FOOD CANNING AND ITS PERCEPTION ACROSS TIME
By: Sami Baker, Nolan Reichkitzer, and Angela Ludlow
With the rise of global agricultural industries, traditional home food preservation techniques such as canning, curing, and drying have largely been supplanted by commercially processed foods [Bentley 238]. As more and more people moved away from farms, the agricultural industry became dominated by a small number of companies, and consumers lost traditional food knowledge [Jaffe and Gertler 143]. Relatively recently, alternative food movements have risen to oppose consumer-oriented globalized food industries [Braun and Beckie 65]. These movements have caused a revival of conventional food preservation techniques. Individuals desire to be able to control what is in their food and wish to move back towards traditional, home preserved foods [Click and Ridberg 301]. This has made canning more prevalent in a time where commercially canned products are the norm [Braun 228]. This mini-ethnography will use food canning as way to explore how the perception of food processes has changed over time, and how these processes relate to social change. This has been accomplished by studying the origins of canning in a rural family, discovering how the family fell away from canning and revealing how canning has been revived by the new generation.
We will examine changing food culture, specifically the culture of canning, in a farming immigrant family over three generations. In this ethnography, we include interviews from 4 different informants and one participant observation in which we helped can tomatoes. Through this process, we asked questions centered on memories of canning as children, reasons for canning in the past and present and how much was canned at once. The answers to these questions gave qualitative insight into the family’s motivation to can and shows how this process connects to heritage and daily life. We will use these interviews to give an overview of the oldest generation’s life on the farm, how canning is directly correlated to the way they lived, and how food practices have changed since the early 1900s. We will then analyze how canning evolved from a task performed out of necessity to a hobby performed for enjoyment and for family bonding. Finally, we will conclude with thoughts on how this process is being passed down to the youngest generation and predict what the future may hold for this family’s canning practice.
MEETING THE FAMILY
We began our research by interviewing four key participants: Helen K., Janet C., Ronda P., and Lisa B. Helen is the mother of Lisa, and Janet is the mother of Ronda. Helen and Janet are sisters who grew up together on the same farm. We chose to interview each of these members of the family for specific reasons. We interviewed Helen and Janet because they were born sixteen years apart. This age gap gives each sister a different perspective about canning and presents different insight on how things might have changed over this time period. This is a large age difference, but they are both considered to be part of the “older” generation. We next interviewed Ronda because, as a child, she also grew up on the farm and actively helped her mother and grandmother with canning. She now has her own farm and cans vegetables from her own garden. As Ronda continues to can, she is teaching her own children the family tradition. However, as we talked to Lisa, we discovered that she has never lived on a farm and never has had the desire to can on her own. She used to visit the family farm and helped can as a child but has not done so in a very long time. Interviewing these two participants gave us a contrast of perspectives between members of the same generation. This further provides information of how the culture of canning has changed over the years.
To fully understand the dynamics of this family, we also asked questions about the family’s background. The father of Helen and Janet, Andrej G., came to America from Czechoslovakia when he was 13 in 1911. Andrej and his family were part of a wave of immigrants who came to America looking to make a new life for their families. He arrived at Ellis Island, New York by boat. Part of his family settled in Chicago while the other part settled in Ashley, Michigan. On the maternal side of the family, Helen G. was born in America, but her parents were immigrants from Poland. In Ashley, Andrej and Helen began farming for a living and started their family. Many immigrants settled on farms like Andrej’s parents but most worked in factories in urban areas [Hirschman and Mogford 898]. Eventually, just like many others, Andrej took a factory job to provide a more stable income for his family.
Helen, along with Janet, grew up in the small town of Ashley, Michigan. Ashley consists of one intersection in the center of town, a few gas stations, and limited convenience stores. Most of the land is devoted to farming, there are many fields, run down barns, and small country houses as far as the eye can see. Helen and Janet lived in a family of six. In addition to their parents, they have a brother, Ron, and a Sister, Lillian.
Living on the farm was a busy task for Helen and Janet. They helped milk the cows, gathered eggs from chickens, helped their mother cook, and aided with the garden. They grew most everything they could. For example they grew tomatoes, potatoes, squash, carrots, green beans, cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, melon, pumpkins, rhubarb, currants, radishes, and pears. This large variety of produce was grown in their garden and was primarily used just for the family. In addition, they had 80 acres of land to grow soybeans, wheat, and corn for profit. Also, anything that they didn’t use from their family garden was sold at local markets. When the family was in need for a bigger income, in order to support the family, Andrej began working at a local factory. This mirrors trends of the time period where the labor force abandoned farming as a primary source of income [Lobao and Meyer 103]. From this information we can conclude that the income farming brought into this family was not sufficient enough to make a living off of, classifying this family into a low socioeconomic class.
