Guest Post: UpCountry Living's Experiment with Canning

Hello lovlies.  Today Jenna from UpCountry Living is sharing with us her first dabble into the world of food preservation.  She has taken the September 4(for) green acres challenge and is sharing her  experience.  Her perspective is interesting because I think many of us feel the same and come up with the same resistance.  The excuses as to why we can't or shouldn't do something are just that; excuses.  It's a good read and she notes a valuable lesson she learned at the end.  I hope you enjoy.    

Before September 19, 2012: I’ve never canned in my life.

On September 19, 2012: I’m canned today. I made Sunshine Salsa.

Probably after September 19, 2012: Canning? No problem.

I became interested in canning earlier this spring. My boyfriend and I had decided to plant our first garden in raised beds in our backyard in the late spring and early weeks of summer. I hoped that I’d have more vegetables than I knew what to do with and I was really excited about preserving my own produce.

Sure enough, the garden did well. Some things didn’t, but Mr. UpCountry and I enjoyed a bounty of green beans, carrots, beets and tomatoes. We ate most of the green beans (green beans with every meal!), gave away a lot of the beets and carrots (beyond what we needed) to friends and family and I held onto the tomatoes to experiment with canning for the first time.

And then I held them longer than I should have. I held them until they started getting mushy. I left them on the windowsill above my sink and the sun soaked into them and decay shot from the gate like it was all a race.

Why did I let them rot? Why didn’t I preserve them through canning when they were at their most fresh and ripe?

Because of Resistance. Good ole Resistance usually does a number on me. Thankfully, I’m slowly learning to outsmart it (but only after it’s caused me to procrastinate for a decent amount of time).

I strongly believe in the benefits of eating food grown locally (first) and organically (preferred). I know that the only way for me to eat local tomatoes in January is to can them.

And I have bowls full of them around my kitchen. Ready. Waiting to boil and vacuum themselves into jars. Yearning to feed me in the darkest hours of winter (or so I imagine).

But I failed those first ones. I let them go. My Resistance poked in and held me back in a variety of ways (one of Resistance’s secret weapons = changin’ it up).

First, I didn’t have the money to buy the canning equipment.
How I beat Resistance: Eventually, I saved up the money and found some pretty cheap canning supplies at KMart. My sister loaned me her lobster pot. That leg of Resistance - knocked out.

Then, I didn’t have enough tomatoes to process a batch.
This particular ploy from Resistance worked for a while. If I continued to give away tomatoes to friends and family or convince myself that they were past their prime, I never had enough tomatoes to process and so I didn’t have to concern myself over it. 
After that, I convinced myself that I needed to watch somebody else do it first because I was likely going to screw it up my first time and I’d either explode glass and hot food all over the kitchen or I wouldn’t process it long enough and kill my loved ones with botulism.

I waited until my local Cooperative Extension office offered a canning class. This class was scheduled two weeks beyond when I probably should have started canning. But I waited. Because it would be so much easier to do it my first time if I acquired some wise mentor to walk me through the process. Right? ...Right?

I attended the canning workshop only to discover that there weren’t any live demonstrations of canning. The presenter did an excellent job of explaining the process, but nothing was hands-on.

I decided that my reading and online research would have to do and that I should get right down to canning.

Then a week went by. I couldn’t get myself to do it.

I was so afraid of something bad happening. Or not getting it right the first time.

I wrote in the September 19 square of my daily planner: Can something. Just do it.

When I woke up on that fateful morning, I looked at my planner and knew that it had to be done, regardless of my fear and insecurity. Even though Resistance punched me full on in the face that morning, I steeled myself to the task.

And I did it. Mr. UpCountry graciously provided assistance (thank you, darling!). I looked up recipes in my canning book, Put ‘Em Up, and decided that salsa would work just fine for my pounds of yellow tomatoes.

For an extra dose of confidence, I called the local Cooperative Extension office and double-checked that the recipe I’d found followed USDA food safety standards. According to Mrs. Fishman at the CE office, it did. (That was another sneaky form of Resistance right there: worrying about the validity of my recipe. However, this form is actually commonsensical and wise. Food safety should not be taken lightly.)

Mrs. Fishman walked me through the steps and coached me as I repeated them back to her. She assured me that she’d be in her office for the next couple hours if I needed any further assistance. I am so grateful for her warm and friendly instruction.

Adrenaline Rush. Set the water to boil. 

