It was canning season and my teacher-mom, off for the summer 1974, was learning to make pickles.
My grandmother had given her something called a pressure cooker, and a lesson or two in how to use it without killing herself.
Seriously, this thing was ominous.
Pure cast iron and as big as a 10-gallon bucket, you could have crawled inside and stayed safe from nuclear war. Or maybe flown off to another planet. It had a half dozen giant wing nuts to screw down the lid, all big enough that the contraption resembled a spaceship with flying rotors. And that giant pressure gauge. When the pressure reached the red range you were literally in the death zone.
So, here’s how it worked.
It started way back in late April or early May when you planted lots of cucumbers, corn, purple hull peas, tomatoes, and anything else that could be canned. You fought the frost, the disease, insects, drought, too much rain, and with a little luck by mid-June you had a garden so productive you were picking twice a day and filling several five-gallon buckets. You had more produce than you could eat, so you broke out Big Bertha, the pressure cooker that also in some ways resembled a device that might be used for execution purposes. This is fitting, because those things could literally kill you and every single use was like a game of Russian Roulette.
Will it blow? Or will we escape safely through another canning session? You were always on pins and needles.
After carefully sterilizing jars and lids, you’d pack the jars ever so carefully with the harvest of the day. Some produce required more prep than others, and the vinegar and spice odors that pervaded the house during pickle prep were almost more than you could stand.
With lids and bands screwed down on the jars, you placed them carefully inside the tank-like cauldron with steaming hot water, submerging as many as 20 quarts per session. Once they were in place, it was time to screw down the lid, all six wing nuts tightened with one of my dad’s Channellocks. The rubber seal made it all air-tight with hot, moist air escaping only through a jiggling “rocker” atop the lid. Common sense said that if the pressure ever built to a point beyond what could escape from the rocker, well ...
Pickles everywhere, not to mention deadly shrapnel from the cast iron cooker. Mom always made dad take the lid off at the end of a long cooking session. That ancient cooker must have made a million pickles during my childhood summers.
To carry on the family tradition, and to prevent waste and store goods from my garden habit, I asked mom last year to teach me a thing or two about canning. It all leads to this:
It’s canning season at Tranquility Base in Round Bottom Valley.
Of course it is. The temperatures just hit the mid nineties, and it’s hotter than a blister bug in a pepper patch at Round Bottom. For canners and gardeners, what we save by making our own produce, the Lord takes in sweat. It’s a hot, time-consuming, and exhausting job on a good day. Throw in a heat index above 100 and you may not have been to hell but you’ve smelled the Devil’s breath.
In early July, we’re well into the season where a well-watered garden needs picking twice a day. Get it done before 6 a.m. and after 6 p.m., and you’ve made strides in beating the heat. Anything outside that is a pure sweatfest.
After the produce is washed and processed it’s generally right back to the hotseat. I use a gas-fuled single burner fish cooker with a huge stockpot for waterbathing acidic food. Non-acidics that require more heat and pressure go to my new-fangled pressure cooker, which is much improved, and these days about as safe as operating a toaster or an ink pen. Yes, they’ve taken the life-or-death thrill out of pressure cooking.
Two days have passed in my canning season now. There are 22 quarts of pickles, both dill and bread and butter, and two varieties of jelly – a straight hot pepper and a mango pepper jelly – and six pints of chow chow.
I can’t eat 22 quarts of pickles. Seriously.
We have more cucumbers than we know what to do with. And the tomatoes are near that explosive level. That means lots of relishes, salsas and pickled tomatoes in our future.
It’s true that it’s hard work putting up your own food. But there’s also a lot of nostalgia involved.
Tending and picking the garden puts me in touch with my dad. Canning and preserving makes me mindful of mom.
As for the heat of it all, we actually have fire hydrants down in Round Bottom. Yesterday, I saw one chasing a dog.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a reporter/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)