Ronda, Janet’s daughter, grew up on the same farm as Janet. When Ronda left for college at Michigan State University she studied Business Administration. After graduating college she moved several times around the Lansing area until she finally settled in Williamston, Michigan. It wasn’t until around 2010 that Ronda began farming once again. On her property in Williamston, her family has a summer garden and raises pigs, goats and chickens. The family also has 40 acres of land in Ashley where they grow soybeans as a cash crop. This land was passed down to their family through Ronda’s husband, Adam. Ronda and Adam have 3 young children. All three children participate in the 4H Fair and also enjoy living life on a farm.
Helen and her husband, Larry, moved from the farm to Lansing, Michigan in the mid-twenties. It was there, in Lansing, where they started their family in order to provide a better life for their future children. Their daughter, Lisa, grew up in the city and also attended Michigan State University, majoring in Mechanical Engineering. As a child, Lisa often visited the farm in Ashley to see her Grandmother and family. However, she never felt the desire to move back to the farm.
THE ORIGIN OF CANNING IN THE FAMILY
In the beginning, this family started canning as a result of farming. Since the family grew large amounts of vegetables, they needed some way to preserve the food they had. When Helen was a child the house did not have electricity so refrigeration or freezing was not an option. Therefore, the only alternative left was canning. They canned things like meat, vegetables, and fruit. Canning allowed them to utilize the resources they had available and allowed them to preserve their harvest for the winter. During Helen’s childhood, there were no convenient supermarkets nearby, so canning became a vital food source during the winter time. When Helen was asked if canning was a chore or a hobby she responded by stating, “We canned mostly because we needed to.” They enjoyed spending time with their family while doing it, but everyone in the family considered it a chore. As stated by Janet when asked if canning was a fun experience, “No, it was a chore. Mom said it was time to can tomatoes and we canned tomatoes. Every Labor Day we would can a lot of tomatoes.”
THE CANNING PROCESS
We had the opportunity to help Ronda, Janet, Meah, and Ava can tomatoes. We used a process that is very similar to the process used by Janet’s mother. The process begins with acquiring tomatoes to be canned. In this case, the tomatoes were found on sale at a supermarket. First, the jars are washed and soaked in a hot water bath to sterilize them and prepare them for sealing. The tomatoes are then thoroughly washed to make sure that all dirt and germs are gone. This helps prevent the tomatoes from spoiling. The tomatoes are then placed into boiling water. They are left to boil for a few minutes, until the skin begins to crack. This makes removing the skin much easier. Once the peels of the tomatoes start to wrinkle or split, the tomatoes are removed and placed into an ice water bath. The cores of the tomatoes are cut out, the skins slipped off, and the tomatoes are manually squeezed into a jar through a funnel, made for specifically for canning. Once the jar is full, a measuring tool is used to poke the tomatoes in the jar. This ensures that there are no air bubbles trapped between the tomatoes. The jars are then placed into a large pot with a canning rack. Next, the rack is lowered into boiling water. The jars are required to boil for some amount of time, in this case 35 minutes. The time depends on what is being canned. When the jars are done boiling, they are removed and are not touched for 24 hours. Boiling the jars serves to kill bacteria that cause spoilage and helps the jars seal tightly. However, one does not know that the jars have been successfully sealed until a popping noise is heard within 24 hours after boiling.
This a video of our participation observation. In this film we are assisting Ronda can tomatoes. Everyone in our group, Ronda, and Ronda’s two daughters, Meah and Ava, helped with this canning process during our participation observation.
CANNING IN THE FAMILY ACROSS TIME
Helen and Janet gave conflicting evidence about the family’s dependence on canning. Helen asserted that they mainly ate food they had either grown or canned. She also stated that they didn’t have a supermarket nearby to go to. Janet claimed that “By the time I was around, they were definitely shopping at the grocery store and all that.” Thus they were much less dependent on their canned food. This gives an interesting comparison between the time periods in which the two grew up. Helen grew up in a time where they needed to can in order to have food during the winter. This was necessary because they didn’t have access to electricity or refrigeration. In addition, her mother used animal feed sacks to make clothing for her children. When Janet was born sixteen years later, she grew up in a time where her father, Andrej, worked in a factory and grocery stores were more widespread. During this time, the family possessed more economic stability and they did not have to rely on canned food or homemade clothing. With more economic freedom, the family was then able to obtain electricity. Electricity provided them with other means to preserve their food, such as freezing and refrigeration. The family still canned after they obtain electricity, but they were much less dependent on it. This is indicative of how technology, industrialization, and change in the economic status altered food culture within this family in a short amount of time.
