I'm just curious. I live near Boston, which for those of you who are unfamiliar with the geography of the United States is on the eastern coast of the country. We, along with everyone else between North Carolina and here, just got hit by a hurricane named Irene. (Several islands in the Caribbean also had meetings with Ms. Irene.) Now it seemed to me that news coverage consisted entirely of Irene and nothing else. That could just be because we live in a coastal area, but it seemed like the national news outlets weren't covering much else either. So: if you live outside the eastern half of the United States, did you get ANY other news?
Anyway, Boston and the surrounding towns had plenty of time to prepare. We didn't have much to really do toward that end – we had plenty of food on hand and people whose hobby involves re-creating the more pleasant aspects of the medieval period are not likely to panic about power outages. Some folks raced to the supermarkets to get the traditional American disaster-preparedness supplies: bread, milk and eggs. Seriously, I think everyone in America lives on French toast when disaster strikes. (If this is your plan I'd recommend laying in a supply of syrup as well, because without syrup your French toast will be disappointing.) I do not live on French toast. While French toast is all well and good in its place, no one my size needs to eat French toast more than once a year. So while other people were raiding supermarkets for packaged bread and the last drops of milk, I canned tomatoes.
This has been part of my plan for some time. The plan has generally been to grow a lot of vegetables and then can them, thus having a steady supply of vegetables whose quality is assured throughout the winter months. Thus I would reduce my food bill. Of course, our garden didn't get planted this year. That said, food prices have been rising and they've been rising for good reason. Events in other places have led to increases in transportation costs and processing costs. Weather in several areas has resulted in diminished crop yields and increased regulation has increased (some) production costs. I figured it would be just as well to start now as to wait for my garden to yield something besides berries and slugs.
This is not a recipe post. I followed the USDA's instructions for hot-packed whole tomatoes in water because I really, really wanted to have safe food. I did not deviate from the instructions in the slightest. I did want to share with you some of the thoughts that popped into my head during the long, laborious and above all hot process of getting 21 pounds of plum tomatoes peeled, seeded and canned. So here goes.
- When I started this project I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I was Taking Steps to Become Self-Sufficient. I was Taking Control of My Food Supply. If a true disaster were to come my way, I would be prepared, and that's a fact. Indeed, if civilization were destroyed and I had to keep my family and a small band of like-minded individuals alive I would be in great shape to do so, because I would be able to Preserve the Harvest. Then I began to think critically about this. I'm using mass-produced mason jars with some kind of proprietary goo on the lids that creates the proper seal. I have no idea how to make a bunch of glass jars. I could re-use the ones I already have but a) that is not enough to keep me and a small band of like-minded individuals alive for more than a day and b) I would have no access to the super-secret magic goo. Note to self: Figure out how our pioneer/medieval ancestors preserved their vegetables. Try it. Of course, don't count on it. They died a lot.
- I felt like I went through a LOT of water during this process. There's the water in which the jars, lids and bands are heated. There's the water in which the jars are processed. There's the water in which the tomatoes are washed, and the water in which they are blanched to remove the skins, and the ice water in which the blanched tomatoes are dunked to remove the skins. I live in eastern Massachusetts and I have a lake in my backyard. I was also expecting that in very short order we would have more water than we really knew what to do with. (That turned out to not be the case, not where I live anyway, but I didn't know that at the time.) I found myself trying to think of ways to conserve the water I was using to can my tomatoes. I did not put any of them into practice. Most of them seemed a little Rube Goldberg to me, if you know what I mean, and I'm wondering if around here that would really be a good use of time and energy. But what if I lived somewhere where the water was rationed?
- Wow, that was a messy process. I think I destroyed a perfectly good tee shirt and shorts.
- I really like tomatoes. I'd better.
- 21 pounds is not as much tomato as you might think. It might get a typical Italian-American family through a couple of weeks. It is still, however, cheaper than buying organic canned tomatoes or imported canned tomatoes at the supermarket.
- Where am I going to put all these quart-sized jars of tomatoes? Both of my grandmothers had shelving in the basement for canned goods. My father's mother had a wide variety of goods on her shelves, although mayonnaise sticks out in my mind in a rather repulsive fashion. My mother's mother's shelves consisted of tomatoes. Perhaps I need to get some shelving units down there.
- Perhaps I did not need to can 21 pounds in one go. That was the quantity listed by the USDA. The instructions, on closer inspection, were perfectly applicable to smaller quantities. What it boiled down to was about 3 pounds of plum tomatoes went into one quart-sized jar. It is not, however, cost effective to process one jar of tomatoes.
At the end of the day, I'm glad I took this step. It remains to be seen whether or not it will substantially decrease my food bill, although I plan to repeat the process a few more times during the coming months. It was also fun, if messy. And my jars of tomatoes are much prettier than cans. Perhaps I can use them as home décor. The tomatoes are all local, and local food is always better than food from someplace else. I wonder what other local produce I will find to can next week?