The closest I ever came to canning with my grandmother was nearly twenty years after she died. It was the only time I had ever canned with my mother, and I was clearly the one in charge, despite that my mother had helped my Nani blanch and then skin tomatoes, pack them, steaming, in quart jars, and then transfer them to their own boiling pot, a dozen or more summers in a row.
My mother escaped the yearly canning ritual as soon as she could, and Nani continued to put away a few dozen jars a year — most ended up in her weekly pot of sauce served for Sunday dinner with the extended family — until she grew too weak to stand at the stove.
Years later, I taught myself to can (or preserve food in jars with a heat sealing process) as an adult. That one summer, when I had convinced my mom to join me and she bought a bushel of roma tomatoes, we combined our reusable canning jars, and processed thirty quarts in about four hours of sweaty work, coming in at a cost of around a dollar a jar. We had pots lined up in the basement kitchen — a particularly Italian American set-up that Nani also had — and jars waiting to be filled, with a sprig of basil and a squeeze of lemon in the bottom.
By the time we finished, our t-shirts were soaked in sweat and our matching curly brown hair smelled like marinara. We each had enough jars to last us a winter of dinners, and my mother was pleased with our work. But more so with our time spent together and the knowledge that we could can, if we wanted to. She hasn’t mentioned making this a yearly ritual; she’ll buy her tomatoes from the supermarket, thank you very much.
That summer morning, while my mother recalled how Nani would cut slits in the tomato skins to help them come off easier after their quick dip into the boiling water bath, or when she told me how it had been her job as a child to put her hands in the jars to squish down the whole tomatoes to fit in as many as possible, I realized why I had bothered teaching myself to can in the first place. I wanted to connect, in some small way, to my Nani and the cultural importance of preparing and preserving food through this traditional knowledge, even if cost was no longer a reason with our industrial farms and mass production techniques that make metal cans of tomatoes shipped from Florida cheaper than a bushel of “seconds” grown up the road.
I live in Brooklyn now, hundreds of miles from my Nani’s kitchen, with my musician husband and baby boy. I prefer locally sourced produce and wear skinny jeans. I call myself a writer, a teacher and a scholar, but I also make my own cheese, can my own tomatoes, and ferment my own kraut.
By most people’s assessment, I am part of the gentrifying class of young(ish) people, often called hipsters, who have helped revive the do-it-yourself lifestyle, but from a seeming place of privilege. They — we — can because we can. There has been a recent influx of those (mostly part of the educated social middle class) with financial and social freedom starting new food-based businesses, spending hours a week sourcing and preparing food and drink from scratch to sell to others a handmade a jar, bottle, round, or wedge — often at a price that places these products in the luxury category.
This “artisanal food revolution”, as it has been called, is also seen as being supported by consumers who have the same financial freedom to pay these seemingly inflated prices for products that to varying degrees resemble their mass produced counterpart. While evidence of this change is food culture is apparent anecdotally, according to the National Associate for Specialty Food Trade “specialty food” (that the industry self-defines as “exemplifying quality, innovation and style” derived from such qualities as “originality”, “authenticity”, “ethnic or cultural original”, “limited supply” among other characteristics) grew at a rate of 19.1% in 2011, and within that category 26% of consumers specifically sought out food described as “artisanal” despite there being no definitive definition for the term.
A growing number of people are seeking these foods on some level, I assert, as being a conduit between the traditionally made and preserved foods of their past or their parents’ or grandparents’ past, and the present where this is often no space, time, or knowledge to create these specialty foods themselves.
While it may only cost my mother and me around a dollar a jar to can a quart of tomatoes (with almost no additives), we had already paid for and used the jars, which could run more than a dollar each, and the kitchen space and our collective eight hours of work time was free. Translate a home canning operation to a professional one, and it becomes more clear how a jar of “artisanal” tomatoes would cost upwards of ten dollars in today’s retail market.
And I won’t pretend that there aren’t plenty of people — many of them my peers and neighbors — who don’t hesitate to buy that hand packed jar from the farmer’s market or specialty shop. This food of the poor has become, for many, an indulgence.
Yet my predilections for the homemade come from a place that isn’t financially robust. I am also someone who was brought up in rural Western New York in a county with the third highest poverty rates in the state, about as far from the City as you can get. My father’s mother only had an eighth-grade education, and tended a large garden and froze, canned, fermented and otherwise preserved much of her harvest to feed her family of seven.
My maternal grandmother — my Nani — worked outside of the home to support the family flight school business, both as the office manager at the airport and for outside employers in the evenings. However she still made Sicilian specialties — peach brandy, canned tomatoes and sauce, foraged burdock patties — in part to save money, but also as much to preserve her culinary heritage. The foods she made represented the time she spent in Italy as a child, tasted like her mother’s cooking, and reminded her of how far she had come since she was the preschooler who arrived at the United States via Ellis Island.
