In decades past, if a family wanted fresh tomatoes in the late fall or winter, they couldn’t be found at the local market.
In fact, the only way to get them at all was from a commercial brand can, or to just forget about tomatoes altogether.
One way that industrious people bested that situation was to home can their own fresh vegetables from their summer garden. Instead of giving away all their tomatoes, green beans and other fresh goodies – or worse yet, letting them spoil – they embarked on the process of canning their own.
And it paid dividends come January.
Naturally, the heart and soul of that process was found in rural places and other parts of the country far away from Chelsea. Nowadays, people in those far-flung places are turning back to canning their own fruits and vegetables, and the process has taken on a surprising popularity.
But in Chelsea too?
The Chelsea Community Gardeners welcomed Food Scientist Greg Reppucci last week for a canning workshop at the ROCA kitchen and had numerous people on hand who were interested in preserving the fruits of their work through the winter.
“The idea of a canning workshop in Chelsea started in 2011 with somebody who was on our garden waiting list,” said Margaret Carsley. “They came to a meeting and said they wanted to learn how to can at home. We thought it was a good idea, put our heads together and applied for a small grant from the Community Fund. It ended up working out so well and everyone who came learned a lot.”
The grant money went towards bringing Reppucci – who teaches Food Science courses at North Shore Community College and who operated a Community Canning Facility at the old Essex Aggi for years – to share his vast knowledge of the process.
“The whole movement towards localization with food is big with this,” he said. “That is a large change. People are interested in buying food from places nearby them, or within this state. They’re even more interested nowadays in keeping things even closer to home and preserving food that they’ve grown. In most third-world countries, 50 percent of their harvest is lost because they can’t use it when it comes. The good thing about canning is it doesn’t use a lot of electricity and, once done, can be kept in a pantry. I’ve read studies where it says only 10 percent of the food in Massachusetts is produced in Massachusetts. I believe in 50 years or so communities will be growing and preserving all of their own food. This is kind of the start of something like that.”
Carsley said she believes the interest in the antiquated pastime lies directly in frugality for those involved in the community gardening efforts.
“I think people begin to realize that in a garden you get a lot of the yield all at the once,” she said. “You can only give away and eat so much. Then you have vegetables left and they might just go bad. People don’t always have a big freezer to save it. They wanted to learn how to keep the stuff they worked so hard to grow. It’s kind of a natural progression, really.”
At the workshop, participants were shown how to safely can high-acid foods such as zucchini salsa, regular salsa, tomatoes, apples, peaches, and pickles using the water bath technique. Reppucci indicated that low-acid foods such as green beans need to be canned in a pressure cooker – a whole other process that is much more involved.
He said it was important to know what you’re doing for the sake of safety.
“You want to be able to do it right because you can kill people if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “There have been cases of botulism in the U.S. by people who did not properly can their home-grown vegetables.”
Canning, incidentally, had a very dubious beginning – conceived through a reward from Napoleon so that his armies could travel great distances and still have access to food.
As he set out to conquer the world for France, Napoleon’s armies ran into trouble the farther they went from home because they could not keep proper food rations.
Confronted with that problem, Napoleon offered a major reward to anyone who could solve the problem. A simple baker in Paris named Nicholas Appert eventually came up with the solution of boiling vegetables in glass jars to preserve them.
“Luckily Napoleon was defeated by that time or we might all be speaking French,” said Reppucci. “That’s where canning really got going. It was something that came about out of necessity.”
Reppucci also said he was very glad to see that urban places like Chelsea are interested in healthy activities like canning.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect with this workshop in Chelsea,” he said. “People there were very enthusiastic though and they really wanted to learn how to do this. Everyone pitched in and it became a real community activity. It’s great that people are interested in doing things together and are interested in locally grown things. It’s a win-win.”
Carsley said she wanted to thank ROCA, the Community Fund, Derrigo Brothers and Demoulas Market Basket for helping to get the workshop off the ground. She also said that since there was so much interest, the Community Garden has purchased three water bath canning pots and will have them available to share with members next year.
It could be the start of something really good…to eat.