It’s a sickness, canning.
I recently went on record, in a cantankerous rant, as believing that freezing, for most applications, is a far better preserving technique than canning. Since then, I’ve become even more skeptical of preserving harvest bounty in little jars.
So why can’t I stop doing it?
I remember a conversation with my stepson Eamon, many years ago, in which he made the case that grape jelly was good for you because it was fruit. It’s a reasonable position, when you’re six. I explained to him that jelly wasn’t fruit. It was beautiful purple sugar. I told him how jelly was made (it was something like, ‘the grapes walk through the sugar bowl’). I showed him the nutrition label. I explained that grape jelly was the nutritional equivalent of cotton candy.
(Now, aren’t you glad I’m not your stepmother?)
Fast forward eight years, to my unbelievable good fortune in finding a friend with a grape arbor, and no taste for grapes. I have a virtually limitless supply of beautiful Concord grapes, and what have I done with them? Taken them for a walk through the sugar bowl.
I made my first batch of grape jelly as we were expecting Hurricane Earl. To turn grapes into jelly, you do three things. First, you make juice and remove any part of the fruit likely to harbor actual nutrition, like the skin and flesh. Second, you add an absolutely ridiculous amount of sugar, like three-quarters of a cup for every cup of juice – that means you’re adding 600 empty calories to eight ounces of what used to be fruit juice. Third, you cook the hell out of it, thereby destroying any vitamin or phytochemical that managed to hang on.
Then you put it in precious little jars and pass it off as something wholesome.
It’s GRAPE JELLY. When Welch’s makes it, we turn up our collective culinary nose. But I looked at my precious little jars and my pioneer-wife pride swelled all up. I showed my beautiful jars to Kevin, and he told me they were indeed beautiful.
I felt like a provider, even though what I was providing was exactly what I pooh-poohed just a few years before. And I’d pooh-pooh it again, if it came from the supermarket. But the fact that it was Melissa’s grapes, which I picked and processed myself, doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. It’s GRAPE JELLY.
I was having a great deal of trouble coming to terms with my grape jelly, so there was only one thing to do. I made more.
This time, I tried to pretend I was doing something other than making grape jelly by including other ingredients, which would change (read: elevate) its flavor and make it a little less Welch’s. I had access to both rose hips (from a beach in Dennis) and cranberries (from the bog of our friends Linda and Dan), and I though either of those might cut the almost cloying sweetness of the pure grape version.
Let’s face it, I was going for sophisticated, always a stretch for me.
So I made juice out of the rose hips and cranberries, and I called Mary. Mary has done a lot of canning, and I think jelly has a much better chance of turning out well if she’s involved. I shlepped my grape, rose hip, and cranberry juices, as well as the huge container of sugar we keep to feed the bees, over to her house, and we got to work.
We made three batches. Besides all the grapes, I had a batch of raspberries from our friends Doug and Dianne (I know you’re wondering how I managed to acquire so many friends with fruit, and I’m here to tell you it’s a combination of charm and craven obsequiousness), and Mary and I did a reprise of the anise-flavored jam we made last year. Then it was on to the grapes. First, grape/rose hip, then grape/cranberry.
Which brings me to yet another problem with canning. It uses absurd amounts of energy. We started working at about 9:30 in the morning, and the burners were going almost non-stop for three hours.
After those three hours, though, we had a whole lot of precious little jars. I was very impressed with our accomplishment. Mary was, too, and she doesn’t even like jelly.
But if you really think about what we accomplished, it boils down to this: we took some grapes, and a few raspberries, for a walk through the sugar bowl. We turned wholesome fruit into caloric junk, and we did it in the most energy-intensive way possible. There’s no pioneer in it.
So why is it I can’t wait to go ask Melissa if there are any grapes left?
It’s a sickness, canning.