The preparation of these foods also connected her to her sisters and daughter who would gather together on a hot summer day to process enough tomatoes for the extended family for the rest of the year. Thus “artisanal” — or traditional, handmade, small-batch food as it is generally understood to mean — of my childhood wasn’t made from a place of privilege, but out of necessity, tradition, and community.
My life is very different from both of my grandmothers’. And in fact, neither taught me to preserve food when I was young because, as my paternal grandmother said, “Why would you have to?” I might have convinced my Nani to show me her recipes had she not died when I was in high school. And today, still, my first thought when I see a mason jar of preserved food — even in certain parts of Brooklyn — I think “economy” and not “luxury.”
For both of my grandmothers, canning made financial sense. They either grew their own produce or bought it in bulk from a nearby farmer and processed many jars at a time, reusing the glass and rings from year to year. For my grandmother who didn’t work outside of the home, the garden and the food preservation was her contribution to the family’s long-tentative bottom line.
But even when both had reached a point where they were financially comfortable, my grandmothers continued to spend hours in their steamy kitchens, producing shelves lined with preserved tomatoes and pickles and fruit. Because they always had. Or they enjoyed the time spent with family during this yearly ritual, or maybe because both women, born in the wake of the great depression, were always putting away for a less prosperous day. Just in case.
There have been a number of critiques of the small-batch food industry as being elitist, privileged, and distracting from the larger issues facing our global and domestic food sourcing today. Many of them are valid — it can appear out of touch to encourage buying local or organic produce, say, when there are numerous food deserts in the United States with limited access to any fresh food. And spending eight dollars on a jar of artisanal pickles is a choice that only a certain percentage of the population has the luxury of considering.
But I also take issue with the wholesale critique of the handmade, small-batch, artisanal, or craft — call it what you will — food industry as catering only to a certain financial class. I interviewed many of these small start-up food entrepreneurs and while some came to their business with strong financial backing, for many it was a leap of faith. Others lost their jobs in the recession and starting their own business, working sixty, eighty hours a week to process, promote, and distribute their product was a labor of love.
Perhaps they were honoring their family’s food culture, as some told me, or wanted to be more intimately involved in food sourcing for environmental or social reasons. For many farmers, the decision to make small-batch farmstead cheese was the difference between bankruptcy and economic sustainability as they could sell the cheese for ten times as much as the milk, with mainly manpower as the additional expense. And even as many of these artisans are selling food to the middle and upper-middle class, most wouldn’t be able to afford their own products as they budgeted for their weekly groceries.
I know the issue of class is more complicated than this — that certain groups of people, while they may be financially insolvent now, are more prepared to weather an economic downturn because of education and access. And that the issue of privilege can be looked at through race, gender, ethnic, and even rural and urban lenses, among others. But I also want to argue that small-batch food is not just food for the privileged, by the privileged.
In the United States, it is food made by those on the verge of losing their farm who see a path toward keeping land that has been in the family for generations; it is food made using recipes passed down from elders, whose flavors and techniques were in danger of being lost forever; it is food made by the young professional who started a small business after she was laid off, and whose huge student loans meant that taking a minimum wage job wasn’t a financially viable option.
In San Juan, Puerto Rico, it is food made by twenty-something-year-olds who learned about small-batch foods by visiting family in Brooklyn and were inspired to revive their own cultural heritage using locally sourced foods. In Sicily, it is the embracing of the Arab community, longtime residents who had, until recently, been treated as outsiders, through their cuisine. In Lima, Peru, it is the ceviche masters who are striving to find a sustainable way to source seafood so that their culture’s food can survive into the next generation.
Artisanal food can be elitist. It can exclude people by sheer cost, and the movement to “do-it-yourself” can exclude others who don’t have access to knowledge or who don’t have the time to spend hours in the kitchen. Certainly there are many more pressing issues in our modern world than figuring out how to sustainably source handmade pickles. But small-batch, handmade food is also many more things — as it was for my grandmothers, it can be very inexpensive, it can promote community and it can keep traditions alive. And today, with myriad stresses on our environment, it can promote a more direct connection to the land itself.
Today I may spend hours in a sweltering kitchen boiling jars in the heat of summer to remember my Nani and the sacrifices she made to feed her family and preserve her Sicilian culture, because I have the privilege of time to connect with her in a visceral way. But I also buy small-batch goods when I can afford it to support small businesses who are trying to package this sense of history and tradition for those who don’t have the time or knowledge.
And it is my trust that I am helping to preserve this culture for everyone — rich or poor, educated or not. For if we don’t keep this knowledge and these skills alive with the individuals, we will have no choice about how to source our food.
Suzanne Cope is an author and professor living in Brooklyn.