My can-don’t attitude

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.

Three hours and a gazillion BTUs later ... more precious little jars!

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.

16 people are having a conversation about “My can-don’t attitude

  1. I hear you, I hear you. For years I only made fruit “sauces,” because they required no sugar to become beautiful, semi-spreadable sauce.

    Then, this year I was given free reign to pick on a friend’s grape arbor and ended up with many precious little jars of purple sugar. But. There are vitamins and minerals in those jars. The food is local. My chickens got the grape skins. If I’m going to give my kids peanut butter and honey sandwiches, then, peanut butter and grape jelly isn’t much different. You can buy sugar that is in a more natural state then the highly processed white, cane sugar. And you can always use less sugar than the recipe calls for.

    Enjoy that grape jelly!

  2. I really liked reading this. It’s absolutely true.
    Still, I figure that there’s got to be at least SOME more nutrition than the shop bought ones.
    Plus, if the family is going to eat junk, at least they’re eating YOUR junk, not someone elses!!!

  3. My theory – and I’m sticking to it – is there that is some primitive neurological synapse that fires when you hear that lovely little pop as the top seals… its all a genetic thing and undoubtedly and assuredly explains why I have more tomato and cucumber-based items in various sizes jars in my cellar than can be consumed in years….
    Feel free to borrow my theory –
    As for me, I am going in search of friends with fruits.

  4. I’m sorry, but I would have started a wine experiment before I turned to making jelly!! But at least what you’ll be spreading on your bread doesn’t contain lots ingredients only a chemist could identify and you have a ready-made supply of gifts / bartering currency!

  5. I love jams and jellies and wish I could eat more than I allow myself. I’m wondering if you chemically need all that sugar to make this process happen, or can you try Stevia? (or one of those non-sugar natural sweeteners?)

  6. 6512 — I wish I could believe there were nutrients left after the treatment I gave those poor grapes, but I suspect there aren’t. And my chickens wouldn’t touch the skins! Sigh. Luckily, there’s nothing wrong with purple sugar, in moderation …

    Frogdancer — You have a point. If I’m going to eat junk (and I inevitably am), it’s better that I not support the commercial junk-producers. I’ll make my own, thank you very much.

    CindyG — I buy your theory, hook, line, and sinker. That little pop must trigger the release of all kinds of feel-good neurochemicals. There’s just no other rational explanation. Good luck finding fruity friends!

    Fiona — We’re thinking about that very thing. Problem is, it’s really easy to make bad wine. It’s really hard to make bad jelly.

    Dina — You can’t really mess around with non-caloric sweeteners when you’re canning. The sugar is part of what does the preserving, and you’re asking for trouble if you even screw around with the ratios. I have no problem with artificial sweeteners, but they can’t help me here.

  7. The kids and I had some of the rose hip on bread this morning and it’s delicious! It certain tasted wholesome even if it wasn’t. It’s true nature was soon revealed though as soon after breakfast the kids bounced around the house for roughly an hour until the effects started to wear, they got hungry again (from the bouncing), and had eggs!

  8. It’s as bad canning whole fruit. We had so many peaches this year on our tree (in upstate NY thank you) that it seemed like a shame not to use them so I baked, made jam, ate and gave them away. Then I found a recipe for canned, spiced peaches and it still called for POUNDS of sugar. The only bonus is I could cut down on the sugar in this recipe, at least I think it’ll still work. Anyway I made one batch with the full amount of sugar it called for and the next with hardly any. The one with hardly any is still pretty sweet (I cracked one jar open this morning to try them because there was no point in saving them if they were gross – right?)

  9. Tamar – What do you think, sickness or compulsion? Or maybe addiction? Which category best suits?

    Your post reminded me of the social history associated with sugar. When I still had a real job as a museum curator, I catalogued a collection of household paraphernalia for using sugar, and for the conspicuous consumption of sugar: sugar cone displays, sugar cutters for cutting sugar from the cone, sugar tongs and bowls – some plain, some ornate.

    I never thought about it but jams and jellies made with cane sugar must have been like sweets (in the days before our tastebuds were besieged by HFCS, cotton candy, and marshmallow fluff). And besides looking beautiful on a table, perhaps the jams said something about the host’s weath that they could make treats with imported luxuries like sugar (as opposed to honey – can you make jam with honey? I don’t know).

    Even though white sugar is common at best, and reviled at worst in current culture, I think you’re elevating its status by creating little jewled jars of fruit with its help. Let’s hope there’s no cure for the canning sickness!

