Imagine it's January. You've just come inside from cross-country skiing or building a snowman. Imagine reaching into your pantry for a jar of tomatoes that you skinned, crushed, and canned with your own hands last August, at the height of tomato season. Purée those tomatoes, and heat them gently in a saucepan with a bit of thyme and basil, black pepper, and soy, coconut, or cashew cream. Now stir in some cooked rice, beans, or pasta. Wrap your fingers around a steaming mug of homemade cream of tomato soup. It doesn't get any better than this.
I've been turning over ideas for another post about long-term food storage. It's been on my mind lately, as I squirrel away the summer's fruits and vegetables. If what they say about caring for new babies is true, I'll be too busy and too tired come winter to worry about cooking or nutrition. This gives my stockpiling a sense of urgency.
I heard a story on NPR this morning that asked why home canning has suddenly become popular again. Is it the economy? Maybe. At 30 pounds for $35, my tomatoes are significantly cheaper than the organic brand I used to buy at the grocery store. But canning takes a bit of investment up front, in jars and equipment, that may deter those interested solely in thrift.
Is it the local food movement? This probably plays a bigger role. I like knowing my tomatoes were grown just down the road in Pittsfield, Maine, then picked, brought to market, and canned the same day. I trust that the bearded farmer who sold them to me grew them according to his principles, without petroleum-based fertilizers or insecticides. And I like paying the farmer directly; when I buy a can of crushed tomatoes at the grocery store, how many ways is my money split, and how much of it do the growers and pickers actually see?
Taste is certainly a factor. Grocery store tomatoes, picked green and ripened with ethylyne gas, can never compare with tomatoes ripened outdoors on the vine. There is also the satisfaction of doing something by hand, in being able to feed myself the way families did a century ago. (Grocery store? I don't need no stinking grocery store!)
For all these reasons, I've become increasingly addicted to canning. I smiled when the radio reporter mentioned "the sound that every home canner loves to hear—the little thunk that tells you the lid is airtight ... 'the music of the jars,'" (or as one listener wrote in the online comments, "the ping of victory"). Hearing that little pop, and knowing my fruits, vegetables, jams and sauces are safely suspended in time, brings a sense of satisfaction that's hard to beat.
If you find yourself with more tomatoes than you can eat fresh (my favorite lunch of late is hummus and tomato sandwiches), canning or dehydrating them will buy you the most storage time. Freezing sauces and soups is another option. I've got 24 servings of Tomato Rice Soup with Roasted Garlic and White Beans (recipe in Veganomicon) in quart-size freezer bags, waiting for an overtired, overwhelmed new parent to thaw them out some cold evening in December.
Why have I gone crazy for food preservation? It's not about preparing for some apocalyptic scenario. It's about putting comfort foods in the bank, and opening them, like gifts to myself, all winter long.