Of course I can! A glance at the closely intertwined histories of sugar and canning

I have been using what seems to me like an enormous quantity of sugar recently. Between the rhubarb pies, the canned pie filling, and the beets, at least 15 pounds have flown off the cupboard shelves. I have been justifying this by telling myself that my great-grandmother (the Michael Pollan reference point for how to eat) would have used plenty of sugar to preserve things the same way.

But would she? Sugar has never been local to New England, and was a luxury until not so many years ago. She would likely have known how to substitute honey or maple syrup in pies or breads, but not in canning. Over the course of nine months in a mason jar, there's no telling what could go wrong.

Wondering just how much canning she would have done, I did a bit of research. First, I turned up what I already knew, but hadn't really thought about. Sugar was first made affordable in the late 1700s by slave labor; it's no coincidence that Nicholas Appert came up with canning around the same time. But while Appert fed Napoleon's army with the first on-the-go meals at the start of the 19th century, it wasn't until the 1880s that summertime canning became a domestic ritual for American women.

Even so, jars were expensive, and records of canning classes during both World Wars suggest that not every home was well-versed in the preservation method early on. By WW2, however, proficiency had reached a level where home canners were allowed extra ration sugar—up to one pound for every four quarts of finished fruit. The above illustration from the War Food Administration in Washington D.C. encouraged women to put up fruits and vegetables during the summer and fall so that commercially canned goods could be sent to soldiers overseas, an effort seen alongside the Victory Garden as the ultimate in patriotism.

But the World Wars were the era of my grandmother, not my great-grandmother. Recipes in my grandmother's hand-scribbled book from Maw-Maw, my great-grandmother, are few and far between. Nonetheless, I did manage to turn up a few for canned items: Maw-Maw's quince preserve, "strictly southern" watermelon rind preserve, and green tomato pickles. All called for a good amount of sugar, putting me in the safe zone in Michael Pollan's terms.

While that's good enough for now, I'm still curious about we ate before the era of cheap sugar and mason jars. What if sugar prices rise as much as flour already has? Surely, there are other methods of preservation using local ingredients. Thanks to Amazon, answers should be arriving soon. Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning is an exploration of Old World preservation methods compiled by the French gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivant.

As Maine garden guru Eliot Coleman puts it in the introduction, "Food preservation techniques can be divided into two categories: the modern scientific methods that remove the life from food, and the natural 'poetic' methods that maintain or enhance the life in food." I'm hoping to learn a thing or two about the latter.

And in case your hot house tomatoes are greening up:


Slice 1 peck green tomatoes and 12 onions very thinly. Sprinkle with salt and layer on bottom of large pot. Take 1/4 pound ground mustard, 1/4 pound white mustard seed, 1 ounce whole cloves, 1 ounce ground ginger, 1 ounce whole allspice, 1 ounce celery seed, and 1 ounce black pepper grains and mix well. Put in pot in alternate layers with tomatoes and onions. Cover with 1/2 gallon vinegar and cook till tender; about 3 hours. Use sugar to taste—about 3 pounds is good for above recipe. Put spices in cheesecloth bag (allspice, cloves, and whole peppers). Put in sterile jars.


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