In the Can

BY ALYSSA KARAS ON AUGUST 24TH, 2017

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Kevin West spent much of his “Huck Finn childhood” on his grandparents’ farm in Blount County, Tenn., where his Papa grew tomatoes in abundance and his Gran preserved them.

But his fast-paced and seemingly glamorous professional life as an editor and writer for W Magazine carried him far away from his roots at the base of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He worked in big cities like New York, Paris and Los Angeles and covered art, entertainment and celebrities.

“Which was all fascinating, but … I got to this place in my mid-30s and thought, ‘Gosh, I have really gone a long way from Tennessee,’” West says. While living in the Hollywood Hills, he began cooking a lot to combat his anxiety, he says.

A trip to a farmers’ market in the spring of 2008 provided West with a new hobby – canning, pickling and preserving – and ultimately set him on a path to a different sort of fulfillment.

“I got carried away with the excitement of spring, and I bought a whole flat of strawberries,” West says. “I realized there was no way I would be able to use a whole flat of strawberries before they went bad.” So with his Gran’s strawberry jam in mind, West got to work.

With little introduction and a bare-bones recipe, his first batch was a bust. So West set out to explore the world of canning and preserving, and his efforts resulted in his new book, “Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), which is part history lesson, part road trip diary and a whole lot of recipes.

And it’s not just West who has a newfound interest in canning: Cookbook author and blogger Marisa McClellan says the popularity of the practice has exploded for several reasons. “There was sort of a perfect storm over the last few years,” says McClellan, who runs the blog Food in Jars.

The downturn in the economy made people anxious. “One of the ways you can feel you’re preparing for rough days ahead is by preparing your own food. And there’s been an increased interest in local food.”

Plus, with a good recipe, a few pieces of equipment and excellent produce, anyone can try a hand at canning. “If you can make spaghetti sauce, if you can roast a chicken, if you can do those basic kitchen things, then you have all the wherewithal you need to do some preserving,” West says. “It’s not that complicated.”

Water-bath canning, which involves submerging jars in boiling water so that they seal, is one of the most popular methods. While some folks might be concerned about botulism, it’s highly unlikely as long as you follow the directions.

“The thing I typically tell people is that it’s not dangerous,” McClellan says. “You’re not going to kill you family by canning.”

West recommends that beginners start with small batches under five pounds. For the tastiest results, use only the best produce. Choosing the cream of the crop is important; it has to be fresh, delicious, and for jam, just on the edge of ripeness. After all, what comes out of the jar later is only as good as what goes in.

Canning and preserving is a year-round activity, so much so that McClellan’s favorite thing is whatever’s in-season at the moment. “You’ll ask me one day and I’ll say apricots, and then the next day I’ll say sour cherries, and you’ll ask me later in the season and I’ll say, ‘Plums are amazing.’”

West explored the preserving traditions throughout the country, from the wild blueberries of Maine to the kimchi made in California. Still, his family’s connection to canning means the most to him.

He says he also gained an appreciation for “how much we can be reminded of nature and the seasons and our place in a larger cosmos by simply watching what’s in the garden and what’s in the farmers market.”

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