embraced by the domestic scientists. Unlike home canning, where end products can be replicated if one simply follows the instructions, fermentation relies on many variables to achieve its process, from temperature to microbes. For this reason, it has been largely disregarded or even discouraged by more traditional preservation teaching programs, which seek to eliminate microbes, not encourage them. Without standardizable recipes, fermentation is more of an art and less of a science than canning.

Activist Sandor Ellix Katz, perhaps the most famous fermentation guru of our times, seizes on this wild nature as a powerful metaphor in his most recent book, Fermentation as Metaphor. Katz, who started fermenting food after being diagnosed with AIDS decades ago, credits ferments as part of his healing. He sees the actual transformational process of fermentation—with its activation and agitation and bubbly inability to be repressed—as providing the perfect framework for change in thinking about the world. Exploring the dual meanings of culture and fermentation, both social and biological, he decries domestic science–style canning, which eliminates bacteria, as being symptomatic of a culture that seeks to eliminate impurities that contaminate strict racial identities and gender binaries. “Survival will require a great deal of adaptability to change,” he writes. “Fermentation offers potent metaphors for imagining change and communicating about it so that we may take collective action.”

For the courageous preserver, fermentation can be a site of creative play and experimentation, strengthening one’s confidence in transforming food without standardization or strict recipes. Arndt Anderson, who teaches the occasional fermentation class and incorporates it into her daily practices, considers fermentation to be a flex, as it often encompasses bigger and more time-consuming projects, like miso or charcuterie. Liberty, who makes a mean candy cap kombucha, also loves the flavors and textures of fermentation. “Canning is arresting, compromising,” she says. “Fermenting is bringing new flavors, amending nutrients, literally adding life. Fermenting is alchemy and witchcraft.” 

As I chop and salt cabbages, pressing them into crocks to emerge reinvigorated as sauerkraut, I must say I agree. Ferments are the zombies of the vegetable world. The magic of fermentation lies not in halting death, but in creating an afterlife for vegetables and fruits. My sauerkraut will have more vitamins, probiotic microorganisms, flavor, and fizz than any cabbage did while it was alive. It is dead and yet teeming with life. Eating it, I will feel animated and uplifted—exactly the opposite of anxious.

In these troubled times, then, in this difficult winter, there is hope for an afterlife. Preservation—arresting and safeguarding, gathering and revivifying—gives us new ways to maintain our health and communities. And with apologies to Katz, what better culture for change could one wish for in 2020 than creating your own zombie army to fight off the apocalypse?     

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