The recent recession, for better or for worse, has been providing something of a crash course in U.S. history. It is as though the public imagination is searching for answers and perspective by rummaging through the unemployment figures during the Great Depression, images of soup lines and shantytowns. Perhaps we are also seeking inspiration. For the first time in decades we are being called upon to remember the Victory Gardens during World War II, a time when hardship and a notion of shared sacrifice led to an explosion in backyard and community gardens.
The bounty of harvest season in Minnesota is quickly descending upon us. During this precious window, where you can show up at the farmers market and get produce at its freshest and ripest for great bargains, it may be time to consider another hallmark of the World War II era: canning.
Canning and preserving food went hand in hand with the Victory Garden effort. The National War Garden Commission promoted preservation of Victory Garden harvests in the interest of food security and patriotism. One wartime poster shows a young woman draped in an American flag, raising a mason jar in the air much like the Statue of Liberty’s torch, under the caption: “Are YOU a Victory Canner?” Another depicts a woman in an apron, pouring into jars from a saucepan, declaring “Can all you can: Food thrift — your patriotic gift.”
A little research reveals that the wartime propaganda was successful: by 1943, 75% of women were canning for household use. Another interesting phenomenon at that time were community canning centers — over 5,000 nationwide. These centers reportedly provided equipment, like pressure cookers, that could be used for a fee by community members.
However dire the economic reality these days, however trendy all things homegrown and local are becoming, you would think that a practice so tedious and fussy as canning would have a hard time making much of a comeback, right? Wrong.
Over the past months, the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR are just a few of the major media outlets to run features on the resurgence of home canning. Sales of canning equipment is already up almost 50 percent over last year, according to the Jarden company, which makes both Ball and Kerr canning supplies. Recently, the company researched their demographic: who is canning?
“Our traditional canner was a more rural woman who was a little later in life,” says Brenda Schmidt, brand manager for Jarden. “Now, we’re seeing a surge of younger people, primarily between 35 and 50.”
The reasons for canning are changing, too. Sure, thriftiness plays a role in the current economic climate. But this canning renaissance reflects other values of the local food movement: a desire to capture the uniqueness and heightened flavor and freshness of local seasonal foods at their best.
Canning, of course, like all things culinary, is a lot science but even more art. Some of the vendors at the Kingfield Market have been perfecting their art for years. If you want to be inspired, or you want a seasoned professional to preserve the summer for you, allow me to suggest Martha’s Joy pickled peppers, Jean Davidson’s Triple Berry jam and Jerry’s sauerkraut, just to name a few.
But if you are ready to jump into canning yourself, the Kingfield Market in the upcoming weeks is your playground. Berries, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, onions — with the right recipe, almost anything can become a snapshot of August to savor in the dark months of winter. Each jar can become a history lesson, a little link to the past, a reminder that hard times have the potential to make simple pleasures all the more precious.
Zucchini Pickle Slices
1 quart cider vinegar
2 quarts sugar cup salt
1 tablespoon celery seed
2 teaspoons mustard seed teaspoon ground turmeric
5 pounds zucchini — sliced a half-inch thick
1 pounds onions — peeled, and sliced very thin
Combine vinegar, sugar, salt, celery seed, mustard seed and turmeric in a kettle. Bring to boiling, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat. Stir in sliced zucchini and onions. Cover; let stand 1 hour. Heat zucchini mixture to boiling. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, 3 minutes. Remove from heat. With a slotted spoon, immediately ladle zucchini and onion slices into hot sterilized jars, completing one jar at a time. Fill with vinegar mixture to within -inch of top, covering vegetables completely. Seal jars immediately, following manufacturer’s directions. Cool and store.
Kingfield Farmers Market
The market runs every Sunday through October, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 43rd & Nicollet. It features locally grown food, music and more. For more information, visit kingfieldfarmersmarket.org.