Food for the Soul

Peaches on the shelf,
Potatoes in the bin,
Supper’s ready,
Everybody come on in.
Taste a little of the summer,
Taste a little of the summer,
Taste a little of the summer,
My grandma’s put it all in jars.
— From Greg Brown’s “Canned Goods”

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

In our great-grandmothers’ kitchens, preserving the season’s bounty was a necessary life skill, one passed down through generations. When refrigeration and huge food companies took the urgency out of “putting up” foods for the fallow months, we lost touch with our pioneer gene. But even in today’s short-cut society, there’s an ever-growing movement to reconnect with the earth, with growing our own food and all that goes with that.

For Bess Swedenburg of Mayhew, canning is a tradition worth keeping — an art learned from her mother, Lenore Yelverton, and mother-in-law, Marguerite Swedenburg, now both deceased.

That she gets to practice it in the rural community her ancestors first settled in almost a century ago, where she and her husband, Billy, raised three daughters, is icing on the, well … preserves.

From mid-summer into early fall, the active cook might be found in the kitchen, surrounded by Mason jars and listening for that telltale sound that’s music to her ears — the popping of hot jar lids, sealing in symphony.

“You may have 25 jars all pop, pop, popping at the same time; it’s fun to hear them seal,” laughed Swedenburg, who still holds her mother’s inimitable dill pickles as the canning standard. “They were the best I ever ate. We’ve always tried to reproduce that and have never succeeded,” she admitted.

In a nutshell, canning is the process of applying heat to food that’s sealed in a jar in order to destroy any microorganisms that can cause spoilage. Air is driven from the jar and a vacuum is formed as it cools and seals. This is usually done by water-bath canning or pressure canning. Swedenburg sometimes uses a slightly different method.

“I put my jars through a dishwasher, in hot, hot water. Then they go to a heavy cookie sheet and into the oven for 20-30 minutes at 250 degrees,” she explained. “Then, whatever I put in those jars is also boiling hot.” When the lids come out of boiling water and go onto the jars, the sealing process begins.

“It’s a constant learning experience. You have to have the right tools, and you really do need to follow your recipe,” she advised. “It takes lots of dish pans and sharp knives. And you can’t do it without a good colander,” she added, displaying a big beauty used for canning surplus from the family garden, as well as copious quantities passed on by friends and neighbors.

For anyone interested in canning, freezing or drying foods, she recommends numerous publications available at local county Extension Service offices.

“Of course, when you’re finished, the most fun part of it all is, you set it out on your table and admire it for at least 24 hours,” she chuckled.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Before Swedenburg is finished this season, she’ll have put up at least 130 pints of fig preserves, plus green tomato pickles, pear preserves, canned pears, peach jam, plum jelly, squash pickles, pepper jelly, green and red tomato salsas and more.

She’s a little partial to the plum jelly.

“It’s the most gorgeous color — that kind of pink that’s in the sunset, that pink that can’t be reproduced,” she shared. The longer plum jelly keeps, the darker it becomes, turning a rich, red-kissed hue just in time for Christmas gift-giving. And sharing the home-canned goodies is half the satisfaction.

“My friends love having it, and I love giving it to them,” she said.

Two of Swedenburg’s youngest grandchildren — Bess Mills, 13, and her sister, Maggie, 10, of Madison — recently spent a week at “Camp Mayhew,” as they do most summers. This festive time-out with their grandmother involved some mentoring in the kitchen, including watching the time-honored process of canning.

“I think it’s fun to learn. When I’m older, I’ll get to do more,” said Maggie. “I hope I have a garden and get to work in it like ‘Mommee’ when I grow up.”

Yes, mastering canning does require time and effort, but the payoff is worth it, especially when a dreary winter evening is livened up with flavors captured at their sunny peak. Saving  the seasons yields delicious dividends, long after the last harvest is in.

Find publications on food preservation at Mississippi State University’s Extension Service county offices, or at at the “Publications” link. Enter “canning” in the search box.

Clay County Extension Office — 218 W. Broad St., West Point
Lowndes County Extension Office — 512 Third Ave. N., Columbus
Oktibbeha County Extension Office — 106 Felix Long Dr., Starkville