I followed the recipe and ended up with seven half-pint jars of what I’ve decided to call Sunshine Salsa. Because the ‘Put ‘Em Up!’ recipe specified regular tomatoes and not yellow tomatoes, I figured I could go ahead and name the yellow version. 
Sunshine Salsa. My first canning experience. After I buckled down and did it, I realized that it was a manageable process. I could do it.

My Sunshine Salsa does look a little watery in the jar. This is likely due to my tomatoes being a bit past their prime; they were extremely juicy!

Also, my salsa had to sit in the jar for a few minutes after being cooked and before being processed in the canner because I didn’t start the water boiling in my canner soon enough. Lesson learned! Next time I’ll start my water boiling in the canner first thing.

I don’t believe that letting them rest before processing did any harm to the food. It could have resulted in my glass cracking or breaking, since it had time to cool down a bit before I bathed them in boiling water.

That didn’t happen. All those scary scenarios I pictured in my head didn’t happen.

Instead, I put up seven jars of golden Sunshine Salsa and figuratively patted myself on the back.

Every day I learn, more and more, that the best way to do something is to do it. I may not have created a perfect product, but I still made something. I refuse to criticize myself on this.

It’s all about mannin’ up, puttin’ it up, doin’ it up.

And, likely as not, it’ll eat good with chips.

To read more about Jenna and her experiences jump on over to her blog.  

Artist Spotlight: Jenna from UpCountry Living

I'm very exciting to be introducing Jenna today. I met her through an online class, and after checking out her blog I quickly realized we have a lot in common. Later this month she will have a guest post with more great information for the September 4(for) green acres challenge. In the meantime, I wanted to spotlight her and get to know her better.  She offers a great perspective on how to just begin.

Please welcome Jenna from UpCountry Living...

I’m Jenna and I’m a professional writer and blogger that lives in northern Maine. I am a reporter for Fiddlehead Focus and creator and contributor for my blog UpCountry Living. I love soft sweaters, button-down skirts, and books I can’t put down.

Why did you start UpCountry Living and what can readers find when they visit your site?

I started UpCountry Living as a way to document my journey back home. Though I’ve lived for most of my life in the Saint John Valley,  I discovered that I was a stranger in my own land. I did not know the old ways or realize that where I lived was special.

UpCountry Living chronicles my research, discoveries and stories and encourages readers to embrace the process of establishing roots.

I frequently write about my experiences with first-year gardening, food preservation, supporting the local food market, community events or descriptives and ways to pursue simplicity.

Could you tell us why Saint John Valley is so special and where it is located?

The Saint John Valley is the Great Valley of northern Maine. If you watched Land Before Time a thousand times as a kid (and continue to watch it with delight in your grown-up years), then you know what I’m talking about. It’s the paradise at the end of the hero’s journey. It’s where life can be sustained after tragedy befalls you. It’s where all the tree-stars are (a.k.a. leaves).

The Valley spans over 70 miles and is home to about 25,000 people. Though residents of the Saint John Valley are assumed to be American, the Valley actually includes Canada, our neighbor nation that shares the Saint John River.

Canadians contribute to the local economy through commerce and employment. Mostly, we all get along. Sometimes groups of 19-year-olds from each country start disputes with each other. Just your run-of-the-mill border town dramatics.

It’s special because it’s home to farmers, artists, writers, mill workers, teachers, and all-around hard workers. If someone from the County (Saint John Valley is the northernmost part of the Aroostook County) migrates out and applies for a job in another Maine region, it’s very likely they’ll be hired. We’re known in the state for our work ethic and dependability.

Most Valleyites speak English and French and are primarily of French descent, though there are some towns with Scott-Irish and native descent.  My parents’ generation grew up in bilingual homes and, unfortunately, were discouraged from speaking French in school as the region became more anglicized. Because of the alienation they experienced when speaking their native language, the strength of the French language started to dwindle about 50 years back.

The Valley is a place where you don’t lock up your home or your car and where crime doesn’t kill people but the moose sure try to. It farms buckwheat and potatoes, contributes to Maine’s logging industry, and hosts annual dog sled races.

What are some of your interests?

I am a voracious reader of primarily non-fiction: books about gardening, homesteading, food politics, botany and even a bit of neuroscience. I am learning how to garden, cook, get handy around the house, and play the harmonica. I also knit, crochet, and play basketball with my niece and nephew.

I hope to someday play the mandolin and write songs that have recipes for lyrics.

