Whitesburg KY

‘Canning’ then and now

Not long after Loretta started her career as a family development and management specialist with Kentucky State University, I made the mistake of telling her how my mother, and most other women on Blair Branch, went about canning up to a thousand or more quart jars of vegetables, fruits and preserves every year.

My wife was up to date on all the latest canning procedures and safety precautions the universities had to offer and when I started telling her how we did it on Blair Branch, she wondered how and why any of us were alive to tell about it.

For example, we had no idea that jars of kraut were supposed to be boiled for half an hour or whatever after the kraut had finished fermenting. This would have made it sterile and hot enough to make the jar lids seal.

It had never crossed my mind to try sealing canned kraut until I met Loretta, but we have spent decades doing it her way. I can’t tell that it tasted any different than Blair Branch kraut and I feel fairly sure that it won’t poison me even though I still secretly believe it’s a lot of extra work for nothing. Don’t be telling my wife I said that.

I never bothered telling her that, in addition to kraut, we never bothered sealing pickled corn, pickled beans, dill pickles, or mixed pickles, the latter being a combination of corn, beans and cabbage. We simply added water, salt and a small splash of vinegar to what was pickling, let them sit somewhere that wouldn’t stink up the house for a couple or three weeks, and let them ferment to work their magic. When the jars stopped bubbling over, we re- moved and washed the lids, added water to replace whatever had run out during fermentation, replaced the lids and washed the jars clean with scalding water. No canner was involved unless we used it to clean the jars.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the newspapers I read ran a feature story with photos of a lady who had recently canned 56 jars of beans, tomatoes, kraut, strawberries, blackberries, apple butter, corn and three or four types of jelly and jam.

I was impressed but I would bet big money that my sister-in-law, Brenda Joseph, who lives there on the banks of Smoot Creek at Hotspot in Letcher County, has well over a hundred jars put up by now and that she still isn’t finished canning. I’m hoping that several pints of her pickled sweet corn have my name on them but I’ve been told that the flying rats (starlings) did a number on her corn patch.

When I was growing up, my mom and a few of my aunts and cousins spent the better part of almost every weekday canning. Mom wanted at least 200 quarts of beans put back and at least 100 quarts each of kraut, tomatoes, apples, peaches, strawberries, blackberries and vegetable soup mix. A few dozen jars each of beets, bread and butter pickles, apple butter, peach and pear preserves, tomato juice and a host of jams and jellies also went into our larder as well as every nook and cranny in the house. A walkin “pantry” about 5×10 feet, 8 feet high and several shelves deep on all four walls was stacked, floor to ceiling, with canned goods.

When main crops of produce, especially beans, tomatoes, apples and peaches, came into season, it was impossible to keep up with canning on the kitchen stove.

We often used the same big washtubs, normally used to heat laundry “wash” water, to do canning over an open, outdoor fire. Towels and burlap feed sacks were squeezed between the jars that were stacked two or three layers deep to keep the jars from breaking one another as they boiled for whatever amount of time they were allotted. Up to 25 or more jars could be canned at one time as opposed to only seven in our more conventional canners.

But in those days, if we had not canned most of what we ate throughout cold weather and well into spring, we would have been on starvation. I can’t recall a single time, when I was growing up, when I couldn’t find a jar of something to eat if I felt hungry.

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