a CAN-do attitude

Does Y2K have you fretting about food supplies? No need to worry. Here are some recipes worth preserving.

August 18, 1999|By Tracy Sahler | Tracy Sahler,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Why can? Y2K, for one. Perhaps you believe the predictions that the new year will bring widespread chaos, with the Y2K computer glitch causing electrical failures and kitchen appliances and ATMs to shut down. You want to be sure you have your own food supply.

Perhaps you plan to take your cue from computers, which, at the turn of the calendar to 1-1-00, may not know whether it's 2000 or 1900. You decide you would rather revisit the past than face the uncertainties of the future.

"Close your eyes and let yourself be transported to a Victorian house, its garden sprawling with vines and bushes from which the bounty will be reaped," write Barry Bluestein and Kevin Morrissey in "Home Made in the Kitchen" (Viking Penguin, 1995). "As the harvest season nears, bushel baskets overflow with the ripe produce to be 'put by' for the long winter to come."

The cookbook authors go on to paint a nostalgic picture of pantry shelves filled with colorful jars of produce ready to be enjoyed and shared in colder months.

They make 1900 sound pretty good, don't they?

But if you're already trimming vegetables, boiling jars and checking seals, you know that the traditional pursuit of canning is as sensible a way to close out this century as it was to start it.

Canning is described as a method of preserving food by hermetically sealing it in glass containers, according to the "New Food Lovers Companion" (Barron's, 1995) by Sharon Tyler Herbst. Jars of food are heated quickly to high temperatures to retain maximum color, flavor and nutrients.

So why don't we call it "jarring"? Evidently, the word can comes from the Middle English word canne, which comes from the Old High German word channa, meaning a jar used to preserve food or other products for later use, explains Jeanne Lesem in "Preserving in Today's Kitchen" (Owl Books, 1997).

Canning is the natural final step for gardeners whose spring efforts yield summer and fall rewards and for those who frequent farmers' markets and pick-your-own patches. Dedicated canners start in the spring with peas and strawberries and work through the squash and apples of fall.

Our ancestors "put food by" during the bountiful months so that when the harsh winter came, the family could eat. Modern food-processing techniques have assured us of a dependable year-round supply of food, but for some folks, the ritual of canning means higher quality and more personal satisfaction than a trip to the grocery store.

"My personal perspective is [gardening] is worth doing whether Y2K happens or not, because you can't get decent stuff in the stores, and you don't know what's being done to the food," says Sharon Carson, who manages a community-supported agriculture garden in Delmar, Del., just north of the Maryland line. "It might be a blessing in disguise for the stores to shut down and people to have to get out and sweat and work a little bit, learn more about where the food comes from."

Sales of canning supplies, such as jars and powdered pectin, remain steady, despite the trend toward prepared foods, says Judy Harrold, manager of consumer affairs for Alltrista Consumer Products Co., which markets Ball and Kerr canning products.

Alltrista has a toll-free consumer line (800-240-3340) that receives about 35,000 calls a year from canners, ranging from the novice who doesn't understand basic terminology to the veteran who can't figure out why an old favorite recipe failed.

Alltrista began taking calls from Y2K worriers in January, but the inquiries seem to have tapered off, Harrold says.

"We were getting a lot of calls specifically related to the Y2K problem, and the most-asked question was about how to can water," she says. (You don't. Clean containers with tight-fitting lids are adequate for storage.)

The company doesn't expect Y2K to cause a major surge in canning -- concerned people who haven't canned will probably find it less work to stock their shelves with store-bought goods -- but it does expect the popularity of canning to continue into the next century and the symbolic start of the new millennium.

Anne Gardon, author of "Preserving for All Seasons" (Firefly Books, 1999), lives on a farm in rural Quebec and isn't concerned about Y2K. She loves canning because it extends the "magic moment" when produce like tomatoes and strawberries are ripe, fresh and in season.

"I make a point of trying to preserve as much as I can of my own produce, to be as self-sufficient as I can," Gardon says.

Her book is divided into four seasonal chapters because she found that canning only in summer turns an enjoyable pastime into too much of a chore. It is better to do a little at a time all year then to pack all the activity into a few hectic months, she says.

"[People] do too much at a time, so that means they are not as careful as they would be if they did only five or six jars. That might bring spoilage, because the jars are not as clean as they should be," Gardon says.

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