Now is the prime time for Howard County gardeners to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of their labors. Harvesting, even from a garden of three or four tomato plants, is rewarding.
But most of us can't eatfast enough to keep up with the onslaught, and we rue the spring daywhen we tucked in those extra tomato plants or row of beans.
But, it's more than the satisfaction that comes with success, or the extra good food that winds up on our tables and in our freezers and pantries. It's a feeling of participating in a recurring rite of human existence, a sense of community with all who preceded us.
Harvesting and preserving our food gives us some feeling of control overour own lives in an era when such occasions are rare. Gardeners are breaking out the freezer bags, cleaning out the pressure canners and making room in the cellar for a winter's supply of home-grown goodies.
The Howard County Fair's colorful display of home-canned foods -- all kinds of fruits, vegetables, jellies, preserves, jams and pickles -- is both nostalgic and inspiring.
The modern methods of preserving food began with the invention of canning in France in 1809. This single discovery started a revolution in food preservation that continues to change the way we live today. Before 1800, food preservation was limited to storing dried nuts and grains, later salting and smoking certain foods.
Answering a plea from the French government for a reliable method to keep vegetables and meats for military stores and sea voyages, Nicholas Appert presented his food-filled glass containers that kept the items for months. His technique of packing and sealing glass bottles, and gently heating them for a set amount of time, according to contents, worked, although he didn't understand why (Louis Pasteur figured that out later). He collected a reward of 12,000 francs from the government and became the "Father of Canning."
Later in the century, the first ice-making machines, and then refrigerated boxes cooled by expansion of compressed ether or liquid ammonia,were made. A shipload of frozen meat successfully made it from Australia to England in 1877. Delicate fruit and vegetable products of tropical climates, shipped chilled, appeared on American tables from thelate 1800s on.
The first applications of modern food preservationtechniques were made by commercial firms -- tin manufacturers who wanted to sell more containers and meat producers who needed a wider market. Home food preservation became popular late in the 1800s with the introduction of John L. Mason's screw-top jar with rubber ring gasket.
Canning is an art that has since been eclipsed by the freezer.But it is still an economical and safe way to keep food. It requiresa simple routine, the patience to skip shortcuts and the ability to handle hot, heavy work. Of the three most common home preserving methods -- canning, freezing and drying -- canning is the most cost-effective.
Canning works by destroying most of the organisms that causefood to decompose -- enzymes, molds and yeasts. This is done by heating the food to a sufficient temperature for a set amount of time andthen sealing the jar against outside contamination with a strong vacuum. The infamous bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which may cause deadly botulism poisoning, is only killed at 240 degrees F.
Differentvegetables and fruits require different processing temperatures and times for optimum safety. Some foods require the high temperatures attained only with a pressure canner. In addition, special preparationsof the food may be required, such as peeling, blanching and adding lemon juice or vinegar. Jars may need to be sterilized, according to use. And the pressure gauge on pressure canners needs to be checked for accuracy regularly.
In 1988, notes Ruby Price of the Home Economics Department, Howard County Extension Office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture rewrote their guidelines for home canning. In accordance with recent research, they upgraded their recommendations for processing jams, jellies, fruits and fruit products, vegetables and tomatoes, and poultry, meat and seafood. Some established practices were rejected. For instance, sealing jelly and jam jars with paraffin is no longer recommended; sealing with two-piece lids and a 5- to 10-minutewater bath is superior. Information in books and pamphlets written on canning before 1988 should be verified.
Canning, freezing and drying all have advantages and disadvantages. Certain vitamins, color and flavor will be lost with each. Some crops seem more suited to one method of preserving than another. Personal preference for flavor also plays an important role. Freezing is the quickest and easiest by most standards. Many vegetables retain good flavor when frozen. However, buying and running a freezer may be four times as expensive as canning, even including the purchase of a pressure canner and special jars. (Cost comparisons vary according to volume of food being processed.)