Zen and the art of canning your harvest

Why do I can? Why DO I can? For my ancestors, the answer was simple: to survive. To ensure that not even a single morsel from the harvest would go to waste.

But these days, few folks rely on a full pantry of home-canned goods to see them through the lean months. However, my husband — only half-serious at the time, of course — once observed that if we were canning all that we ate, "then everything would be right with the world."

The "we," of course, is me: both sides of me. Practical Me — especially during that lousy hour of cleanup at the end of a preserving session — is constantly telling Enthusiastic Me to knock it off. Sometimes Enthusiastic Me grudgingly complies. Briefly.

Until the next time she sees her husband eagerly open a fresh jar of Peerless Red Raspberry Preserves and slather a healthy scoop onto his morning toast. Or when it's August, and Enthusiastic Me's inner clock begins ticking down the few short weeks she has to put up enough Damn Good Garlic Dills to see family and friends through the winter.

Then she shows Practical Me the door.

In the wonderful little novella, "Blue Jelly," by former Rolling Stone writer Debby Bull, the main character gets dumped by her boyfriend and finds salvation in canning. Says Bull's heroine: "Canning may sound like a strange path out of the dark woods of despair ... but when you're really depressed, you have to do something that takes you out of the drama, that makes you detach from the big world and become kind of a tiny, controllable world, like one of berries and Ball jars. Just because this last thing didn't work out and your heart is smashed, it doesn't mean that all of your dreams will end in a big mess. Canning demonstrates this principle. Canning is a whole world of a thing to do. It requires that you get out of your head. It's a zen thing."

Then there's real-life Rick Rivers, a Texas transplant living on the Oregon coast who took up canning for the whacky fun of it. I did a story on him many years back and was charmed by his experimental nature and fearless approach to the activity: "You shouldn't be afraid of preserving. Most of the products you'll be preserving are cheap enough that you should just keep trying until you get it right. But most of the fun is in just doing it. Don't be afraid to try something new. There's too many scared people in America today because there are so many unknowns in our system. But as long as you stand up and do something new and are proud of yourself, you can do anything."

And then there's my friend, Joan. Her foray into food preserving began the year she had run out of ideas for Father's Day. Her father had everything. She remembered the time her aunt made brandied peaches for her brother, Joan's father. "How he loved that gift! He held that jar, just sort of sat there and kind of hummed to himself before he even ate them."

Well Joan figured that was something she could pull off. So she started reading up on brandied-fruit recipes. When she got to the part in the directions where you are supposed to dump the sugar and brandy into the jar with the fruit, she knew she had found her calling: "Dumping is something I'm real good at."

That year, Joan shipped 24 jars of brandied cherries to her lucky father in Michigan and hasn't looked back.

Pure and simple, preserving is all of that and so much more: a midsummer rite, a way to connect with your pioneer heritage, a mental release from the daily grind — perspective.

It's satisfaction of that most primal instinct, which is to squirrel away bounty in the good times for the days when winter is pounding at the door.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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