Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Canning Jars For The Soul

Although I have never canned so much as a single bean, my kitchen is full of canning jars.  Some are squat, some tall, some blue, and some clear.  Some have bubbles in the glass, and many have the old bail fasteners, grown gray and dull with age.  The oldest have glass-lined zinc screw tops, also gray and dull.

I collect jars the way some people collect cats--I wait for them to come to me.  It started with some wide-mouth, gallon-size jars that were left behind by the couple who sold us our first house.  The jars, with their geometric embossed designs, have a 1940s look. Their green tops have been screwed and unscrewed so many times that the threads are hopelessly worn, and the only way to get them to stay on is to line them with wax paper. We have lived in eight houses since that first one, and in each house those three jars--one holding white flour, one holding whole-wheat flour, and one holding the incredibly hot red peppers that I grow and dry--have held pride of place on the kitchen counter.


 
 But my most important acquisition, the one that told me in no uncertain terms that the universe intended for me to be a keeper of jars, took place at the town dump.
Unlike many of my friends and neighbors, I do not enjoy my monthly trips to the dump.  In fact, that is the one time when I wish I lived elsewhere than in my green Vermont--somewhere with curb-side trash pick-up and recycling.  But one hot summer day, while I was concentrating on breathing through my mouth to avoid the dump fug, I saw, next to the old recliners and dinette sets and boxes of paperbacks, two cardboard boxes filled with antique canning jars, the jetsam of some dead grandmother's pantry. 

I rushed them home as if they were a box of kittens, gave them a good wash, and set them out on the counter.  The afternoon light coming through the window shone right through them as I ramsacked the pantry for pasta, beans, quinoa (the ancient grain of the Incas!), chia seeds, scottish oatmeal, barley, and lentils.  Then I cut open the store packaging and poured the contents into my heaven-sent  jars. 

Since then I have added to my collection by more traditional means.  I have bought a few old jars at a yard sale, and a couple of brand-new Italian ones from a fancy kitchen store in a mall somewhere.  And when people give me little jars of jelly or preserves that they have made, I always find something to put in them after I've eaten the contents--herbs for tea, or a small bag of pumpkin seeds.

Why so many canning jars, when I don't can?  I like their looks--I'd rather have a row of bright jars full of staples on a shelf than a row of cellophane bags or cardboard boxes.  And the jars allow me to fantasize that my food comes not from the supermarket but from the bins of some idealized and non-existent village general store.

Most of all, the jars enable me to maintain an illusion of old-fashioned domesticity, without the unremitting labor and monotony.   I can pretend that those homely and charming vessels are daily used by a cheerful female presence, the angel of the house--someone not remotely like me.

Sometimes I look at those jars and imagine my daughters kneeling among packing boxes--some marked "trash," others "Goodwill"--in the kitchen after my death, saying to each other, "Why do you suppose she had such a thing for canning jars?  God knows she never canned anything."

11 comments :

  1. I, too, have my flour (white and whole-wheat), sugar, and biscuit mix in old gallon jars with lids so worn that I have to line them with wax paper. I have a few newer ones with plastic lids that hold wide egg noodles and bags of beans, peas and lentils. Smaller quantities of quinoa, couscous, bulgur, cornmeal, and the like are in old quart mayonnaise jars.

    I won't say that I don't appreciate the aesthetics of glass storage jars, but for me it's based more on practicality. The jars keep pantry moths and weevils out, and in a kitchen horribly short on storage space, let me store staples on the countertop.

    I sometimes fantasize about replacing my motley assortment of jars with matching Ball canning jars, to give my décor a more intentional look, but I'm probably too frugal to ever do it. I guess what I have has a certain thrift-store chic.

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    1. Where canning jars are concerned, motley is definitely best.

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  2. Oh, I love this.

    You will be horrified though with the story I am about to tell. I was given a full set of bottling (we call it bottling here - they are after all glass, not can!) jars for my wedding. I kept them for years, never making jam or bottling fruit, then eventually gave them away.

    I totally understand the aesthetics of the jars too. Now. In fact, not long ago, I went looking for my jam jars, then remembered what I had done.

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    1. Oh, no, not your bottling jars! But I'm sure you can find some nice used ones to replace them.

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    2. I love this: "I rushed them home as if they were a box of kittens."

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    3. I wish they HAD been a box of kittens...

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  3. I don't have enough counter space in my kitchen to place bottling jars on, or I would gladly do it. Kitchens in the Netherlands are notoriously small as if a person is not supposed to cook and bake in them at all.

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    1. Maybe it's because you have lots of good restaurants?

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  4. I, too, love my jars! Pastas, grains, nuts -- you name it, it goes in a jar. I was given a gift of a graduated set of large bail-top jars about 25 years ago (the largest holds a gallon) and these are for my flours. Of course, I have a "recycled" commercial-size pickle jar in my refrigerator right now, holding a gallon of dill pickle chips. :)

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  5. We won't be pausing to wonder why you have so many--we'll be too busy fighting over them.

    They make ingredients beautiful, and kitchens should be strong on pleasing aesthetics, especially if one doesn't really like to cook or clean.

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