Food preservation is a big part of my life. I helped the ladies in my family make jam (no water bath only paraffin, ugh) and other preserves as a kid and young adult, and I’ve been doing it independently for the past 22 years.
I love that my life is so intimately connected to the seasons and my land base. My history with food preservation tells the story of my life: where I live, who I live with, what I eat, what I do. 22 years ago I was making freezer jam in an apartment in Seattle with my husband and little baby. 19 years ago I was making real jam and canned salsa for the first time. Two cases of jam seemed like a lot at that time, because it was just two adults with a little toddler. My food choices were much more about prices than politics.
Over the next few years, my food preservation practices changed a great deal. I moved to a stone cottage in the middle of the woods with no electricity or running water, and although our garden at that time was fairly wee, we had more time than money and spent many hours foraging for food. Huckleberry jam, oregon grape preserves, and more blackberries than we could eat. We experimented with our root cellar and learned how to use it more effectively: carrots in sand work great, carrots in sawdust work well too but cedar sawdust+carrots=cedarcarrots. As our garden grew and we relied on our foraging efforts, we could no longer ignore the difference in quality and nutrition in the food we grew/harvested vs the food we could afford to purchase in the grocery store. This, along with a few other key observations, led us to shift more toward food choices that were political or ideological in nature, rather than merely affordable. Unfortunately for us, our budget didn’t increase and so my savvy as a smart shopper had to grow so that we could enjoy the quality of food we felt was best.
And our ethics around lifestyle changed as well. In those early days we had to carry each gallon of water by hand 1000 feet from the creek or spring, the value of every drop of water became apparent. We realized that, even when available, paying to store food by freezing isn’t really sustainable for us. From a purely economic standpoint, it makes more sense to preserve food in a manner which doesn’t include a monthly bill. And as we became more connected to the world around us, we confirmed our commitment to decrease our level of consumption. There are four hydroelectric dams within a 40 minute drive from our home. These dams are promoted as being much “cleaner” than coal, and perhaps there is something to that. But they certainly have had and continue to have a massive impact on our local environment. (*A good friend, and founding member of our farm is featured in a really lovely movie called DamNation-watch it!) I wish that every small community or neighborhood or household was responsible for creating and maintaining their own electrical grid. When you are connected, you are conscious. And you make decisions and choices which reflect that consciousness. When I carried that water every day, I was conscious of it’s value, my usage, and how my usage may affect the source. When you have to haul, chop, stack, and build a fire to heat your home…you understand the value and without a lot of consideration it becomes much easier to use what you actually need rather than what you may want or desire. Although it would be convenient, and although I could afford to store bushels of food in a freezer, I am conscious of the fact that each frozen bag of blueberries directly contributes to our dwindling salmon run. It’s not a perfect system–some foods can be sun dried in our climate, but not many. I’m just choosing to try for a reduction by drying fruit in a dehydrator for 6 hours instead of running a freezer for 6 months.
Over the years I’ve really been able to create more of an efficient and precise system. I stopped making cases of plum jam, because my family just doesn’t like it as much as they do the other varieties. Some foods are only enjoyed seasonally—aside from being nutritionally inferior, we’re just not big fans of canned vegetables, so we eat corn like crazy for one awesome month each year. (THIS IS THE MONTH!!!) Some preferences ebb and flow–I stopped making pickled beets for a few years until we all remembered how much we enjoy them. I found that canning at least four cases of crushed tomatoes in quarts means that we don’t have to buy canned tomato products during the year. And that more is not necessarily better-we now consume about 75% of what we preserve each season, which means that we aren’t stuck with eating 3 year old jam all of the time. It also seems that just when I really got into the swing of things, my family size changed. For some years, there were always other families with little kids around so I wound up preserving more because we fed a lot of people. Then our girls grew older, and we found teen boys or young men sharing meals with us (hint-they eat a lot). And now I’m finding that my family size is shrinking a bit, and in a few short years I’ll be putting up food just for Robert and I. How strange.
But for now, although our needs are shrinking…I still have my hands full. By the end of the season, I’ll have processed about:
150 pounds of tomatoes; 250 pounds of apples; 350 pounds of misc fruit (blueberries, aronia, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, currants, gooseberries, plums etc) ; 40 pounds of cabbage; 100 pounds of misc vegetables; 75 pounds of mushrooms…just under 1000 pounds of food!
Protocols for food safety have changed over the years, and through my work for WSU I’ve learned new strategies. I’m trying a new (to me) sauerkraut weight system right now, and I’m excited to try water bath canning pickles at a lower temperature-perhaps I’ll finally be able to make a crunchy pickle. I’m also learning more about substitutions in recipes. And yesterday I tried a lovey new thing: layered two tone jam. The bottom is a seedless blackberry jam, topped with peach and nectarine preserves. So beautiful!
AND I AM STARTING SCHOOL IN SEPTEMBER!!!