The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Old Time Canning

By Shoshanna Schwimmer © 1990

Issue: July, 1990

An old time canning storage celler. Photo by J. Walter Birdwell.An old time canning storage celler. Photo by J. Walter Birdwell.Mid-August of a drought year; I'm still sick, but tomatoes won't wait; still coughing, no energy. Tried to sleep in, but there's too much to do.

It's gray and breezy! After a month of drought - that's hopeful. Better consolidate and cover that woodpile.

Half an hour later, I want to lie down. But need to start carrying water. Eat for energy. Oats and raisins in soy milk are less than inspiring, but milk products and wheat are too mucusy. I tell myself every mouthful is energy coming in and every breath out is weariness leaving. Maybe it'll work.

The new outdoor kitchen will make things much simpler - there's a good stove, double sink, and work space. Uh oh, the ground under the stovepipe is covered with tall yellow wildflowers, and anything dead in there is crispy dry. One burning ember could smolder unseen for days. And the rain barrels have been empty for weeks. It's not worth burning the forest down, or worrying for days, for a few quarts of winter food. Maybe while I carry water, clean pots, and set up, it'll start to pour. Then the new kitchen, with its roof, will be perfect.

Gray skies but no rain. The old stove is rusting away, but the "lawn" around it is short and clear. Maybe I'd better use it.

Easier said than done. Must have thrown out the old stovepipe. Okay, use a new one. With pliers and hammer, smash one end into an oval to fit into the stove. Good.

Now to load the kindling. Uh oh, the firebox grate fell down in back. I'll prop it up with some bricks standing on end. First, shovel out the ashes to make a flat surface for the bricks. My lungs protest, but there's no choice, so I find a nose-mask and think how useful ashes will be in the outhouse. Now lift the grate in back. It crumbles into two long useless pieces.

This is too much. I need to lie down. In a week I'll be 47, and I wanted life to be a little easier and sweeter each year. Can I give up for today? No, some of the tomatoes are past already. Go to K's a day early, and use her gas stove and running water? Sounds wonderful, but I'd have to (give up and) leave now, carry all the tomatoes 1 1/2 miles in my pack, and drive to town for jars.

No, I want to stay here! Invent something (I do have a Phd.). Better use firebricks so they don't crack and collapse under the fire. Even on end they're not tall enough. Here's some flat-sided gutter pipe I can turn upside down. A pity, it's shiny and new, but this is no time to quibble. Hooray, it works.

Now I really do need a break. A mouthful for energy, vitamin C for the immune system, stretches for the back, and a short rest. Thank goodness the days are long.

There's water to carry and wood to gather. No point having to finish by kerosene lamp. I've done that before.

2 p.m. It's sunny and sweltering again (in winter we pray for sun). Time to eat a bit, then pick tomatoes, wash and cut them. And then I only got three quarts.

Pace yourself. Light the fire, prepare more kindling, carry water, look up a recipe, carry utensils. Stir tomatoes. Boil two clean jars in the biggest spare pot, and simmer their lids and rings. When the tomatoes are stewed, fill a jar, add salt, wipe the rim, put on lid, tighten ring, lower into water bath. Do it again. Prepare two more jars and lids and rings. There's enough for six jars.

Bring the kettle of jars to a rolling boil and keep it there for an hour, to be safe. It's getting dark, but I'm almost done.

10:15 p.m., not too long after dark. I just got the jars out. All six sealed. Bright red on a white towel. Most everything's cleaned but a few pots. I'm ready to drop.

I often wondered what it was like for our grandparents; in the "good old days."