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Canning the notion of stocking a summer surplus


My friend Ralph is a great gardener. His luscious fruits and vegetables are the envy of the neighborhood, making Ralph a model of self-sufficiency. For six months a year, he wheels through the produce section of the supermarket, stopping only for bananas which, for some reason, he cannot grow. Not that he hasn't tried.

Ralph grows more food than his family can eat each summer . . . but none of what they eat in winter. That's when he trades his back yard for Birdseye. Preserving his home-grown bounty is not Ralph's idea of fun. He wants to enjoy the fruits of his labor, not labor over his fruits. He has neither time nor energy to fuss with freezer bags and canning jars.

Moreover, Ralph can't spell botulism and doesn't care to learn. Besides, he says, if he got food poisoning from eating his own food, whom could he sue?

Ralph is typical of many gardeners who balk at the thought of home food preservation. He says he is too old to learn a foreign language full of phrases like "blanching" and "petcock" and "dome lids."

It's already a pressure-cooker world out there, says Ralph, without bringing a real pressure cooker into the house.

"There are times when all of us need to blow off steam, but I'll be darned if I'll sit around waiting for a pot to do it," he says.

I've tried to reason with Ralph. I opened the pantry to row after row of home-canned tomatoes, beans, pickles and sauerkraut. (I have obtained what is arguably the world's best sweet-pickle recipe as well as a fail-safe method for making sauerkraut. Write for details).

I showed Ralph the freezer full of corn, broccoli and applesauce. None of them, I said, contain the polysyllabic preservatives found on supermarket shelves.

"Putting food by is a method of self-guided quality control," I said, quoting a line from "Keeping The Harvest," a dandy book about food preservation.

I've invited Ralph to sit in on several of my canning sessions. He was there once when I was preserving peaches. At the critical stage of the canning process, my wife telephoned to say she was stranded on the Beltway. Another vehicle had struck a road cone, which bounced high in the air and landed on her car, naturally, destroying the radiator and grill. I turned off the stove and went to find my wife. She was fine, but the radiator was ruined. So were the peaches when I returned.

Come to think of it, Ralph was also visiting the night I was canning tomatoes, and our cat waltzed in the back door with a live mouse in its mouth. "Drop it!" I hissed, waving a red-stained spatula. Ralph fled in terror. The mouse hit the floor, running, with the cat and both dogs in hot pursuit.

Everyone bounded into the basement where, after 30 minutes of hide-and-squeak, I finally captured the mouse in an empty Mason jar.

Of course, I felt I owed Ralph an explanation. All canning jars are called Mason jars, I said. They were named for John L. Mason, who invented them in 1858.

Mason jars are quite durable and rarely explode during the canning process, I told him. It has happened to me no more than 10 times in 15 years, and one season I canned 200 quarts of food. The last jar that exploded was full of plums. If you clean them up immediately, the plums come right off the ceiling.

Ralph edged nervously toward the door. I knew I was losing him, so I changed tactics. Perhaps you should try freezing your fruits and vegetables, I said. Freezing is easier than canning, and frozen produce retains more vitamins. Of course, there is the small matter of buying a $400 freezer, but a sturdy unit never fails, unless your stupid dog trips on the cord and nobody notices the freezer is unplugged for three days until all the contents have thawed to the consistency of applesauce.

"But I don't have a dog," said Ralph. Fine, I said. Then the only problem you'll have is during a power outage. In our neighborhood, that happens during every thunderstorm. But that is of no concern, because it hardly ever rains hereabout anymore.

But Ralph was already out the door. Thanks to our conversation, he found a way to handle his extra crops.

He set up a roadside stand.

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