Never Too Old To Learn

A peek at a portion of my pantry.  A summer's labor of love.

Back in the stone-age, when Rick and I were first married, we lived in an incredibly small town in the mountains of western Pennsylvania.  We were a two hour drive from the nearest big city and a one hour, mountain-drive to State College, home of Penn State University and the Nittany Lions.  Needless to say, there wasn't a whole lot to do in Huntingdon.  We were surrounded by forest, farmland and coal mines, and had limited television reception as there was no cable or satellite in those days.

Determined to make the most of living in the country, I began frequenting the farmers' market which was run by the local Mennonite community. I was overwhelmed with the selection of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables and invariably purchased way more than Rick and I could eat.

The Amish and Mennonites are famous for their home-canned and preserved jams, jellies, fruit butters and pickles, which I purchased regularly.  When the winter came, it saddened me to lose the market and the opportunity to purchase the wonderful homemade goodies we'd enjoyed so liberally all summer.

The thought occurred to me, that I could save money by buying local produce in bulk, and preserving what we couldn't immediately eat, by canning the rest myself.  The only obstacle seemed to be, that I'd never done any home-canning, pickling or preserving.

Ordinarily, I'd call Mom, the gourmet cook, with my culinary queries.  But I knew she'd be unable to help, as she was terrified at the thought of home food processing.  Stories she'd heard as a child, of pressure cookers gone wild, combined with her fear of poisoning her own family, were enough to keep her away from the summer kitchen, and canning supplies. For help and support, I had no choice but to turn to my grandmother.

All summer-long, Grandma's kitchen smelled of simmering fruit, which she later processed into gooey jams, jellies and fruit butters.  I remember watching Papap pick the little round, gooseberries that Grandma would boil, wrap in cheesecloth and hang from a knob on the kitchen cabinet, to drip over a bowl on the counter-top.  It was such a thrill to pop open a jar, peel back the paraffin and scoop out a gob of wobbly jelly months afterward, remembering the little sun-kissed berries that once were.

Sadly, Grandma wasn't physically available, having retired to a warm-weather climate hundreds of miles from western Pennsylvania.  I picked up the phone and received a handful of recipes, some helpful advice, plus the warm reassurance that I knew she would offer.  I was relieved to learn that I could avoid the feared pressure cooker by canning only foods high in acid or laden with sugar.

My first foray into canning lasted only a few years.  While expecting our second child, Rick accepted a job transfer to a more suburban area out-of-state, where I had limited access to local farm fresh produce.  My water-bath canner gathered dust until it made its way to the resale shop.

Now in my early fifties, and practically back where I started thirty years ago with both time and fresh produce on hand, I'm pickling, and preserving again.  But this time around, I've thrown caution to the wind, and purchased a pressure cooker.

My shining new pressure cooker/canner (doesn't look all that scary, does it?).

I must admit, I was timid at first, having forgotten most of what I'd learned the fist time around.  But, armed with a new canning manual, a water-bath-canner, pressure cooker and a good pair of reading glasses, I was off to the market each Saturday morning all summer.

Interestingly, the pressure canner is more of a necessity now as the acid has been reduced to astonishingly low levels in previously acidic fruits and vegetables.  Makes you wonder what else they've done to our food!

I became proficient enough with the pressure cooker, and managed to keep the food in the pot, and not on the walls, as my mother had feared.  I stand with pride in my pantry, in front of shelves sagging beneath the weight of over a hundred pints, quarts and half-pints of a variety of pickled veggies, spiced fruits, sauces, butters and jams, garden vegetables and soup.  I can't help but believe that my grandmother would be equally proud of my accomplishment.

Zucchini pickles from a recipe that Grandma gave me in 1980.

Too often, we talk ourselves out of trying something new, for fear of failure or frustration.   Americans are proud by nature, and rarely like feeling, let alone appearing, out-of-control.  At my age, I realize I have no-one to disappoint with a failure, or impress with a success but myself, and have only myself to blame if I'm bored or unhappy.

It's fair to say I'm not in any immediate danger of being bored!
For recipes and more of my adventures in home food processing, visit the Farmhouse Foodie at http://thefarmhousefoodie.blogspot.com/.

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