Canning the Fruits of Our Labor: A Story

Reading Time: 3 minutes

My grandmother grew up in the Great Depression. Her parents were fortunate in that they owned enough land to farm, and that is what sustained them throughout those very difficult years. When World War II came along, the government encouraged “Victory Gardens,” which always made my grandmother chuckle — that was the same thing she had been doing since she was no taller than a tomato plant herself, and now there was a fancy name for the hard work of pulling your own food out of the land.

Plenty of food

She grew up understanding that when tough times came, having plenty of food meant that the difficulties stung a little less. Maybe that’s why she insisted on a garden, a very large one, and made a point of “putting it by” every season. The canning jars would be lovingly washed and placed on the tables, the counters, wherever there was room. The huge water bath and the pressure canner would come out of hiding. The seals on the lids would be meticulously checked.

food storage shelving pantry And then came the food, rolling into the kitchen every day from a garden that seemed on the verge of exploding. Strawberries and broccoli and cauliflower and beans and cucumbers, and then peppers and beets and squash of all colors and suddenly — tomatoes! We would haul them in by the never-ending bushel. We had just enough time to can all of them before the fall rush came in, more squash and broccoli and potatoes and pumpkins and watermelon and… Well, you get the picture.

Little girl lost in a great big kitchen

I learned plenty about hard work during that time, but I often worried that I was in the way. My grandmother, so seasoned and sure after years of doing that work, had to slow down and teach me, over and over. Sometimes I wondered if she minded, and sometimes that worry drove me out of the kitchen and into the fields, where I would pretend I didn’t hear her when she hollered for another basket of this or that. I shouldn’t have worried.

Hard work …

I realized this a few days ago, when the canner was boiling away on the big gas burners and I was chopping up yet more cucumbers to make pickles. It had been a long day. My arms ached from pounding the cabbage into sauerkraut. I had made so much salsa and tomato sauce that I was sick of the very idea of tomatoes. The jalapenos had stung my hands when I took the seeds out, and I had even suffered the indignity of onion juice splashed into my eye. (Pro tip: Do not try that at home. Or anywhere else, for that matter.)

… That pays off!

My daughter came into the kitchen. She was wearing the latest t-shirt of some band whose name I can’t pronounce. She had earbuds stuck deep in her ears and the somewhat lost, distant look that teenagers have down to an art. She wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but the counters were completely covered, no space for the prep of anything else. She watched me chop the cucumbers for the longest time, then she wandered to the canner, and finally to the kitchen table, where glass jars gleamed in the sunlight.

“So you made that good salsa?” she asked, pulling an earbud out of her ear. “That, and the tomato sauce you like, the one with lots of garlic.” She nodded and screwed on a jar lid. She looked it over for a moment. “You need help with those?” “Yes, please…do you really want to?”

canning cucumbers

Time together

She shrugged with feigned nonchalance as she washed her hands and took the knife from me. She began to chop, her slices perfectly straight and even. She asked me about the herbs on the counter, and soon I was talking about cilantro and parsley and dill. Then talk turned to vinegars and sugars and she was the one who slipped the cucumbers into the jars. She lifted the old ones out of the canner (“These things are heavy, wow!”) and put the new ones in. Soon an entire afternoon had passed by, and she hadn’t once wanted to scamper off to her computer or her music or her friends. I stood in the kitchen when the canning was over and watched as she washed her hands one final time, smiled at me, gave me an impromptu hug…and left me with the cleanup.

Welcomed into a tradition

But it was a lesson learned, because I no longer thought that maybe, all those years ago, I got in the way. I thought that maybe, instead, I had been welcomed into a tradition with patience and open arms — just like I welcomed my daughter. With that thought, I smiled as I cleaned up the mess.

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Shannon Dauphin Lee

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.