When Lee O’Neill, 34, decided to turn her 10 bushels of homegrown tomatoes, peppers and onions into salsa last summer, she gathered them up, along with eight dozen glass Ball jars, and headed to the Keezletown Community Cannery in Keezletown, Va.
“This feels like fun instead of work,” says O’Neill while peeling, chopping and mincing vegetables and herbs alongside friends and fellow gardeners. “It just has a real communal feel.”
Since 1942, people have been bringing their beans, beets, peaches, pears, cucumbers and chickens to the canning kitchen, where large-scale equipment—including 70-gallon cooking kettles, pressure canners, steam tables, a cooling tank and can sealer—makes preserving food easier and more efficient than canning at home.
“I’ve made 75 quarts of applesauce in three hours,” O’Neill says. “It would have taken me three days at home.”
Canners chat and laugh as they work in the 1939 former school building where handwritten cooking instructions cover one wall and a well-thumbed copy of the 1909 Ball Blue Book of Preserving sits atop an antique oak desk. During the fall, a pot-bellied woodstove warms the room while folks can soups, stews and apple butter.
“It’s just so much better than what you buy in the store,” says Trudy Hammer, 78, about homegrown and preserved food. “People know what’s in it and what it’s been sprayed with.”
For 15 years, Trudy and her husband, R.T., 80, of nearby Elkton (pop. 2,042), have helped individuals and families preserve fruits, vegetables and meats as managers of the not-for-profit Keezletown Community Cannery.
In the fall, Gina and John Moore, of nearby Harrisonburg (pop. 40,468), use the cannery to prepare and preserve venison for meals all year long. “You cut it into little cubes, add beef bouillon cubes and dried onion, and fill the can with water,” says John, 39. “The canning makes the meat tender. It really makes good gravy.”
“I love it over biscuits,” adds Jordan, 13, the Moores’ daughter.
Last summer, Gina, 39, turned a heap of homegrown tomatoes into a batch of spaghetti sauce with help from R.T. and his granddaughter, Kymberly Hammer, 21. In four hours, without heating up and dirtying her own kitchen, Gina produced 16 quarts of spaghetti sauce for $8. Canning fees are 50 cents per quart jar and $1 per quart can.
“We’re having eggplant parmigiana tonight,” she says as she leaves the cannery with her sauce-filled glass jars.
A rural Virginia tradition
Community canning kitchens were commonplace in the 1940s, when Americans grew Victory gardens during the food-rationing days of World War II.
“During the war, every little town had its cannery,” R.T. Hammer says. “After the war, in about 1946 and 1947, the Deepfreeze became popular and it was easier to drop the food in the freezer than to come to the cannery.”
Still, in rural Virginia, at least a dozen community canneries continue to provide residents with a place to preserve garden produce, wild game, fish and fruit.
“I pick fox grapes in the wild and make my juice and jellies,” says Doug Minnix, 47, manager of the Callaway (Va.) Community Cannery, which opened in 1946. “I put up quince preserves. I’ve canned cakes—sweet potato, chocolate, brown sugar.”
The cannery is “a nice little hometown gathering place. Everybody jumps in and helps everybody,” Minnix adds. “People share if they have extra. A guy today brought in extra peppers and gave them out to people.”
For more than 60 years, Eva Agee, 86, has used the cannery to preserve everything from pork to peaches. “There’s nothing like going to the basement and picking your own food off the shelf,” she says. “I can and give a lot of it away.”
Groups as well as individuals and families use community canneries. For more than 30 years, members of the Highland United Methodist and Piedmont Presbyterian churches in Callaway have canned apple butter to raise money for building maintenance and to help church members in need. The congregations bring crockpots and casseroles, along with apples and canning jars, and make the daylong process a social event.
While community canneries aren’t as common as they used to be, the science of “putting food by” is being rediscovered by self-sufficient individuals concerned about food safety.
“People got tired of the food recalls and issues with imported food and said, ‘I’m going to grow my own and know what’s in it,’” says Elizabeth Andress, 55, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia in Athens.
At the Citrus County Canning Center in Lecanto, Fla. (pop. 5,161), Monica Bonsett, 38, teaches hands-on, basic canning classes to home gardeners who want to preserve their bounty.
During a class last August, Bonsett supervised a dozen students as they washed, chopped and cooked vegetables for salsa, then filled sterilized jars for processing in boiling water. She stressed the importance of heating canned foods to proper temperatures for the required amount of time to prevent food poisoning.
“Canning is not a creative endeavor, but an exact endeavor,” Bonsett says.
Most of Bonsett’s students are first-time canners and some, such as Harry and Barbara Pickering of Homosassa, Fla. (pop. 2,294), are greenhorn gardeners. “We recently retired, and one of our goals was to give it our best shot at planting a vegetable garden,” says Harry, 55, who grew eggplant, onions, spinach, squash and sweet corn last year. “We’ll definitely be trying everything at the cannery under supervision.”
Another student, Jo Ann Robinson, 62, of nearby Beverly Hills, Fla. (pop. 8,317), was so delighted with her first jar of preserved salsa that she can’t wait to make another batch at the cannery.
“My neighbor and I are talking about giving salsa to people for Christmas,” says Robinson, who buys her produce at farmers markets. “You can always give someone a plate of cookies, but canning is the next step beyond cooking and baking.”
Bonsett has her own theory about why gardeners have been making salsa, strawberry jam and dill pickles since 1933 at the Citrus County Canning Center—and why people today are interested in learning the lost art.
“When you do canning, you take something from the very beginning to the very end,” Bonsett says. “It’s the satisfaction of finishing a project that you can give away or enjoy yourself.”