I’ve spent the last three weeks canning various vegetables from my garden and fruit from my favorite local farmers’ market. The other day when I was canning green beans I started thinking about Aunt Bessie–not that she’s ever far from my mind these days as Christy and I work on Beloved Woman, Appalachian Journey Book 3–and how Daddy told me she canned everything. And I do mean everything, squirrel (ew!), sausage, soups and stews, jams and jellies, pickles,and of course, vegetables she grew in her garden. He told me one of her favorite ways to preserve food was stringing “leather britches” of string beans but he said she also canned them.
When I can green beans I use a pressure canner which is recommended for safety purposesand I found myself wondering if Aunt Bessie had a pressure canner. So after I put the jars in the pressure canner and started the timer, I decided to do a little research on canning procedures back in the early 1900s. I learned a few interesting facts:
First, just as I suspected, pressure canners weren’t available to the public until about 1917 or so and when I called Daddy he said Aunt Bessie always used a boiling water canner. My next question was how did she can green beans and other low-acid foods that require a pressue canner today. So I moved on to the history of home food preservation and that’s where I found a goldmine of interesting information.
From Pick Your Own: Napolean is often credited with the invention of modern canning: in 1795 the French military offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs for a new method to preserve food. Nicolas Appert suggested canning and the process was first proven in 1806. Until 1858, canning jars used a glass jar, a tin flat lid, and sealing wax, which was not reusable and messy!
Napolean? Wow, never would’ve guessed that!
On the Freund Container & Supply – A Visual History of the Mason Jar (very cool timeline) site I learned about the Mason jars we all know and love–they’re not just for canning anymore! They were invented in the early 1800s by John L. Mason who perfected and patented them in 1858. When the patent expired around 1880, other jars followed, including the Lightning Jar (the ones with the metal clamp around the glass lid), Ball jars and then Kerr jars. And the lids went through several transformations, too.
And from Early History of USDA Home Canning Recommendations (I believe this is a site out of the University of Georgia):
It was recognized that bacteria may be killed at the temperature of boiling water, but that spores retain vitality for long times at that temperature and will germinate upon cooling. The type of sterilizing heat process recommended was fractional sterilization – “the whole secret of canning” (Breazeale, 1909). The complete sterilization of a vegetable required that one heat the vegetable in the jar to the boiling point of water and maintain that temperature for one hour each of two or three successive days. The first day of boiling was to kill molds and almost all the bacteria, but not spores. The spores were thought to germinate upon cooling, and boiling the second and third days killed the new bacteria. If fractional sterilization were not practiced, about five hours of boiling on the first day was recommended.
Yikes! Three days or five hours to can green beans? I love green beans but three days? Like a lot of things we’ve been researching; washing clothes and ironing for example, it sure was a lot harder to can back then. Would I have done it? Probably since that was the only way to preserve food but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as I do today. For me, canning is more like a hobby. It’s one of the few forms of cooking I really enjoy. But back when Aunt Bessie was doing it, it was a job–and a hard job at that. Just makes me admire her and all the women of that time period more than I already did!