You are new to gardening.  What has the journey been like?

A rush. The journey has been incredible. We started our garden by building raised beds, and watching all of that come together gave me such a feeling of accomplishment. It had been years since I’d played in the dirt and I had forgotten just how natural it felt.

Even though my mother had a garden when I was a kid, I didn’t help out too much and hadn’t learned any basic skills about sowing and tending. Thankfully Mr. UpCountry has some experience and was able to provide me with some delicate mentorship.

Through hard work, experimentation, and too much time spent watering (here’s looking at you, drought), we produced a bumper crop of cukes, tomatoes, carrots, beets, kohlrabi, peas, beans and mint. The veggies that suffered were broccoli, basil and peppers.

The best thing about mistakes is that they’re just investments towards success in the future. Now I know not to plant my broccoli so close together and to keep mint out of the raised beds because they want to choke out everything else.

When you don’t feel like doing anything, where do you find motivation or what keeps you inspired?

Three things!
1. Past accomplishments.
2. Being mindful of how a series of little baby steps has led me to a completely different place than former years.
3. Trusting the process.

These three things keep me inspired. I don’t always follow through with my inspiration and actually “produce” anything, but it helps keep the guilt out of it. A lot of my lack of motivation comes from thinking “I can’t,” so if I remove those words from my vocabulary and think about what’s already been done, motivation becomes more natural.

You recently purchased a local broiler chicken.  What was the deciding factor?

I realized that, with pretty minimal effort, I could eat a chicken that had been raised by a local family in a happy environment, eating the feed that it wants to eat. Through this purchase, I could support the local economy, local farmers, organic farming, and my own health (by not eating a chicken that had been fed on antibiotics and corn). “Why I Bought A Local Broiler” covers this decision in detail.

Where do you learn your homesteading skills?

It’s a combination of “asking around” and research (primarily on the internet). I’m continually surprised by little “common knowledge” I have. It inspires me to ask questions of my parents, my grandparents, and other folks in my community. I usually get a very practical answer and also learn more about my heritage and this place.

When that method of research doesn’t work, I turn to books and the internet. Amazon’s recommendations always extend the library wish list and keeps the good books stocking up the shelves. Online, I rely on resources like Mother Earth News, MOFGA, Cold Antler Farm and good “old-fashioned” Wikipedia.

You talk about making your journey practical, what are some of your goals to accomplish that?

What I don’t want is a head full of facts. I want hands that are working through the process itself. I can share links on social networks til the cows come home, but if I don’t actually make laundry detergent myself, how is all this research actually enriching my life?

With that being said, do you have any advice for someone wanting to live more consciously?

Start small. It took me a long time to take the step to make laundry detergent for myself. I had done the research and knew that it was cost-effective, customizable and pretty natural. For some reason, I had Resistance about actually doing it. (I’m pretty sure my primary excuse was, “Well, couldn’t I just buy it?”).

Eventually I started asking myself, “Shouldn’t I just make it myself?” Instead of asking, “Why?” I challenged myself with “Why not?”

It took me 15 minutes to make my own laundry detergent. The momentum built from there. Now I find myself attacking challenges with a sense of eagerness and excitement. I know I can do things now, simply by doing them. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s one of those honest truths I had to ease up to.

You are passionate about our food system, give us a fact that might encourage us to think about what we eat.

There are lots of scary facts out there about America’s corn and soy monocultures and the sad state of our meat system, but more jarring to my former philosophy was finding this particular quote: “Shake the hand that feeds you” {from “In Defense of Food,” by Michael Pollan, personal favorite).

Also, in one of my multiple documentary viewings, I must have heard the following statement. I can’t place the specifics, but the concept itself has been sticking with me:

Paraphrasing: We can be very particular about who works on our car or who works on our house. We ask each other about good mechanics and contractors to work with. We put faith in these people to take care of us. But, for some reason, the majority of us have no idea where our food comes from. Food: the stuff we put in our mouths to fuel our bodies and keep us alive.

What information will you be sharing with indigo 26 readers later this month?

Along with being a first-year gardener, I’m also a first-year canner. I’ll be sharing my experiences with first-year canning and will focus primarily on all the forms of Resistance I’ve encountered since first deciding to learn some food preservation techniques.

Jenna can be found here:

Thank you Jenna for answering all my questions.  I'm looking forward to reading more later this month. 

What inspired you about Jenna's interview?  Leave us a comment below.

*** photos provided by Jenna ***