My Little Victory Garden: Canning With Fear, Friends, Fire and Frequency

The first crabapple tree I remember was growing beside my great-grandmother Porter's home in Missouri. Can you find it in the background? Yes, I'm the baby in this photo. Click on frame for larger view.

Four summers ago, my dear friend Cathy and I were in her neighbor’s crabapple tree throwing fruit to her daughter below.  Greta was running from one ground-level spot to another, doing her best to keep up with the showering fruit.  “Look out beloooooow! Hey, Greta – come over here!” Cathy and I yelled quadrant commands for about 45 minutes until Greta had had enough.

“Hey, when do I get to climb UP THERE and YOU catch the fruit down HERE??”

Okay, that was fair.  We switched places.  Cathy and Greta were now pummeling fruit and I was the fetcher.  In an hour, we had filled a 5-gallon bucket about 80% full of sweet smelling, warm and perfectly ripe crabapples.  We were going to make jam.  We loaded up our accoutrements (ladder, rake, other buckets, hats, gloves) and headed to her home.

I had not canned since living at home as a little girl. That was back in the day of pressure cookers and freaky stories about jars exploding. I was feeling pretty insecure and was scared I would do something wrong.  I didn’t know how to prep the jars. I didn’t have a sense of what a rolling boil was or how to skim the foam from jam.  I certainly didn’t know how to hold the jars or fill them correctly, how tightly to screw on the rings, or what the sealing process was all about.  I needed my security blanket and teacher – hence, I was hanging out with Cathy and learning. A whole bunch.

Crabapple jam is a rosy, golden-pink hue and the taste is like the best sweetness summer has to offer.  It’s very much like sandplum jam in color, and actually a little similar in taste as well. I know this because four summers ago we collectively produced a massive amount of beautiful jars full of the stuff.  When held up to the light I think that crabapple jam was enchanting me; I couldn’t quit staring at what we’d produced!

Three years ago, Cathy and I canned crabapple jam in her test kitchen where she was an executive chef and taught students at a culinary school.  Greta had graduated to preparing the fruit, filling jars and washing dishes.

Two years ago, I broke out on my own.  I canned my very first jam…all by myself.  Jam, spiced pears, chow-chow and cinnamon red-hot pickles.  I was a little freaked out about flying solo, and was filled with renewed self-doubt from the moment I sterilized all the jars until the moment they all sealed.  No, I take that back.  I was filled with self-doubt until I had tasted all my creations.  Only then did I relax.  “Okay,” I thought as I tasted the jam, “I can do this.”

Last year I started teaching my children how to can.  I wasn’t afraid any longer, and I was ready to pass on the knowledge and experience.  It’s kind of fun.

And this year? I canned intermittently all summer long.

First, I canned pickles and peach jam with my daughter, her friend, and a colleague.  My colleague made me smile when she sent a message reading: “I could drink that jam, it tastes so good.”  Her husband wrote and asked for the pickle recipe because he finished his jar off the first week or two.  I smiled again because that was my daughter’s recipe – she was passing along her knowledge at a much earlier age than I.

Next I became a little overwhelmed with cucumbers from my garden, so not only did we have dill pickles, but we had bread and butter AND red hot cinnamon pickles.

Bread & butter pickles made with oversized cucumbers, dill pickles made with my daughter's recipe and red hot cinnamon pickles. The cinnamon pickles taste similar to spiced apple rings, with a sweet and sour base; the whole process takes 3-4 days to complete as there are several steps and a good portion of the work is simply allowing them to soak in various solutions.

I canned peaches two more times, as they seemed to be one of the crops that were actually making this summer in our terrible drought (although the peach farmers still stated they only got about 40% of their normal crop).  One time I just had a few left given to me by a friend.  The last time, I was working with a graduate student leadership group from the university.  This was an interesting day.  We had planned to go to Pop’s, each purchase a few sodas, come to the house, make jam, have a soda “tasting,” grill Hawaiian chicken and relax.

Our plans were interrupted, however, by wild fires in the area.  Between preparing the fruit and jars, we kept checking the television for news on how close the fires were.  The dialogue among eight graduate students, many of them international who had never canned before, much less been in a potential evacuation for a wildfire, was an interesting banter to say the least.  It ping-ponged between being intrigued by the whole canning process (one African student must have asked fifty questions, and was fascinated that Sure Jell contained the recipes for every fruit he ‘thought he might try to can as well’) and feelings of anxiety about leaving before the fire got too close.

This summer's peach canning (top to bottom): peach preserves, peach pie filling and pureed peach preserves.

Mick and Drew, my son-in-law, kept watch and continued to bring in dispatches from outside.  “There are helicopters in the area now.”  “They’re probably going to evacuate our section.” “Drew crawled up on the roof to take a photo and see if he could see flames.  He could.”  Each time they came into the house we were further through the peach jam canning process.

Finally, the jam reached a rolling boil.  I was showing one student how to skim off the foam and another how to fill the jars when we heard a bullhorn outside.  “Please prepare to evacuate the area.  Pack your essentials, and exit your homes toward the east.”  We were now filling the jars.  I looked at the president and he looked at the rest of the group.  They needed to go.  “Okay, everybody pack everything up in the cars and as soon as we get this last jar filled, we’re out of here!”

Everyone scrambled at once.  That kitchen has never been cleaned so fast; nor, might I add, have I ever seen anyone pack up a vehicle so deftly.  In less that five minutes they were ready to go.  And, the last jar was filled, wiped off, and packed into a box.

“Goodbye! Be safe!”  We yelled at them as they backed out of the driveway, 18 precious half-pints of peach preserves in tow.

I noticed they left me two jars, and I have to say it’s probably the best peach jam I’ve ever made.

As they left I thought about the student from Africa.  I wondered if he would go ahead and try canning on his own.  He was armed with the following information: where you buy the supplies, what fruit makes the best jam, yes you can make it in smaller quantities, yes it is shelf-stable and you can wait to eat it for a while…

I wondered if HE would be scared to try his first time like I was?

I turned, headed quickly into the house, packed my tub of family photos and grabbed an old photo album I have which belongs to my parents. I pulled out the “family” file (you know – birth certificates, school records, etc.) and told Mick I was ready.

We never left the house, however.  We are blessed by having no less than four policemen who live within a mile from our home and they were extremely gracious by communicating all the information about the fire to us and our other neighbors.  About thirty minutes later, we got an “all clear” message and I headed back into the house.  My phone rang; the leadership group had made it to Mexico Joes in Stillwater and was having a good dinner.

I put the cleaned pots and pans away, and wondered what I might be canning next. Okay, canning is actually a lot of fun.  I hoped it would be pumpkin pie filling.


National “Can It Forward” Day was August 13th this year.  If you canned this summer, or would love to learn, let me know!  I’m interested in hearing about where YOU are in the process of becoming a canning pro!


Here are a few photos of my dad in our garden when I was the age you see above. The date is probably around 1964.  The first photo shows him standing behind the squash and in front of rows of popcorn.  The second is him holding up a Black Diamond watermelon and a nice sized cantaloupe.  Gardening is in my DNA – yes indeed.  Is it in yours?

For all the “My Little Victory Garden” posts, go here please.