Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Putting Up"

By Ian Halbert

Canning and preserving have become something of a cottage industry here in Boston, and throughout other urban areas. All over the web, food bloggers and DIYers are brandishing their pickles and jams as if they were academy awards. Sarah Dickerson’s article at Slate has a full run-down of the trend with links to write-ups in the print media, as well as some of the more unctuous examples from the blogs of those urbanites whose good intentions have gone too grand.

Dickerson’s argument about the silliness of the seriousness of the trend, grounded as it is in the sanctimony of environmentalism and frugality, is dead on:
“And let's not kid ourselves that home-canning is particularly frugal. It's not impossible to save money by home preserving your food, but it takes a little investment to get set up for it, and you certainly won't cut costs by canning $5-a-pound heirloom tomatoes. Without a source of truly inexpensive produce (like vegetables you grow yourself), you'll find cheaper products in grocery stores. ... Beyond money, canning demands an investment of labor and organization. In any volume, it can be serious drudgery. ... Furthermore, only select foods are easy to can. Botulism thrives in low-acid environments, so if you're looking to safely process beans and soups and other low-acid foods—on which you could actually base your diet—you get into the tricky business of pressure canning or the less nostalgic, less photogenic, but much simpler, alternative: freezing. If you're not a die-hard, you'll likely only can high-sugar, high-acid foods like jellies, jams, chutneys, or pickles—in other words, condiments.”
Still, the line “without a source of truly inexpensive produce (like vegetables you grow yourself)” jumped out to me (as it did to others). The line draws attention to the shortcomings of the article: namely, the canning and preservation of food is discussed exclusively through an urban lens, as if there were not rural families who actually do have access to “truly inexpensive produce,” very much “like vegetables [they] grow [themselves].”

There are many positive aspects to the current urban vogues for traditionally rural culinary activities. Nevertheless, we should not succumb to the naive romanticism that such activities give us an air of authenticity or originality. There are very real and practical reasons for canning and preserving, which, as Dickerson points out, don’t really apply to those of us who live in the city. 

I know this first-hand. Nothing goes better with charcuterie than pickles, of any variety. I often make pâté and have cured different meats (duck prosciutto, bresaola, etc.) and I like having a cabinet full of pickled onions, green beans or bread and butter pickles to have on hand for the occasions when I can slice open a new celebration of pork fat. But last fall I went to Whole Foods to buy 5 lbs of cucumbers for my pickles only to discover that conventional cucumbers were $2.50 each! There was nothing frugal or practical in pickling these and, in fact, it was an expensive little project. On the shelves of the local markets, the current commercial darling of the pickling “scene,” McClure’s Pickles, sell for as much as $12.00 a jar! A similar company located here in Boston, Grillo’s, sells a jar of pickles for $8.00. Brooklyn Brine is no different, with their wares clocking in at about $12.99 a jar.

All of this feels somehow forced and strange. Though “putting up” jams or pickled cucumbers may be a healthier engagement with food than, say, putting a Pop Tart in the toaster, perhaps we are kidding ourselves that both choices are not driven by same the unrealistic desires for and demands from our food.