Preserving food at home has become modish of late. The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and the New York Times have all noted the intense popularity of canning: overflowing classes, new cookbooks, obsessive blogs, and Twitter-publicized can-ins. Another, more concrete indication of the trend: sales of the Jarden Corporation's Ball glass canning jars are booming despite the recession. Its 2010 sales are up nearly 10 percent, and that's after a 2009 increase of 30 percent over 2008. It's cute that a practice once associated with grandmothers, 4-H-ers, zealous gardeners with too many cucumbers, and the occasional survivalist, is now a litmus test for gourmandism. But there's a revivalist fervor bottled up in those jars—enthusiasts tout the thriftiness, healthfulness, and environmental virtues of marmalades and dilly beans—that seems overwrought.
As with many food trends, today's cultish hobby was yesterday's necessity. In an effort to combat food spoilage in the early 19th century, long before the advent refrigeration, French jam-maker Nicolas Appert systematized the process of hermetically sealing food in jars and sterilizing them. This concept quickly made its way into the United States, and by the turn of the century canning was a common household practice. During both World Wars, government education programs encouraged home consumers to grow their own food in "Victory Gardens" and to preserve it themselves. These programs taught that at- home preserving could reduce food waste and thus ensure the supply of key commercial crops for soldiers.
It was in the 1970s that home preserving first took on an oppositional message—it was part of that era's homespun chic. If back-to-the-landers tried to exit the commercial food economy altogether by canning their homegrown crops, dabblers could at least put up a few jars of homemade chutney to serve as a tasty, handcrafted no-thank-you to Smuckers. But this fondness for handmade preserves didn't stick around. The anti-corporate-food revolution softened its edge and quickly became indistinguishable from the specialty food industry. Au courant pantries featured jars of preserved food from faraway lands (Italian cherries, say), not one's own backyard.
The local food movement of the past 10 years or so (and longer in Berkeley, Calif.) has borrowed a lot from the natural foods movement of the '70s but with additional emphasis on the environment (minimizing the carbon footprint of our foodways, preserving biodiversity) and on hedonism (fewer bean sprouts, more heirloom apples and tattoos). If we want to eat more locally grown food, so the logic goes, we need to capture the harvest beyond the most bountiful growing months. And so preserving, pickling, and charcuterie (for dedicated meat lovers) have taken on the same rosy-cheeked benevolence as weekly trips to the farmers market or a little volunteer weeding at the local organic farm. Young chefs influenced by high-wattage preservationists like Blue Hill's Dan Barber or Momofuku's David Chang dish up house-made sauerkraut or mustard or marmalades beside their entrees. There is even a Jets/Sharks territorial pickling showdown between those who use salt and wild fermentation to make their pickles (and don't heat-process them in jars) and those who use vinegar, lime, and (gasp!) sugar to make more rococo creations. Preserving has also led to a mini publishing boom of sassily titled books like Karen Solomon's Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It, Stephen Palmer Dowdney's Putting Up, and Eugenia Bone's Well-Preserved, whose introduction captures the idealism of the current canning moment: "Home canning reduces your carbon footprint, increases the quality of your dining experience, and provides a sense of independence from the industrial food complex."
But don't be fooled: Along with independence there is plenty of self-congratulation. These culinary trophies are emblematic of a project-based food relationship that we urban food junkies are prone to indulge these days: athletic all-weekend bouts of cheesemaking, or bacon curing, or jam and pickle making are so much more bloggable and boastworthy than making a decent brown-bag lunch five days in a row (I should know—I'm occasionally susceptible to such fits of showy industriousness, most often guided by Christine Ferber's gem, Mes Confitures.)
And let's not kid ourselves that home-canning is particularly frugal. It's not impossible to save money by home preserving your food, but it takes a little investment to get set up for it, and you certainly won't cut costs by canning $5-a-pound heirloom tomatoes. Without a source of truly inexpensive produce (like vegetables you grow yourself), you'll find cheaper products in grocery stores. (The more convincing money-saving argument is that canning keeps down entertainment costs: An evening of making and packing picallilly is a cheerful way to pass time with friends, and it might substitute for the cost of a dinner out.)
Beyond money, canning demands an investment of labor and organization. In any volume, it can be serious drudgery. My mother, whose family substantially augmented their diet with food grown in their Maryland garden, does not fondly remember her days of putting up vast volumes of green beans, peaches, and tomatoes with my grandmother—though she does admit that the results were very tasty. Furthermore, only select foods are easy to can. Botulism thrives in low-acid environments, so if you're looking to safely process beans and soups and other low-acid foods—on which you could actually base your diet—you get into the tricky business of pressure canning or the less nostalgic, less photogenic, but much simpler, alternative: freezing. If you're not a die-hard, you'll likely only can high-sugar, high-acid foods like jellies, jams, chutneys, or pickles—in other words, condiments.
And that's OK. There's nothing blameworthy about the pickling and preserving fervor, but let's be honest: It's not about producing serious food for the future, and it's not about shaking a fist at industrial food. (After all, it's not Claussen and Heinz that eco-conscious consumers worry about so much as suppliers of meat, milk, and produce.) Rather, it's about making and sharing delicious, idiosyncratic things that are also, not insignificantly, very pretty. There are few more photogenic scenes than a row of home-canned goods lined up in a sunny window (for proof check the sunlit cover of every recent preserving cookbook). And months later, that gleaming jar of blackberry preserves functions as a postcard from summertime sent into the dark grey winter. While Eugenia Bone advances political motives for putting food up, she is more convincing on the emotional tug: "Preserving is not about immediate satisfaction (for that, eat the cherries fresh). It's about anticipation. And in that sense it's an act of optimism."