where I let my thoughts go this way and that on food-related topics.
Ten years ago I went to Safeway and bought my first case of canning jars and vacuum-seal lids. A woman at the check-out stand looked at the canning equipment and said,"I didn't didn't realize they even made this stuff anymore." I was initially drawn to home canning for its novelty factor; this was one cooking frontier that my generation of food lovers hadn't colonized yet. Canning also had a powerful nostalgic appeal for me. My grandmother, Nammie, was an ardent home canner. As a child, I loved being in her sunny kitchen when it was a fragrant hotbed of goodies like rhubarb jam and plum conserve. Unfortunately, by the time I embarked on home canning myself, Nammie (along with the rest of that last geneation of hard-core canners) was no longer around to give me hands-on lessons. I was on my own. Instead, my teacher was the Ball Jar Guide to Home Canning, which was as serviceable and soporific as my eighth grade algebra teacher, Mr. Angus.
As I began my climb up the learning curve I worked my way through jam with the instant bonding power of Krazy Glue and jellies with the ooze factor of Elmer's Glue. Aside from those early casualties, I discovered that canning wasn't as hard as I had anticipated. I hunted down and cooked up recipes for exotica like sour cherry pickles and rosemary marmalade. I enjoyed the unpredictability of the results. Who would have guessed that the recipe for marinated cantaloupe balls would yield lovely little orbs that tasted like soggy, sweetened cotton balls? Or that the simple recipe for pickled asparagus could have passed for an overpriced luxury item from Dean and De Luca?
Even when my ratio of early successes to failures improved, I was still hesitant to give any of my productions away. I was terrified I might inadvertently poison friends and family. Even as I assiduously sterilized my half-pint jars and double-checked the vacuum seals, I had visions of deadly botulism spores silently de-camping in my chutneys and jams. I finally quelled my paranoia by imagining the kind of encouraging words Nammie might have offered: "In my fifty years of canning I never caused a single fatality, dear, and neither will you."
My friends Nikki and Gary were my first guinea pigs. The day after I gave them a jar of my apricot preserves, the phone rang. Even before I answered it, I was sure this was the call I had been dreading. It would be Nikki with some very bad news: Gary had been rushed to Alta Bates emergency room after eating a poppyseed bagel topped with a fatal schmear of my preserves. Yes, it turns out it was Nikki on the phone. No, Gary felt fine. She had simply called to say that the preserves were so good they were eating it straight out of the jar.
Praise is a powerful motivator. Soon I was bestowing my latest canned goods on everyone I knew. Everyone was impressed. Rarely had I received such gratification - and adulation - for so little effort. People assumed canning was some long-forgotten rigourous pioneer-ish skill like converting pig fat into candle tallow. Their ignorance is my bliss.
In the last few years home canning has made a glamourous comeback. A stylish, new generation of canning books has overshadowed the stolid Ball Canning Guide. (Check out my review of The Glass Pantry.) I no longer feel like the lone canner. I have friends who have joined the ranks; I can swap relish recipes with them and discuss the nuances of "jell point". While my canned goods are still received with great enthusiasm and appreciation, they no longer have the cachet of being novelties. Every now and then I'm tempted to search out another culinary territory where I can, once again, stand out. Who am I kidding? Canning is a calling. Like Nammie, I love turning my kitchen into a fragrant hotbed of preserves and jams and sharing the fruits of my labor with my friends and family. As Nammie might say: those who can, do.