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Kim O'Donnel

Kim O'Donnel

Posted: August 24, 2009 05:40 PM

The United States of Canning


July 15 started off as an ordinary work day in the life of this online food writer, a day of deadlines and endless electronic messages sprinkled in with Twitter breaks, the 21st-century version of the water cooler conversation.

The motley crew that comprises my Twitter-verse consists of writers, cooks, gardeners and anyone with an appetite for good eating. Inspired by a Bay Area canning project called Yes, We Can, I shared a link with my Tweeps and then threw the following bone: Hey Seattle, let's copycat this can-tastic idea. (Apologies in advance for the many puns that lay ahead!)

A relative newcomer to the Emerald City (my husband and I moved from DC just a year ago), I had little idea if any of my newly acquainted virtual neighbors would even bite. Ever since I embarked on my maiden canning voyage a few years ago with two other canning virgins, I've been eager to get more schooling on the long-lost art of preserving food, but I didn't know if anyone else shared my curiosity.

Within minutes, my Twitter-verse was lit up like a Christmas tree; people were coming out of the woodwork, biting on that bone and wanting more, please. So I threw another: What if we set a date for a canning event in Seattle, but invited others to do the same across the country? The words "Hands Across America" kept coming to mind, a simultaneous show of hands -- or cans -- coast to coast.

Then Seattle area cookbook writer Shauna Ahern ("Gluten-Free Girl" and the forthcoming "Cooking With the Chef") threw a bone of her own, announcing a canning party at her home on Aug. 29. You might have thought that Ahern sprinkled fairy dust over the Internet because from that tweeted moment, there was an excitement so palpable you could almost taste it, a fever if there ever was one.

Here in Seattle, a collective emerged -- cooks, writers, gardeners, Web wonks, designers, artists, photographers, marketing wizards and publicity hounds - and we virtual friends and neighbors met in living color, united in our passion for and commitment to the revival of the lost art of "putting up" food. We agreed that we'd all like to have more control over the food we eat and how it's processed and that we all could benefit from the inevitable community building that takes place around the canning kettle.

We voted to call ourselves Canning Across America, a nationwide effort to spread the good word about safe food preservation. A Web site followed, as did a Twitter feed (natch), and five weeks hence, we've got a full-fledged Canvolution on our hands.

As word got out, chefs and cookbook authors (John Besh, Karen Solomon and Eugenia Bone, to name a few) have shared their recipes and expertise. Noah Sheetz, the chef at the New York governor's mansion, related his experiences of canning with youth in Albany, N.Y. and home canners who received free copies of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, have been inspired to host their own canning parties, from Alfred Station, N.Y. to Willmar, Minn.

From Seattle, where we've got how-to demos and classes all week long and into the fall, the canning fever has spread to across the country, to places like Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Freeport, Maine, where canvolutionaries are organizing workshops, classes and demos. I just heard from a woman in Los Angeles who asks if "it's too late to host an event."

Honey, we're just getting started.

Although this weekend, Aug. 29-30, is our official kickoff, our goal is to keep up the can-do attitude throughout the growing season. A recent reader survey conducted by Allrecipes.com indicates that we've got company. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said that they plan to can or preserve food this year, and half of those who plan to can are 40 and younger!

A Seattle reporter just asked me how I'd respond to a canning skeptic: What's so great about canning, anyway?

For starters, canning celebrates the abundance of your local food shed. If you don't grow your own food, you might go to your neighborhood farm market, roadside stand or co-op to buy what you need to jam, preserve or pickle.

In the course of your transaction, you might talk to the person who grew the food and find out how the season's been going, which brings me to my second point: Canning facilitates relationships.

You might go to your local hardware store to buy jars and a funnel, and in doing so, you might strike up a conversation about what you're planning to can, and you might discover that the cashier learned to can from his grandmother. You might get a recipe for dilly beans in return.

Then you come home and ring up a friend to join you at the kettle because canning is a big job that needs more than one set of hands. With canning, everyone has a job, and every job is equally important, which means you must rely on each other in that perfect team sort of way.

After the last jar rings a ping indicating a complete seal, everyone gets a portion of the goods, which go onto everyone's shelves for a few months down the road when it's snowing and you're really craving a sun-ripened peach. You'll pop open the seal on that jar and you'll remember that day when you and your canning pal labored over the stove and poured your no-longer skeptical hearts into those jars.

You might smile. And you might do it all over again next summer.

Seattle-based Kim O'Donnel is a trained cook, nationally recognized online food personality and a seasoned journalist with 15 years of experience. A former online food columnist at The Washington Post, Kim files edible dispatches at True/Slant and is currently at work on a meat-less guide for meat lovers.

Follow Kim O'Donnel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kimodonnel