Many of us have fond memories of Blueberries for Sal, the classic Robert McCloskey picture book about a mother and daughter in 1940s Maine who head out one summer’s day to pick blueberries to can for the winter. At the beginning and end of the book is a wonderful illustration of Sal and her mother in the kitchen, wood-burning stove behind them, pouring blueberries from a pot into a canning jar, with several filled jars – and several more yet to be filled – waiting on the kitchen table. For me, this image evokes a world that has all but disappeared, but one that holds tremendous appeal: a world in which a mother could walk out of her door, pick the freshest, tastiest berries and then preserve them, in her own kitchen, so that her family would have homemade blueberry jam to sweeten a cold February morning.
My daughter, Zoe, at 6, is a few years older than Sal was when she and her mother went out to pick blueberries on that summer’s day in the late 1940s. But this summer, Zoe and I have had our own version of that scene in the kitchen filling glass jars with beautifully preserved fruit. We began making jams and pickles with fruits and vegetables from our local farmers’ market. Unlike Sal and her mother, we live in as urban a setting as you can imagine, only a few miles from the Chicago Loop. But Chicago is close enough to Michigan’s wonderful fruit orchards that, thanks to the farmers’ market, we can still get fruit that was picked only a day or two before.
For years, Saturday morning at the farmers’ market has been a ritual for our family. Zoe and her father–and now little brother Jamie–go for the blueberries, the cherries and the peaches. I go for the heirloom tomatoes, the corn–picked that morning or I am not interested, thank you very much–and those delicate and unusual items (garlic scapes? squash blossoms?) that challenge the ambitious cook and that you can never seem to find any place else. For some reason (and I truly don’t know why), this spring, I decided that I wanted to learn how to take some of this fleeting farmers’ market bounty and preserve it. My only goal was to have fun trying something new and perhaps to come away with some homemade gifts for the holidays.
Canning is a wonderful activity to do with an elementary-school aged child. From the moment I first suggested it to her, Zoe has been an enthusiastic partner in my canning endeavors. She loves going to the farmers’ market and helping me decide which fruits and vegetables to can that week. By noticing what the farmers have for sale each week, and how it is different from what they had the previous week, Zoe is learning an important lesson about growing seasons. So far, we’ve made apricot, blueberry, sour cherry and mixed berry jams, and this week, we tried our hand at pickling grape tomatoes.
There is quite a lot that a young child can do to be helpful during the canning process. Zoe has pitted cherries, crushed all kinds of fruit, peeled cloves of garlic, pricked grape tomatoes (so the skins don’t crack), squeezed lemon juice and measured out cups of sugar. With close supervision, and a kitchen chair to stand on, Zoe can even stir the fruit as it reaches the gelling point. And once our jars are processed and cooled, Zoe helps with the labels. One of her favorite tasks is coming up with the names for our products, such as Zoe’s Very Berry Jam.
For Zoe, canning is something that she and I can do together–without her little brother around–and it makes her feel extremely competent. Plus, just like me, looking at those gleaming jars she feels the pride that comes from making something with your own two hands.
I knew I had a convert when Zoe rushed into the kitchen after a birthday party that had taken her away during the middle of a canning session, and asked breathlessly, “Did you hear the jars ‘ping,’ Mommy?” (Of course, if I knew more about science, I would use this opportunity to explain to Zoe about vacuums. As it is, we are just relieved that our jars sealed properly.) Zoe and I also feel a special connection to the past by participating in this traditional domestic art. Blueberries for Sal aside, we’ve noticed references to canning in some of our favorite books, including the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Even Zoe’s American Girl doll, Kit, who lived during the Great Depression, is shown in the accompanying books canning peaches and tomatoes.
For Zoe, there is perhaps a special reason why canning is such a joyful activity. Zoe has many food allergies, including to such basic foods as wheat, milk and egg. As a result, cooking can be a touchy subject. My husband and I had to tell Zoe that she could not participate in the cooking activity at her day camp this summer, and last spring, when her Hebrew school class learned how to make matzo, Zoe and I stood in the back of the room, away from all the flying flour, watching sadly while the other kindergartners pounded and pressed the sticky dough. But canning is an activity that perfectly safe for Zoe. And the results are delicious, even on wheat-free bread.
As I mentioned, this is the first summer that Zoe and I have canned fruit and vegetables, so I don’t know how it will feel in December to give away a jar of our homemade pickles, or crack open a jar of our homemade jam. I am hopeful, though, that, in the dark days of winter it will help us feel closer to the warmth and abundance of summer, much as it must have for Sal and her mother.
Emily Paster, Canning Across America contributor
Emily Paster is a passionate home cook and novice canner who lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two children.