I made a jar of bread and butter pickles. Actually, several jars. They are all lined up on the counter in clear quart containers as pretty as pickles at a fair. The turmeric and mustard seed powder provide a spicy yellow cast to the green of the cukes. The finished pickles seem to float in a cloudy suspension of flavor, a promise for the bland winter winter months when the zesty taste will remind us of the garden.
Learning to can is a breakthrough in the re-skilling process that I believe is a necessary step in increasing self-sufficiency. Canning seemed difficult the first few times. But it turned out to be a management problem, organizing pots and burners, juggling jars and lids. It’s not that hard; just time consuming and energy consuming. It takes lots of electrical power and gallons of water to process a jar of pickles. On a kitchen-sized scale you couldn’t charge enough for a jar to even get your money back. But that’s not the point. It’s not a business. It’s preparation for time when the store may not have pickles, or beets, or jam or jelly or chutney, or beans or for a time when one can’t easily get to the store or for a time when one doesn’t have money to buy them. And, it’s an attempt to extend the eating season.
When I was growing up our family never seemed to have much food on hand. Both my parents worked and at six o’clock mom and dad would burst in with a bag of groceries and whip something up. There might have been some freezer jam making in the summer but our food was mostly stored by the local grocer. Many of us still live this way with three or four days of food on hand, about the same amount the stores have. Some claim that if the trucks were to quit running the groceries would be gone in a few days.
On our family trips to my father’s parent’s farm in Virginia I was in awe of the food. There was a root cellar packed to the brim with jars of virtually everything: fruits, veggies, jams and pickles. On the floor were bins of apples and potatoes. Hams, bacon and shoulders were salt/saltpeter cured in a separate storage building, the meat house, then put into a burlap or paper sacks and hung on poles along the meat house rafters for curing. They’d last for years. (My cousin Lew, who still owns his father’s farm across the street from our grandparent’s former farm says, “In our meat house, on a damp fall day I can still smell ham when I go in there, even though there hasn’t been a pork product in residence for 30 years or more.”)
This was pretty much a subsistence farm, operating until the early fifties not unlike it had operated in the nineteenth century. The folks on the farm knew how to do everything from digging an outhouse, planting a garden, caring for animals, putting food by, fixing machinery, baking, carpentry and dairying, to the small things like giving haircuts. It was operated by family members with a few long-time helpers from the neighborhood.
Contrasted to the Virginia farm was my maternal grandfather’s farm (they called them “ranches” for some reason) in the San Juaquin Valley where mono-culture was taking over—in this case alfalfa for hay. There was no garden, no jars of food on the shelf. And the workers were from Mexico. We called them “wetbacks” back then. These farmers, though, still had some skills. They could fix stuff, keep machinery running and handle a cow or two. They relied much more heavily on chemistry rather than manure.
I compare the ability of previous farm-based generations to my nuclear family where we hired everything out because my dad didn’t have time to do it, though he had probably learned it on the farm. He was working. Mom was working. My brothers and I were sitting around after school watching TV. We didn’t learn much that was practical. We lost all those skills that were there just a generation or two before.
I’m betting we’re all going to need to relearn skills that we’ve lost. We won’t have to learn every skill. Knowing who can do things is a skill in and of itself. But it’s important to recapture what has been lost while we’ve been driving around in cars buying stuff.
Digging a garden and getting something to grow is huge accomplishment, not to mention getting a fence up, constructing bean poles, plus sharpening and refinishing tools.
A jar of pickles is a big victory for me and an important step in re-skilling.