Home Canning is Industrial Food

This past weekend, I turned my kitchen into a home factory and preserved 26 pounds of tomatoes.  Why do I say factory?  Well, beyond the fact that I developed a home-scale version of a factory production line (blanch, peel, chop, drain, measure, can, cool, repeat for next batch), canning is a form of preservation that has its roots largely in what we now call the military industrial complex.

While canning as a theory was already being developed, it was Nicolas Appert who developed the canning techniques we rely on today.  He responded to an appeal by Napoleon’s army in 1795 to package food on a large scale and in a manner which would preserve its nutrients for the scattered troops (Goody, “Industrial Food,” 340).  In 1810, Appert printed a book (thank you Google Books for the 1831 print in French!) on how to can everything from meat to dairy to vegetables – including tomatoes – in glasses.  Alpert actually went on to invent boullion cubes shortly thereafter as well (you know, those little cubes you throw into your soup to make it more flavorful – or am I no longer supposed to admit I use those because they’re loaded with MSG?).

In the next decade, Alpert’s contribution to supporting the French military spread to homes and food providers throughout Europe, and other people began experimenting with tin canning methods (Goody, “Industrial Food,” 341).  Commercial canning came to the United States in 1819 when businessman Wililam Underwood started his eponymous company, which later fed troops in the American Civil War and supported the Western expansion.  The company continued to contribute to research in canning technology throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

All of this is to say that while I am excited and thankful to be canning tomatoes that were grown a mere hour from my house, I can’t say that in doing so I’m subverting the entire industrial food system.  Why not?  Well, as Rachel Laudan describes wonderfully in her article in Gastronomica, the “Culinary Luddite” (i.e. someone who scorns the industrial food system) is missing the point.  Our world is not in black and white, and much of what we do in our kitchens today is a direct result of the industrialization of our food system and modern science.  Going back to a pre-industrialized system would mean embracing many of the old politics and systems of oppression we’re still trying to overturn (hand-made tortillas and fresh-pressed olive oil don’t make themselves) (Laudan, “A Plea for Culinary Modernism,” 36-44).   Industrial food got us here and there’s no turning back.  However, this past weekend I embraced that and used it to my advantage: and come January, when I open a jar of home-canned tomatoes, I’ll be mighty glad I did.

My birthday flowers - totally not relevant to the topic, but I had to share! Aren't the beautiful?

Tips I Learned in Canning My Own Tomatoes

This is not a recipe, because canning requires precise temperatures, measurements, and timing in order for it to be safe.  I used recipes and directions in the most recent editions of Joy of Cooking and Home Preserving for this project.  Here are some things I learned last weekend:

  • Plan for an entire day’s worth of work in the kitchen
  • One half bushel box of tomatoes is 26 pounds and makes about 18 pint jars
  • Be zen, take your time, and don’t plan on cooking anything else in the kitchen until the project is done
  • Be prepared to have tomato juices cover every inch of your kitchen
  • That said, be clean!  Make sure your jars and lids are sterilized and wash your hands frequently.
  • Drain the juices out of your tomatoes if you can so you can pack more of the tomato meat in your jars (you’ll likely add hot water and lemon juice to the jars, so you don’t want to end up with half liquid in the finished product)
  • Use the drained tomato juice to make an awesome barbecue sauce, or for a base in your next pasta sauce
  • Add lemon juice to each jar to ensure you have enough acidity in your tomatoes that they preserve properly
  • If the tomatoes float to the top of your jar when they are finished canning, that is okay.  It’s supposed to look that way (I called my dad when I panicked that 18 jars and a day’s worth of work may have gone wrong)

Sources

Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. 338-353. New York: Psychology Press, 1997.

Laudan, Rachel. “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food.” Gastronomica 1 (2001): 36-44.

6 Responses to “Home Canning is Industrial Food”

  1. Your birthday flowers are very beautiful, and this is a really terrific post! I’m impressed with your tomato canning, not just for its industriousness, but also because when I get near a ripe tomato, I can’t help but eat it. I’ve barely baked or cooked with any this year, just scarfed them.

    • Thanks Molly! Yes, we have gotten a bunch of tomatoes from our farm share, which we have certainly scarfed. We asked our farmer if we could buy extra. I did eat bits as I went along the canning process!

  2. Now I just need a source for a cheap half bushel of tomatoes. Tips?

  3. That was fascinating! I never knew the origins of canning beyond “that’s what grandmothers used to do all the time.” Thank you!

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