Slouching Toward Domestic Deity

How to can fruit and pickle veggies.


Canning is not something I did as a child. Creating jars filled with pickled beets or jam or chutney always seemed like a terribly difficult thing. So whenever I bought jars of preserves at craft fairs or farmers markets, it was with a mixture of reverence and gratitude. It wasn’t something I imagined myself doing. That was until one fateful day in the midst of the great recession, when I found myself with too many grapefruit.


The pink grapefruit were a bargain I’d found at Wegmans up state: five for $2.50. or ten servings, in-season for only $0.25. I couldn’t resist. Alas, there was not enough grapefruit-love to go around in our household and I was faced with the possibility of having to finish at least 8 of the 10 servings myself. It was then I remembered Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking, a bit of cooking inspiration I’d acquired on Amazon (used for $1.54 plus delivery). Nigella’s no-nonsense, jolly sensible approach was to make things in small quantities, sterilize in the microwave or the dishwasher – and she just happened to have a recipe for pink grapefruit marmalade which would enable me to finish off the remaining 4 servings of grapefruit in style and a sense of virtue to boot. I kept some of the marmalade and distributed the rest among friends. It was startlingly delicious.

The book that started it all

Emboldened by the grapefruit experience I decided to try to can a few things this summer. We spend most of the summer in the Finger Lakes of Western New York, where the produce is so beautiful it hardly seems real. My sketchy plan was to can a bit of summer. I pictured pulling out picture perfect jars of golden peach slices or apricots. But for this, I decided, I needed a serious book about canning. There were three at the local Wegmans, displayed along with the canning jars, jar-lifters, funnels and enameled canning kettles. Canning beyond Nigella would mean an investment.

I started with the Better Homes and Garden’s, You Can Can: A Guide to Canning Preserving and Pickling. Of the books on offer this seemed the safest choice. It was well illustrated with color photos and clear instructions explaining the different preserving techniques for high and low acid foods, preserving in alcohol, water bath canning, pressure canning, etc. The jars in the illustrations were the same sort on sale. There were recipes for canned peaches, syrups, jams, and jellies. There was an entire chapter on pickles.

An excellent overview

The next book I considered was Put ‘em Up: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook from Drying and Freezing to Canning and Pickling by Sherri Brooks Vinton. It was illustrated with cheery mix of drawings and photos of rustically labeled jars of Chili-Tomato Jam and “Pickled ‘Shooms”. The best thing about it however, was Sherri’s voice guiding the reader through the somewhat complicated process of preserving. It felt like getting the inside track from a very experienced friend. And besides, Sherri looked so nice on the back cover, like a sort of suave, casual hip-kinda food preserver, like me – or at least the way I pictured myself casually showing of my hand strung chili ristras (dried bunches of chilies that can be harvested and tossed into soups, sauces for a little “heat”).

Like a girlfriend, only it's a book

The third book I looked at was Dorling Kindersley’s sumptuously illustrated Preserve It!, Bottled fruits, Jams & Jellies, Pickles, Cured Meats. Like most anything from DK this was food porn at its best. Unlike the other two books the DK guide got into things like storing the harvested potatoes by burying them in a straw-filled trench and curing salmon. It showed frost painted blueberries heaped in exquisite mason jars for freezer storage, oven dried tomatoes, and crystallized figs. There were recipes for Apricots and Almonds in Amaretto and Rosemary Jelly (pictured on a rustic table next to an artistically lit silver spoon) There were off beat recipes for things like Clementine and Whiskey Marmalade and Rhubarb and Rose Petal Syrup. I lusted for this book.

The erotic fiction of canning guides

In the end I was sensible. I bought the basic canning kettle and a flat of pint jars. I bought the Better Homes and Gardens guide and prepared to make pickles. The problem was, I missed Sherri. Sherri was reassuring. Sherri was my friend. I drove to the supermarket in a filled with buyer's remorse and brought Sherri home with me. She guided me through the Better Homes and Gardens pickle recipe. (I’d have made hers but I discovered hers was more exotic and required things like mustard and celery seeds which I didn’t have.)

Then I decided I wanted to can apricots with almonds and amaretto. Naturally I forgot the recipe was in the DK book. I lay out the canning equipment, the apricots, the almonds, the amaretto. The recipe wasn’t there! Not in Sherri’s book or in Better Homes and Gardens! In a panic I went out and bought the DK guide (which was what I secretly wanted all along).

It hasn’t been a terribly frugal summer. I can not bring myself to tally what I've "invested". But I have pickles, apricots and brandied plums to show for it. I have strung half a ristras and I’m freezing fresh herbs. It doesn’t seem much considering my crazed process but making these things does not seem so daunting now. Besides, I have a collection of recipes to last several lifetimes.

On balance I think I liked Sherri Vinton’s book best of all but there’s no reason why an aspiring canner wouldn’t be thrilled with any of these books. And of course, I am obsessed with the DK book. My one complaint is that strange wording repeated throughout makes it sound as if you’re supposed to be processing jars without lids on them, which contradicts the book's instructions – or actually anyone’s instructions. But hey, the fantasy of Rosemary Jelly more than makes up for it!

Nancy McDermott

Fruits (and vegetables) of my labor

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