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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Home canning
was a high-pressure job

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
There was a time between root cellars and refrigeration when pressure cookers were used to preserve food.

The Great Depression and Dust Bowl were blowing full force, home gardens were feeding the populace and preservation of meat and produce was an absolute necessity to survive.

Interestingly, steam pressure canning dates back to Napoleon, the French general who offered a cash prize to anyone who could invent a process to preserve food for his traveling armies. The invention came, was leaked to the public and soon many businesses were preserving food in this manner. By the 1900s, most canneries across the world were using pressure cookers.

At our farm, once the gardens started producing, our neighbors and family gathered to shuck corn, shell peas, snap green beans and chop up tomatoes and squash. Each family had recipes handed down from generation to generation to make relish, pickles, chow-chow, and special stew stocks. The food was prepared according to the recipe.

During certain times of the year, livestock was butchered and processed with some parts being preserved by steam canning. Again, family recipes were handed down for use.

Our kitchen cabinets and dining table were filled with fruit jars, jar rings and flats each checked for flaws and condition. Then all were boiled, steamed and made sanitary. Next, the boiled jars were filled, capped and placed into the pressure cooker where steam pressured the container for preservation. Upon cooling, if the flat lid popped up, the jar was not sealed and the contents had to be used immediately or be reprocessed. If the lid stayed down, it meant the canning was a success and could be stored in the cellar for the coming season. Most food stayed preserved for years.

Ida Garrett, an aunt and early pioneer in Ochiltree County, told of her part in the earliest days of home canning. The county paid her tuition to attend a government-sponsored canning school in Amarillo where she learned the latest processes for home canning. After the school concluded, she brought home a large pressure cooker and all the accessories needed to teach home canning. This was the first step in organizing Home Demonstration Clubs in the county.

She established a canning school at the local Civilian Conservation Corps camp kitchen and started demonstrating home canning techniques. Each day she scheduled interested local women to bring various fresh vegetables and meats to the kitchen where she taught them to home-can the commodity.

The canning school was conducted through the summer and fall with many women learning the process and most purchasing a pressure cooker for their own home use. Both Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward companies offered the canning equipment and cookers for home use along with selected meat curing tools and ingredients.

One odd accessory included among Ida's tools was a tattoo device to place black numbers between the toes of chicken's feet. I found this strange until I realized all chickens look alike with their heads and feathers removed and the tattoo was needed for identification.

This early day, well-used steam canning process is a far cry from today's deep freezes, but at one time was the "cat's meow" in food preservation. I can still recall the sounds of canning time from our kitchen with the steam hissing through the valve and the rattle of the steel ball releasing pressure as our pressure cooker worked its special magic.


Delbert Trew

"It's All Trew"

June 19, 2007 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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