by Jennifer Scerra
Canning? Does anyone really can food anymore?
A fair question. But here I am, looking at one of the most charming, thorough, dense, and well researched historic health and recipe books I’ve had the pleasure of reading: Successful Canning and Preserving, by Ola Powell Malcolm, a field agent with the US Department of Agriculture.
Agriculture? Is anyone really involved with agriculture anymore?
True, industrialized and robotic farming exists on a scale today that would hardly look familiar to Ola Powell Malcolm and her contemporaries in 1930. But Ola made her career in the USDA’s Office of Cooperative Extension, where she and other female agents supported rural women and girls by teaching new techniques in gardening, canning, and home economics, complete with the science behind them.
Science? Is anyone really interested in science anymore?
Ok, I’ll stop. But seriously, this is a delightfully comprehensive book by someone who must have taken great pride in her work. The bibliography alone takes 22 pages (and lists more than 400 books and articles!), yet the chapters are well organized and the text easy to read and understand. It is with great professional admiration as a fellow informal educator that I say she must have been a credit to the USDA for the decades that she worked for them. Bacteriology and food safety may not make for a rollicking narrative, but she takes her subject seriously, just as the women and girls who received training in 4-H and home demonstration clubs throughout the country must have taken the subject seriously.
Though canning sounds very old-fashioned today, the technology was only about 100 years old and still rapidly advancing when Ola wrote her book. Understanding canning requires a basic understanding of germ theory, the scientific explanation for why we get sick. In the first two chapters, Ola explains both the history of canning and of germ theory. She introduces the reader to Nicolas Appert, who invented canning and claimed a prize from the French government in 1810 for devising a way to preserve large amounts of food that could be used by the military. She talks about Louise Pasteur, whose research on microorganisms let people understand “the real cause of putrefaction.” She talks about how the first canning in the United States was done in secretive factories, whose owners jealously guarded their methods but also “really knew so little about the science that he felt compelled to guard carefully his ignorance.” And once the reader has a good basic understanding of this history and its importance, then she dives into the tools, techniques, and of course, recipes, for preserving food safely.
Ola Powell Malcolm published the first edition of Successful Canning and Preserving in 1917. Ola was 28 years old that year, college educated, and a field agent with the US Department of Agriculture. Agents like Ola began working for the USDA in 1914, after Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Lever Act, a piece of Progressive Era legislation that established a system for public agricultural and economic education. The Cooperative Extension system, now more than 100 years old, is widely considered to be both historically important and very successful, and President Wilson himself said that “next to the Federal Reserve Act, this [legislation] is our greatest contribution to the national welfare.”
Ola worked for the Cooperative Extension System almost from the beginning of its existence and continued at least until 1940, despite both marrying and becoming a widow. During her career she made trips to Puerto Rico and Europe on behalf of the USDA. And perhaps in recognition of her excellent writing, she authored a number of articles, and even wrote the 1923 year-end report for the system’s Home Demonstration Work. In the report she notes that people in over a million and a half homes across the United States that year were reached by home demonstration agents and their educational programming. This included lessons in food preservation (their most frequently taught subject), but also in things like clothing construction, market gardening, home furnishing, and rural engineering.
I said before that I really love how thorough Successful Canning and Preserving is and the scope of the recipes is no exception. The audience for this book no doubt wanted to keep all kinds of foods safe and tasty. Need to know how to preserve strawberry jam or cucumber pickles? How about rabbit meat? Chayote? Powdered greens (what are powdered greens?)? Kumquats? Okra? Shrimp? Tripe? Peanut butter? Yes, there really are careful instructions for all of these things. So, after looking at the scope of choices, I decided to try Spiced Peach Jam and Watermelon Rind Pickles.
Ola did not disappoint.
Spiced Peach Jam.— 1 inch of ginger root 2 pounds of peaches ½ cupful of peach juice 1 cracked peach seed ½ teaspoonful of all spice (white) 1 sprig of mace 1 pound of sugar 1 teaspoon of bark cinnamon (broken in small pieces) 1 teaspoon of cloves (about 10 whole cloves) Peel fruit and cut into halves, without removing the seeds if cling stone peaches are used. Cook until seeds can easily be removed. Tie spices loosely into cheesecloth bags[sic]. After removing the peach seeds crack one and return the kernel cut into fine pieces to the peach pulp. Add the peach juice or a small amount of water and cook together until the jam is boiling hot and somewhat concentrated. Then stir in the sugar and add the bag of spices. Cook all materials together until a temperature of 222° Fahrenheit is reached. Remove the spiced bag, pack the jam while boiling, seal and process fifteen minutes at simmering.
