Beyond Canning

Wendy Kiang-Spray goes over many traditional food preservation methods and their heritage.

  • Whether drying, freezing, salt-curing, or fermenting, food preservation means different things to different cultures.
    Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray
  • Chinese cooks add dried daylily blooms to soups, stir fries, and other dishes.
    Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray
  • Drying is an ideal preservation method since most fruits and vegetables dry well and the process requires little or no equipment — simply a low level of heat and moving air. Shown are dried bamboo shoots, radishes, and carrots.
    Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray
  • Pickling is simply adding an acid to food in order to prevent spoilage and to keep harmful bacteria from forming on the food. Shown are pickled garlic scapes.
    Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray
  • Pack chopped herbs in an ice cube tray, top with water, broth, butter or olive oil, and then freeze. The cubes make an excellent start for sautes.
    Photo by Wendy Kiang-Spray

On a late summer afternoon several years ago, I was given the task of running out to the pier over my parents' pond to bring in the fish before it started storming. These fish, wrapped loosely in paper towels, had been sun drying for days now. After drying fully, they would be preserved in salted oil. I had never had this salted fish before, but they said it was the thing. A simple, homely dish — a little bit of salted fish with each bite of a plain, white, steamed bun. We all looked forward to it. It was delicious.

What my parents didn’t know is that despite the salted fish with steamed bun being flavorful, simple, and satisfying, each bite also brought me closer to the life and part of China that I would never know. A life that is told to me in fits and starts, and of bittersweet emotion. Eating the foods they ate as children in the village of Shantung, China, and saving foods with methods they used brings me closer to them and their world in a way that words cannot bridge.

I imagine it is the same for the child who grew up alongside his mother at the stove, steam pouring from the top of a gigantic canning pot, awaiting the apple butter, or jam, or tomato sauce to emerge from the wire rack. I know it was the same for my friend Don, who a year after his mother died, opened the remaining jar of pickled beets with his siblings and with one taste of her preserved vegetables, sweet memories flooded back.

Beyond Canning

Beyond the sentimental factors are the practical reasons for preserving food. My father is from a rural, but educated, well-off family. No one would know this, though, because with the onset of Communism, all material wealth was stripped, and villagers in Shantung, China, starved for decades. My father tended a farm and a smaller garden plot solely for survival. Napa cabbages, radishes, turnips and a few other crops did well in their climate, but there were no pantry items, no means for jarring tomato sauce, no freezer in which to store berries. Before the ground froze, my father and other villagers would dig giant pits in their nearby family garden plots. In the pit would go all the cold-weather harvests for winter storage. Each week, he would remove the snow and dirt cover and dig out a few cabbages to feed his brother and mother.

Today, like many other blessed and seasoned gardeners, he has an abundance of fruits and vegetables and spends many days of his retired life making deliveries to friends. But all the excess doesn’t have to be given away. Preserving food allows gardeners to live more self-sufficiently and more assuredly that the literal fruits of their labors can be enjoyed even when the seasons change. Even with my small backyard potager, I am routinely able to make many jars of strawberry jam, hot-pepper jelly, pickled vegetables, several bottles of dried herbs, bags of frozen lingonberries, dried red-pepper flakes, and sun-dried tomatoes. The pride that comes with preserving food and presenting it later matches, or maybe even exceeds, the pride of producing that vegetable in the first place. I also routinely give holiday gift baskets containing some items I’ve preserved. This year, my gift will contain a jar of maple bourbon blackberries, a bottle of pure maple syrup, and my favorite pancake mix.

Pick a method

Numerous methods for food preservation exist. To figure out which method you will use, consider the food, the anticipated use, and how the method of preservation will affect the taste. My friend Grace freezes most of her berries — and freezes just about everything else she can! Grace also has a large fridge and basement freezers. For me, freezing berries is not practical because I have little room in my freezer, and also, a defrosted berry is a little too soft for my liking — a side effect of freezing foods with a high water content. Below, I’ve listed several of the most popular methods for preserving your harvest. Consider the best method for all your harvesting this season so you’ll enjoy enough fresh food now, and even more for later!



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