When B.J. Gouedy was growing up on Cammack Plantation in Natchitoches, her family “lived off the land.”
“We had fruit trees with pears and peaches and plums and all kinds of vegetables - really everything you could want,” said Gouedy, 65, who now lives in the Broadmoor neighborhood. “Back then, you didn’t go to the grocery story every day.”
Instead, her family ate fresh fish and game, along with fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer and canned or preserved goods in the winter.
“It was a rural community so the men hunted and fished and the women made preserves,” she said.
Canning and preserving is a tradition that Gouedy carries on today with her own grandchildren, even though a wide array of fresh produce is now available year-round and several supermarkets are within a couple of miles of Gouedy’s home.
Several days a week for several weeks every summer, Gouedy takes to the kitchen, where she cooks, then cans jars of fig preserves, dewberry jelly and blackberry jam.
Gouedy is not alone. Anecdotal information suggests canning is still a popular activity.
The Red Stick Farmers Market has held a series of well-attended canning demonstrations this summer, and managers of local supermarkets and hobby stores report that canning supplies move steadily off their stores’ shelves.
“Canning supplies are a good item for us,” said Cliff Boulden, who owns the Bet R Supermarket. “Our store is small so we wouldn’t carry something if it didn’t sell.”
Not everyone who cans has been doing it for years, either.
Michelle Field is a prolific canner who is a relative newcomer to the practice. She began canning about seven years ago, after the lush vegetable garden she grows in a spacious field at her River Road home in St. Gabriel began to take off. With so much available produce, Field said it only made sense to learn how to preserve it for the winter months.
“I always have something growing, whether it’s corn, squash, tomatoes, garlic, onion or peppers or fruits,” she said. “So I figured I had to learn how to can.”
It’s the kind of anachronistic custom that is both practical and fun. Like many who can, Field enjoys spending time in the kitchen and finds it relaxing. She also loves having a wide variety of canned goods, which she can use at a moment’s notice to whip up dinner.
“I use my canned goods all the time,” she said. “Tonight, for instance, I’m making tortilla soup so I’m using my canned tomatoes, canned peppers garlic and onions, and my own canned tomato juice,” she said. “I rarely have to go to the grocery store.”
Field has found success canning just about anything she can grow. Some fruits and vegetables she cooks first then cans. She makes a homemade marinara sauce with the tomatoes from her garden, for instance, which she uses all year to serve over pasta. She also cooks figs for preserves, peaches and plums for jams, as well as stewed corn, purple hulled peas and squash.
Other vegetables, like cucumbers and peppers, she simply pickles with vinegar and spices.
Field doesn’t have a favorite home-canned good or canning recipe, though she said she gets the most requests from family and friends for her Pear Relish, which she frequently gives as a gift.
“It’s both sweet and savory, like a chowchow,” she said. “Most people like to serve it with vegetables, or with beans or cornbread.”
Gouedy is partial to the jellies and jams, which are her specialty.
“Nothing beats a hot biscuit, fresh out of the oven, with melted butter and freshly made preserves or jam,” she said.
If you’re interested in canning, now is the season to try it. It’s best to use produce when it’s at its freshest, and summer is the time of year when the most fresh fruits and vegetables are available.
But, it’s important to do a little research first. To can effectively and safely, you have to understand the science behind it and make sure to learn how to correctly seal your jars to keep them free of air or liquid and the bacteria, yeast or mold that come from them.
To accomplish that, you have to completely sterilize your canning jars and lids, and also process your foods in water baths at boiling temperatures or in a pressure cooker. Properly sterilized canned food will be free of spoilage if lids seal and jars are stored below 95 degrees. Storing jars at 50 degrees to 70 degrees enhances retention of quality.
You also have to process filled jars in a water bath of boiling water or in a pressure cooker. The exact time depends on the kind of food being canned, the way it is packed into jars and the size of jars.
The time needed to safely process low-acid foods in a boiling-water canner, for instance, ranges from 7 to 11 hours; and the time needed to process acid foods in boiling water varies from 5 to 85 minutes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Complete Guide to Home Canning, available online, is a thorough and comprehensive resource, complete with tables of exact processing times based on the acidity of the food, the type of processing method you use and your altitude.
There are also several good books about canning that not only cover how to can but include recipes as well. Field particularly recommends “Stocking Up” by Carol Hupping. The popular 1977 book is in its third edition and has been updated with new photos.
You may even want to take a class or attend some demonstrations. The Red Stick Farmers Market “Discover You CAN” educational series still has several classes scheduled for August.
Gouedy also suggests another resource, one which may be harder to find but has wisdom and experience.
“If you are lucky enough to have older Southern women in your family, spend time with them in the kitchen,” Gouedy said. “That’s how you will really learn. Most don’t have written recipes and one day you will wonder how family favorites were made.”