One of the most unexpected trends of the early 21st century is the rise of home canning as a culinary hobby. It makes sense, of course, given the rising popularity of heirloom vegetables and the local food movement, that the hip modern kitchen would sport mason jars instead of microwaves. Reflecting broader concerns about industrial food production, a surprising number of American consumers would rather preserve food the old-fashioned way, if only to resist the chemicals and preservatives of modern processing.
In a small way, Hamtramck's Hillary Cherry has been at the forefront of the canning scene in metro Detroit. Cherry, 37, grew up on the west side of the state in rural Barry County, where she learned it from her grandmother about 15 years ago.
"I stayed with her when she had cataract surgery," Cherry says. "But it happened to be the time of year when Grandma usually made her currant jelly." And so Cherry became her hands and eyes, learning how to "can" jelly by the jar.
She has lately refined food preservation to a fine art. Cherry co-founded a local canning group, and has personally put up as many as 1,200 jars in her Hamtramck larder. She's also something of a food preservation historian, using century-old recipes she's scoured used bookstores to find. What started out as an effort to eat only Michigan food has even stirred a sort of spiritual connection to the garden's seasons. The decade-long Hamtramck resident (and, full disclosure, neighbor and longtime friend) has learned a thing or two from her labors, and maybe has a thing or two to say about the USDA.
Metro Times: Why is this time of year good for canning?
Hillary Cherry: It's harvest time, and you have enough garden produce that you're looking for a way to save it for later. And canning is one of the easiest ways to have a finished product that you can just pull out and use.
MT: Of course, when we talk about home-canning, we aren't talking about canning so much as we're talking about bottling. What size are the bottles?
cherry: I have them as small as 4-ounce jars and as big as a pint-and-a-half — and quarts. Anything larger than a quart isn't really fit for sealing.
MT: What other equipment is involved. You don't even need to get a pressure cooker for some canning, right?
Cherry: Oh, no. And a lot of the most common things you'd make don't even require a water bath canner — you can use the inversion method. The USDA doesn't trust home-canners to do things right, and so their way to compensate for it is to tell you to cook the hell out of everything — and it produces low-quality canned goods. Probably four years ago I switched to the FDA method of canning, which is what commercial canners use, where you monitor things like acidity and the actual temperatures inside the jars instead of just relying on an arbitrary time that's often twice as long as it needs to be.
MT: Do you get better results?
Cherry: If you follow the USDA methods, blindly, you'll be fine, but the USDA will tell you not to can tomatoes without adding lemon juice. They tell you to put, like, a tablespoon of lemon juice in every quart of tomatoes, which makes your tomatoes taste like lemon. If you use the FDA method, you test the tomatoes for how acidic they are and then, if you need to, which I have never had to, you add lemon juice to the point that it is the right acidity, and then go on with your recipe. That's important to me because I like to use really old canning recipes. The FDA rules give you more freedom to use those old recipes, because you're measuring the actual temperature and acidity. The USDA will tell you to never use an heirloom recipe. I think they just don't trust people to be smart enough to do it right.
MT: What's a seasonal canning schedule like?
Cherry: The first things that come out are in May, and that's like rhubarb and asparagus, and after that there's cucumbers and berries. Once you get into mid-July, early August, that's when pretty much everything else comes out and the tomatoes start to come on. A lot of canned goods are tomato-based, so once the tomatoes come in you're really getting into where you can make just about anything. If you follow traditional recipes, you'll notice that all of the ingredients will be in season at a certain time.
MT: And this is the time of year when you can make large batches of sauces, pestos, salsas. What big batches do you make?
Cherry: I make soup, quite a lot of soup, gazpacho, sweet potato orange soup. I make quite a lot of different kinds of chutneys. I make four varieties of ketchup. I make one that is Finnish ketchup that is a recipe from Manistee from about 1910. It's heavily spiced. You know they tell you that Victorians ate bland food, but that really isn't true at all. [laughs] Their recipes can be very heavily spiced.
MT: There are other kinds of ketchup?
Cherry: I made a Concord grape ketchup last year that was really nice. I think it was from a commercial canning book that I picked up at John King Books that was published in the 1880s. I used those recipes, the ingredients, and apply what I've learned from the FDA method of canning to make those recipes work.
MT: How about the Detroit Zymology Guild, your communal canning club? How did that happen?
Cherry: It got to a point where I had so many projects that I wanted to try and so many tomatoes that I needed to can every year. That was a big issue, because one year I canned 80 quarts of tomatoes. My husband's a great helper, but he really does have better things to do than stand around in the kitchen with me all day, peeling tomatoes. So I wanted to find a way where I could not be alone in my kitchen, hanging out with friends, and having some help with my 80 quarts of tomatoes. So I started a group with another lady who lived here in town, and we invited all our friends every weekend, and we would have eight to 12 people working on five different projects in one day. And since it's not really fair that I take home all of the goods at the end of the day, I paid people for their time by giving them a share of what was produced.
MT: Has canning offered any unexpected insights?
Cherry: Probably none that apply to canning or food. It's changed my religion. [laughs] It's changed the way I think about nature and the natural cycle of things. If you look at old calendars, and I mean centuries old, they have different holidays. One of them is right about August first, and that's the day that you baked your bread with the fresh wheat that's just out of the field. There's a holiday for the charming of the plows, and that's when your get your plows ready, waiting for the ground to be ripe to start plowing your fields, or when you go wassailing to wake up the fruit trees.
MT: Well, it's different from living payday-to-payday all year.
Cherry: And, on a more practical level, it's also nice knowing that if you were to lose your job for three months, you might be eating gazpacho with pickles, but you will have something to eat, that you're not going to starve.
Hillary Cherry’s five top books for reading up on food preservation:Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving
By Altrista Consumer Products
A USDA-approved reference material for standard recipes that are easy to follow, this is a likely drool-proof guide for those just starting out.
Putting Up: A Year-Round Guide to Canning in the Southern Tradition
By Steve Dowdney
Putting Up More: A guide to canning jams, relishes, chutneys, pickles, sauces, and salsas
By Steve Dowdney
Hillary tells us that Dowdney uses FDA methods when it comes to canning, and it makes sense, as Dowdney ran a small-batch canning operation in South Carolina. The book is also a great guide for neophytes, with its folksy tone and charming anecdotes.
Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods
By Sandor Ellix Katz
Once you get into canning, your interest in classic food preservation can go in all sorts of interesting directions. One of them is pickling, fermentation, and even live culture foods. Hillary suggests this title for the adventurous reader.
Mes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber
By Christine Ferber
Hillary also recommends this book translated from the French by Michigan State University. Ferber is a fourth-generation French patissiere whose recipes have gained wide renown.