Home canning had already been making a comeback. Then the pandemic hit.
Enjoying a jar of summer sun-ripened peaches in the middle of a freezing February is reason enough to can for Anna Kestell, who has been canning all of her adult life.
“I have to have my peaches,” she said. “They are my most favorite thing. That’s my go-to dessert: my own canned peaches with cream. That’s my comfort food.”
Also comforting: giving her home-canned garden-grown vegetables, jams, and jellies to friends as gifts. Kestell always includes the recipe and processing instructions. In her role as the food preservation and safety outreach educator at Washington State University Extension for Spokane County, she’s been teaching people to can and answering their home-canning and other food preservation questions for seven years.
In the last 10 years, she’s noticed an uptick in interest, especially among young people whose mothers and grandmothers didn’t teach them the once-ubiquitous skill. But, since COVID-19 lockdowns hit last March, interest in all forms of food preservation—particularly canning—has increased significantly, Kestell says. During 2020’s peak season, “we answered about 50 questions a day. It was eye-opening for me. We honestly took as many calls during the season as we do in a regular year.”
Perhaps more than ever in recent history, at-home food preservation has been on the forefront of people’s minds. The persisting pandemic has made many consumers think more about their access to food and, at the same time, has drawn out people’s pioneering spirits. Consumers have been making fewer and faster trips to the supermarket but buying more items, stocking up for winter at local farmers markets and farm stands, and harvesting their newly planted pandemic gardens, then wondering how to safely stow their bounty.
“The latest thing is freeze-drying,” Kestell said. “Not everyone can afford to shell out upward $4,000 for the machine, but freeze-dried food lasts almost 25 years.”
One Spokane retirement community came up with an interesting solution. “Residents went in together on purchasing a unit and formed kind of like a club. People could reserve a time to use the unit, and they asked me to do a class on freeze-drying for them,” Kestell says.
Sales of freeze-dried foods burgeoned during the early days of the pandemic, but so far there hasn’t been a shortage of freeze-dry machines. However, home canning became so popular that many grocery and hardware stores ran out of supplies. The scarcity left people on the Palouse and around the country scrambling to find Mason jars, rings, and lids. Some retailers reported shortages as early as May and well into September and October 2020.
“I first noticed the shortage last spring when my calls from county residents were: ‘Where can I find lids?’ After a while I realized lids were the new toilet paper,” said Kestell, who had purchased a bunch of canning supplies on clearance at the end of the prior season like she usually does.
Her grandmother taught her how to can. Just about every summer and fall for the last 50 years, she’s been putting up beans, salsa, seasoned meats, and more for winter and emergencies like Spokane’s historic 1996 ice storm and 2015 wind storm. The feeling of self-reliance you get when you pop open a jar, Kestell said, “You can’t put a price tag on that. It makes you feel good. It just does.”
Home canning has experienced waves of popularity since becoming widespread during World War I. It maintained a steady following throughout the Great Depression, then, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it went through a deep decline after World War II when the practice reached its peak. Since the do-it-yourself, back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, though, home canning has been regaining ground. But not since the Great Canning Jar Lid Shortage of 1975 has Kestell seen such a shortage of supplies.
In many ways, she said, “People are moving back to the ways of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, but our ‘big woods’ is the city. People are learning how to grow their own food in apartments or on small plots, decks, and patios. And they’re wanting to preserve it.”
Lids, also called flats, have been especially sought after because safety guidelines dictate they should be used only once for canning purposes. Reuse can affect the seal, which guards against mold and bacteria including Clostridium botulinum. Toxins produced by that bacterium cause botulism, a rare but fatal form of food poisoning linked to improperly canned foods, particularly meat and vegetables.
Improperly canned foods can kill you. That’s one reason canning can be intimidating to beginners. The method also requires specific equipment, including—in some cases—a pressure canner. Decades ago, they were known to blow gaskets, spewing steam and boiling liquid, and causing third-degree burns. They don’t make them like they used to—and that’s a good thing, Kestell said. “You almost have to have a PhD to blow one up. They are so secure now because of all of the safety features that have been added.”
While fear has kept some people from canning, it’s also motivated many to take up or rediscover the practice. “There’s certainly a little fear behind it,” said Alice Ma, dietitian for WSU Dining Services. “We’re seeing a lot of gaps in our food system. We’re seeing people experiencing empty shelves and feeling afraid they won’t have food.”
Another factor causing people to learn to can: “It’s something to do,” said Ma, comparing the trend to the sourdough craze that took place early in the lockdowns. “Why not learn a new skill during the pandemic?”
Ma learned to can three years ago. She started with jams, fruits, and pickles, and has stuck with those staples largely because they don’t require a pressure canner. In general, high-acid foods—such as peaches, tomatoes, cherries, and berries—can be safely canned in a water bath. “To have a summer fruit pie and that summer feeling in the middle of winter is really nice,” said Ma, who taught an online introduction-to-canning class last summer to WSU employees through Human Resource Services’ Coug Connect program.
For those still uncertain, she said, “Freezing is a great option.”
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 of Washington State Magazine.)