The Zen of Canning
“Bright red, perfectly round, tennis- ball-sized tomatoes fresh from the vine…
dozens of them piled on the kitchen counter…
a wealth of bounty? Or a curse of work?”
By Katt Tozier
Just when all of the cucumbers have been pickled – garlic dills, bread and butters, mustard pickles; – the tomato harvest begins.
There’s barely a breath between canning cucumbers and canning tomatoes (and let’s not even discuss all that zucchini!).
A pickle is a pickle is a pickle for the most part, with subtle variations of flavor.
But tomatoes – oh! tomatoes. So many possibilities. There’s salsa; there’s stewed tomatoes with onions and peppers; there’s pasta sauce with fresh basil; there’s tomato paste; there’s tomatoes with jalapeños and chili powder; there’s whole tomatoes for making fresh sauce in the middle of the winter.
On the other hand, the darn things can be overwhelming because they ripen by the truckload, even though I plant at least two different kinds to, theoretically, prevent this from happening.
So what to do with an avalanche of tomatoes?
Get into the zen of canning, of course!
In my humble opinion, all of that chopping and slicing and blanching and peeling is far better done while listening to great music or favorite podcasts, or having a great conversation with a canning partner.
Alas, most often I can alone, so it’s usually music and podcasts.
And that leads to zen moments. I’ve been in the middle of chopping an endless sea of tomatoes and been stopped in my tracks by something profound I hear a podcast guest say… and I go down the rabbit hole of thinking about all the ideas that arise from that one thought while I continue to chop.
The rhythm of repetitive motion lulls you into a meditative state, and when it’s done to the tune of soaring piano and guitar chords, it’s meditation on steroids.
Ah-ha! moments occur.
Duh! moments arrive.
Before I know it, I’ve chopped up 40 or 50 tomatoes and I have enough for a canner load of quart jars.
All the tomatoes go into a big kettle, to which I add handfuls of fresh-picked basil, onions I’ve pulled from the garden and diced, sometimes pressed or chopped garlic. As it’s simmering on the back burner, melding the flavors subtly together – but maintaining that fresh-from-the-garden flavor by never allowing it to boil – I steam the jars in the rack while the canner water comes to boil.
Just before it’s up to temperature, I fill the jars one by one from the kettle, then top them off with a teaspoon of canning salt and a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice, then add the seals and rings, and pop them back into the canner rack.
After 45 minutes in the boiling water bath out come the lovely jars of seasoned tomatoes that, over the winter, will be turned into spaghetti sauce that will bring back the flavor of summer.
Canning, for me, began as a healing practice. My parents divorced when I was eight years old, and my mother, sister and I moved away from the farm where I’d lived as a small child. Daddy remarried and I began spending most of my summers on the farm with him and my stepmother.
My stepmother did everything from scratch – cooking, baking, clothes- making. They had a huge garden every summer and grew everything imaginable. Canning began in earnest in July. There were sterilized jars everywhere, and something was always in the water-bath or the pressure canner.
I helped chop and dice and slice in the farmhouse kitchen, while the summer breeze blew in through the porch windows and country music played on the kitchen radio. I proudly carried the cooled, sealed jars upstairs to store in the cupboards Daddy built under the eaves.
In the winter, when I’d spend the weekend, my stepmom would send me upstairs to bring jars of goodies down to add to our Sunday dinner, bringing a bit of summer pleasure back. We’d sit down after church to a farmhouse-style gourmet meal while the wood stove burned merrily, and when the meal was done, Daddy would light his ever-present pipe and sit quietly listening to us chatter while we did dishes.
Canning, for me, brings with it nostalgia for those much simpler days. And it brings with it the feeling of warmth and safety – both the lazy summer kitchen days and the lazier winter weekend days.
And when I look at the jars lined up on my kitchen counter, and stacked up in the pantry, I feel the safety and security that nostalgia invokes. It’s a little piece of the past I can recreate every time I gather a harvest from the garden.