A few notes about this recipe:
I tried to follow the jam-making process exactly as written but made couple of changes to the flavor ingredients based on what I had in the house. For juice, I happened to have peach/apple juice in the fridge, so I used that, but the recipe says you can use water in a pinch. For the spices, I used ground spices rather than whole. Since the ground spices remain in the jam, rather than be steeped and removed, I used a smaller amount of each: about ¼ teaspoon for the cinnamon and cloves and 1/8 teaspoon for the allspice. And in place of the sprig of mace I used a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Also, the recipe says to crack one of the peach pits and add it back into the cooking jam. I found a number of recipes online for peach pit jelly, so it seems as though this is for flavoring. Although I hit my peach pit repeatedly with a hammer, I could not get it to crack and only ended up denting my plastic cutting board. So, I just threw it and another in the pot, whole, during the cooking and removed them in the end.
The resulting jam was delicious, but like other cannable jams that rely on sugar for their preservation, very sweet. I would almost call it a syrup rather than a jam. Given that, I think it would be yummy on pancakes, ice cream, or if you are a meat eater, pork.
Kid 1: “Yum!”
Kid 2: “Good. It’s good. It’s sweet.”
Adult 1: “It’s so good!”
Adult 2: “It’s delicious. Probably best as a syrup on dessert.”
Adult 3: “I like the spices.”
Adult 4: “Mmm. It’s a little too sweet. Could use some acid.”
Watermelon Pickles.— 2 pounds watermelon Lime-water made from 1 quart water and 1 tablespoon lime 1 quart cider vinegar A cupful water 5 cupfuls sugar (2 ½ pounds sugar) 1 tablespoon allspice 1 tablespoon cloves 6 small pieces stick cinnamon 1 ounce green ginger root made be added if desired. Pare and remove all green and pink portions from watermelon rind. Cut it in the desired shape or size, and soak for two or three hours in the lime-water. Drain the watermelon rind. Cover it with fresh cold water. Cook for one hour or until tender. Drain the watermelon. Cover with a weak vinegar (one cup in two cups water) and allow to stand overnight. Discard the liquid the next morning and make a syrup of the three cups of vinegar, one-half cup water, sugar, and spice. Heat the syrup to 180° Fahrenheit. Cover and infuse for one hour. Add the drained watermelon and cook gently for two hours or until the syrup is fairly think. Seal and store.
A few notes about this recipe:
When I first saw this recipe, I didn’t think I would make it because it calls for lime (calcium hydroxide, a mineral, which is supposed to make your pickles crispier). But after googling “lime for pickling” I realized it was in stock at the Ace Hardware store nearby. So, I decided to try it.
In a rare moment of ambiguity for this book, I wasn’t sure if the recipe was calling for a whole watermelon weighting two pounds, or two pounds of watermelon rind. My average size watermelon gave me plenty of rind, so I used a kitchen scale to measure out two pounds of it. It never seemed like too much when it was soaking or being cooked, so I think two pounds of rind is probably what was called for.
Like the peach jam recipe, I tried to follow the procedure exactly as written but made a few changes to the spices. I used ground allspice and cinnamon, adding about ½ teaspoon of each, but the cloves and ginger I used whole as written. Also like the peach jam recipe, the resulting pickles are very sweet. They were good eaten plain and would probably be great anywhere you would use sweet pickle relish.
Kid 1: “Ooh, yummy. It kinda tastes like fancy sauce.”
Kid 2: *Runs off with a cup of pickles* Later: “Can I have some more?”
Adult 1: “Amazing.”
Adult 2: “They are delicious.”
Adult 3: “This is much sweeter than the pickled watermelon rind I’ve have before. Its better really.”
Adult 4: “They are weird. They have an interesting texture.”
So, what about you? Have you ever canned anything?