In Search Of Perfect Canned Goods
When it comes to fairs I make a bee-line to the food pavilion. No, I don't mean the hot dogs or funnel cakes or cotton candy. I'm talking canned goods - row after row, competing for blue ribbons.
Though North Carolina's county fairs are finished for the season, there's still the mother of them all coming up - the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh, Oct. 16-21. Nearly $12,000 in "premiums" are up for grabs, some of which will go to the kings and queens of home canning.
There's something about the sight of home-canned fruits, vegetables and - yes, meats - that piques my interest. I think of these objects as glass jewels: emerald gherkins, garnet-colored beets, golden spiced peaches, ruby-colored salsa, pearl onions. Pure science meets art. Everything that can be preserved is there on the shelf, even beef, pork, chicken, pickled eggs, pie fillings, applesauce.
In a land of plenty with a supermarket in every neighborhood I should not be so intrigued by canned goods. Why would anyone go to the trouble to can a quart of green beans or a hunk of beef?
Maybe it's a genetic memory of pioneer roots, preserving a time of scarcity that grabs my attention. Maybe it's the initiative, the hard work it takes to process fresh produce. I've done a bit of it myself. I know how hard it is to pick and prepare perishable foods, much less pack them pretty.
Home canners could be doing something else with their time. Instead they're in a steamy kitchen on a hot July day. Pressure-canning seven quarts of green beans might take three hours, not considering the time it takes to pick, wash and string the beans in the first place. There's the warm-up of the canner, the pressure-building phase, placing the petcock on the steam valve, the carefully-timed processing, watching the gauge hover at 11 pounds of pressure for 25 minutes. Then comes the cooling-down phase, removal of the jars from the canner. You can get a scald if you're not careful.
Judges take the science as seriously as the product. At the State Fair, color and appearance take the lion's share of points - 60 out of 100. The rest of the credit goes to liquid, pack, appropriate size and something called "jar fill" - that is, the product is at the level of standard recommendations for the jar used.
I know what you're thinking. What's the big deal?
But home canners know the full story. The finished product is more than appearance. Taste is important, certainly, but don't forget the science! The tightrope between art and science is the challenge home canners take, and even with all the modern conveniences of a gourmet food pantry down the street, some purists insist on eating truly local, which means including home-canned produce.
There's something about canned goods sitting on a Hoosier cabinet that strikes my fancy. It's false nostalgia. My mother didn't can nor did t she own a Hoosier cabinet. I have both, and every summer I take pride in "putting up" so many quarts of green beans, peaches, salsa, applesauce and the like. It's a part of who I am.
I have never had the nerve to enter a canning competition but I admire those who take that bold step, for this, like any competition, is taking a risk - putting one's best efforts forward to see how they measure up. Visit the home canning display and think of the effort that goes into it. Think of the bragging rights for the blue-ribbon winners. You'll be happy to silently cheer them on.