The Season for Canning
Whenever the temperatures start to dip and frost is in the air, I remember how my family really got serious about preserving food for the winter. Now, country folks didn’t wait until the frost was on the pumpkin, but this effort had been going on since the first vegetables “came in,” meaning they were ready to eat. It’s just that if you were not ready by fall, you needed to get busy. Real fast!
Like a rite of passage, we relied on the weather report from the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the RCA radio, and waited until the last possible afternoon to pick the remaining green tomatoes and bell peppers from the garden. One more day of sunshine couldn’t possibly hurt. Tying a wool scarf over our heads and with gloved hands, we forged through the sleet falling from a dark, gray sky. Scouring the leafless vines, we plucked green tomatoes and a bucket of bell peppers. Darkness brought us in.
There were two options for using the unripe tomatoes. Everyone knows that green-tomato relish will still be delicious, even with the half-ripe produce. In a few days, part of this early fall gathering was fed through an antique food grinder, mixed with spices, sugar, vinegar and sealed in Mason jar pints in a water-bath cooker. The relish would provide a special flavor to bowls of white beans during cold months. Some tomatoes were individually wrapped in newspaper and stored in an unheated room. It was hoped they would be ripe and edible for Thanksgiving dinner.
In addition to the half-grown vegetables, the last of the summer annuals were gathered at this time. Every vase, including Grandmother McKnight’s milk glass, was filled with the last of the zinnias and marigolds. Cutting the tender growth of the colorful coleus, we filled empty blue milk-of-magnesium bottles. Placing the shoots in a sunny window provided starter plants for the coming spring.
Those Red and Golden Delicious apples tasted as good in the fall and winter as in summer. In order to keep them in pristine condition, my father filled a cardboard GE refrigerator box with pine needles. Placing the apples in the center and without touching, he stored the box in the unheated smokehouse. Even by Christmas, they retained that crispy, sweet flavor.
My father, being a painter and experienced climber on tall buildings, used his skills to provide food for our table, as well as one of the most enjoyable events of the fall. Choosing a dry, sunny autumn Saturday, our family, cousins and other friends would go “pecan picking.” As a child, I was amazed that my dad could climb those huge pecan trees. Having recently attended the 1952 movie The Greatest Show on Earth, I saw him as Charlton Heston, fearless on the high wire. Perhaps one day I would be a trapeze artist and swing through the air like Betty Hutton. From the ground below, my mother, using a hand to shield her eyes from the bright sun, yelled, “Now you be careful – don’t fall, you hear!” Looking up and seeing him on those high limbs I was so very proud of my dad. None of the other children had fathers who would dare perform so risky a task.
Before climbing the tree, Dad would assess it from the ground. Where were the strongest limbs? Which one had another limb nearby to hold on and for balance? Dad would test his weight by walking out on a chosen limb, while holding to the one above, and jump. Then again. And again. Pecans rained down like a hailstorm.
After the pecans stopped falling, everyone grabbed their paper grocery sacks and started picking up the treasured nuts. Fall leaves hid many of the morsels, causing a lot of kicking and hunting. Laughter filled the air. Bags filled, we headed home. With visions of pecan pies, chocolate pecan candy, pecan stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey, once again we prepared for the long days of winter. You see, pecans aren’t necessary to a recipe, but they add that extra-special touch to beloved foods.
Some things never change. I still wait until the last frost-free fall day to gather green tomatoes. And I fill Grandmother McKnight’s milk glass vase with the last of the summer flowers.