As time went on, the family fell away from canning. Helen and Lisa do not can at all today. According to Lisa, “If I can buy a jar of tomato juice for $1.79 and it would take me three hours to do it, my time is worth more than $.52 an hour.” Helen had a very similar response stating that she lost interest in it, didn’t have the proper equipment since her mother passed, and didn’t have the motivation to take the time to can. This trend of buying easy, low hassle canned food is very common in this day and age [Jaffe and Gertler 143]. Commercially processed foods are a lot more accessible and they don’t take hours to prepare.
For a large part of Ronda’s life, she also did not can. She helped out a lot as a child but stopped canning when her grandmother passed away. She remembered canning as a chore that took a day or two to complete. Ronda reflected on canning in her childhood and said, “I think it was a necessity at that point. It was like a chore. That’s what my grandma used. She didn’t like to buy tomatoes or tomato juice at the store when she had it in her garden.” However, she had a change in perception. Around five years ago, she was talking to one of her friends and learned that this friend had been canning as a hobby. Ronda realized that canning does not have to be an all-day, labor intensive task. Not being as dependent on the food that she cans and having more economic stability, she is able to can smaller amounts of produce. Reducing the amount of labor going into the process makes it into an activity that can be fun to do with her children. She now often cans with her daugher, Meah. Ronda said, “It’s more fun now with the kids than it was before.”
Janet spent ample time as a child helping her mother can. For a long time in her life, she stopped canning. She decided to stop when some of her jars of salsa spoiled and she became a little wary of this process. Since Ronda picked up the hobby again, Janet decided to help out. Canning with her daughter and her grandchildren turned it into a more enjoyable activity. She says, “Yeah I think it’s fun now. As I remember, canning on Labor Day weekend was all day Sunday and most of Monday. It was a lot of work, but it’s more fun with the kids now.”
This is a video of interviews with all four of our participants (Helen, Ronda, Janet, and Lisa). They are all asked if they still can today. In the end Lisa answers the question of how growing up in Lansing influenced her not to can.
The fact that the family stopped canning and started up again represents a large cultural shift in the family. Most of the family had stopped canning because they either no longer depended on it, had no interest in it, or saw it as a waste of time. As recently as five years ago, the family started once canning again. Not because they needed to but because they thought it was a fun family experience. They realized that they did not have to can for two days straight; they could just can for a night and enjoy each other’s company. Essentially, canning became a hobby. Besides liking to can, Ronda cans because she prefers to know what is in her food and would rather make dishes from fresh ingredients. This agrees with trends seen in literature where people have participated in alternative food movements to bring back traditional food practices [Braun and Beckie 65].
CANNING IN THE NEXT GENERATION
Moving towards the future, this process has been passed down to a part of the younger generation. Ronda said, “Meah could probably almost do it herself.” She is even taking classes on how to can for 4-H, which is a youth organization sponsored by the Department of Agriculture and offers instruction in agriculture and home economics (Colorado). Through the experience, young Meah talked about how she liked to squish the tomatoes and how she really enjoyed the whole canning process. As she learns how to can different foods in different ways through 4-H, she will even be able to bring knowledge back to the family on how to can foods like fruit preserves, jellies and applesauce. Ronda stated with excitement, “That’ll be something new she can teach us.” In this way, the family could go deeper into canning and refine their hobby as time goes on. As Meah continues to learn new canning techniques, she will have the opportunity to pass this tradition on to her children and future generations.
In this mini-ethnography, we had the opportunity to talk with Helen K., Janet C., Ronda P., and Lisa B. We were able to create a picture of this family’s food canning culture from the oldest generation to the youngest. During Helen’s childhood, food canning directly related to how she lived and her family’s economic status. Her family did not have electricity and they canned their harvest to get through the winter season. By the time Janet was born, her father was working in a factory, the family income had increased, and they were not as dependent on canning. In the eyes of all of our informants, canning at one point was a chore. It required ample amounts of time and tedious labor. As time went on, canning became less practical. Purchasing food from supermarkets took less time and freezing became a much easier way to preserve food. Consequently, the family fell away from canning until around 5 years ago when Ronda decided to try canning tomatoes with her daughter. She recognized that canning did not have to be an all day time-consuming task. Rather, it was a fun activity for her and her family to enjoy. Over the generations, canning had shifted from a chore to a hobby through economic and cultural change. Even though they did not need to can, they still do because they enjoy spending time together and they desire to know what is in the food they eat. This food practice has now been passed onto the youngest generation where Ronda’s daughter, Meah, will learn how to can new foods in 4-H. From there, she will be able to share her knowledge with her family and continue a new canning tradition.
We can deduct from the information we gathered that the socioeconomic dynamic in the family has changed over the last century. Agriculture used to be essential to economic stability, but now agriculture is essentially a hobby. The family fell away from canning because it wasn’t essential to survival. However, it was revived when economic stability was achieved. As time progressed and canning was performed more for enjoyment rather than a necessity, it no longer was connected with economic status. Therefore, over time the perception of canning has changed from necessity to amusement.
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