  10. Dianne — Oh, yeah, I’ve usually got fresh raspberries and dark rum going begging.

    Actually, I meant to save some, because that shrub is outstanding. Alas, I got carried away on the canning!

    Niels — You’ve been had. It’s not wholesome at all. But that just means you should enjoy it all the more. And I’m glad to see that you’ve discovered that the super-secret antidote to sugar is eggs.

    Katie — See??! I’m SO not the only one. But please be careful cutting back on sugar. I don’t have so many readers that I can afford to lose one to botulism.

    I have big-time peach tree envy. We ordered one this year, but it was DOA and was just a stick in the ground for months until Kevin got tired of looking at it and tore it out. We may try again in the spring.

    Jen — I’m sure you’re right about jellies being a status symbol. Almost every luxury is, and cane sugar was certainly a luxury in many times and places. But I’m not sure I’m going to be able to see jelly in that light. If I’m going to eat sugar (and I actually don’t eat that much of it), it seems a shame to waste the calories on grape jelly when I could be eating, say, chocolate cake.

    I’ve been told that you can make jellies and jams with honey, but when our bees start producing, I’m not sure I’m going to try. You need so much sweetener for jelly that it seems like a waste.

    Can you make chocolate cake with honey, do you suppose?

  11. I think part of what’s going on is the preservation thing. Human beings have been preserving food for hard times and the winter for millennia. Note that you went over to your friends house to do the canning. So it’s also a social act. Something we do in a group so the group can survive. And we give the resulting product as gifts symbolizing the bounty of our land and our sharing that bounty with our friends and neighbors.

    As a diabetic, I follow the “no flour, no sugar” diet and so have come to think of jams and jellies as poison – which they are to me. So I have fortunately been forced to give up the canning of jams and jellies. But I still feel the need to preserve food and share the spoils with my family and friends. So might I suggest: pickles. You can lacto-ferment almost anything. Salting: make a prosciutto (it is dumb simple) with your friends. A whole prosciutto is too much for any two people. But probably just right for 4-6. Buy animals whole and split them between families. Make salami as a group with the leftovers. Sun dry fruit – takes no energy.

  12. Kim — Pickles have been much on my mind. I pickled some beets and fennel, together, and the results were pretty good, but they were only the refrigerator kind, not the put-up-in-jars kind. But I have more beets, and more fennel, and I may go that way. We’re also thinking about pigs for next year, in which case I will most certainly be taking your suggestion on prosciutto and salami.

    As for sun-drying, it’s a pipe dream in my climate.

    I do think that the instinct to preserve, and to preserve together, is strong within us, and for very good reasons. I’d go so far as to say that most of the preserving that goes on is less about nutrition or eating locally or knowing your food’s provenance than it is about gratifying that instinct — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

    Thanks for weighing in.

    Jen — As soon as my bees deliver, I’ll need it. I’m just asking for trouble if I get it before.

  13. Would it not be possible to use canning techniques (as opposed to “Jamming” techniques) to make a preserved fruit jam/jelly/paste with less sugar? Could the extra heat-processing mitigate the loss of acidity (which is helped by the sugar? Right?! … I’ll have to go do some research on this.)

    I think we’re missing the point on preserves in general. Sure jams might be Victorian-era dainties, but when your diet was bread, cheese, gruel, etc., and became a lot blander in winter – a bit of chutney or pickle on that bread would add a world of flavour.

    The whole problem is that we live in a time of abundance, and within some minor limits, you can just about eat anything you want, whenever you want. The goodness of this debatable, as anyone who has eaten an out-of-season strawberry knows. We curse high-sugar foods as folly, but no-one has nostalgia for the bad-old-days, when a bit of jam was perhaps the only sweetness outside of late summer.

    As humans, we also value things which have a high input-effort – hand knitted garments, home made pasta, children. Home made preserves fall into this category, the elbow grease gives them value way above their status of fruity-sugars.

    Anyway … It’s obviously time you made some wine.

  14. Sounds like you need to try out Pomona’s pectin – allows for low sugar and even honey for jams and jellies. Made some grape jelly this year out of wild grapes and it came out beautifully! I’m still a big believer in canning (as well as filling the freezer). The recent hurricane threat drove that home for me. I was in a bit of a tizzy worrying we would lose so much if we were without power for too long.

    Off to put up some applesauce! 😉

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