Snack Foods for the Apocalypse

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

This is how I see canning: making snack foods for the apocalypse. Because in truth, with the exception of the plain tomato jars and sauces, many of the items I put up tend to be condiments, pickles, and intense fruit preserves — food I could probably live without. If, say, we were to suffer through an ice storm or prolonged power outage this winter, I’m not sure how long we would stay alive on tomato salsa, brandied peaches, elderberry syrup, and chutney.

Although, that’s hardly the point, is it? I’m not really putting up food for emergency preparedness. It’s really about having that extra something special to enjoy during the off season. That and the fact that the process of canning makes me feel good.

I canned up a storm this summer. It’s really not appropriate to speak of it in the past tense because frankly, I’m not done yet. I went way overboard this year, and even put up a few batches of foods I won’t and can’t eat myself. I think the reason why I went so nutty was that I needed a come-down off of the book project that was active and creative. I didn’t feel like doing any of my regular go-to creative outlets. I just wanted to play with food.

I’ve been canning long enough that it has become like meditation in motion. It’s one of those activities that allows me to focus one part of my brain on the doing while another part relaxes and opens up. I gave myself permission this year to jar up anything that caught my interest and experiment to my heart’s content rather than sticking to healthier fare. For that reason I was able to be much more creative and at times even focused on making purely aesthetically pleasing jars rather than worrying about the nutritional content.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

This is my current favourite jar, pickled crab apples. It is the only thing I have ever canned that I couldn’t (and still can’t) visualize as a flavour. I used the blemish-free crab apples that I had schlepped all the way from Montreal. They were perfect for it. I followed a book recipe exactly, rather than experimenting with my own ideas and flavours (how I usually do it). The recipe called for both vinegar and a TON of sugar. This is not something I would ever make in a typical year but I made it anyways. And it was so worth it. Man, is this jar beautiful.

I know that making food I won’t or can’t eat makes no sense and sounds wasteful, and if it were another year I would not have gone that route. However, I can’t tell you how many times I have stood, savoring the visual delight of those pretty jars and it’s not even fall yet. During the winter months I occasionally sit on the kitchen floor next to the main storage cupboard (everything else is stashed away in boxes here and there) and pull out several jars, soaking in the colours that are so desperately lacking in mid-January. I’ll give away the extra food we can’t eat as gifts to friends who will enjoy them, so why not?

As a part of my series on kitchen gardening (scroll down to where it says “Microfarming with Gayla Trail”), The Globe & Mail recently published an article I wrote on canning tomatoes, including three recipes: plain tomatoes, catsup, and green tomato chutney. You can also see a slide show of me canning in my cramped kitchen. Proof that you do not need a lot of space to can.

I also gave a workshop on canning tomatoes at The Workroom last Friday. Karyn has done an amazing job recapping the event on her blog. She also recounted her follow-up experience here.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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23 thoughts on “Snack Foods for the Apocalypse

  1. Hey, those tomatoes have vitamin C and the brandy will keep us warmed up during those chilly nuclear winter nights. I say bring on our snack-filled apocalypse.

  2. I totally get what you mean about the value of the process being as important as the product. I end up selling or givin away lots of my preserves because I just enjoy making it. I also enjoy giving it. It makes a change from a bottle of wine or bunch of flowers when visiting someone. Your jar of crab apples looks so pretty!

  3. Two countries divided by a common language?….
    Let me get this right. “Canning” is putting things in glass jars? IE “bottling?….

  4. Peter: yes, canning is actually jarring.

    Jessica: I highly recommend the small Weck jars. I bought a bunch of the larger jars last year but they are difficult to maneuver since they generally too large to work easily with most canning tools.
    These little jars are divine.

    Joanne: I agree. I really enjoy giving them away and it means that I ALWAYS have gifts on hand.

  5. I can see how the process would be nearly as important as the product. For me, homemade canned goods are wonderful even if I’m not that keen on actually *eating* them, because they represent a nearly lost art. So it’s a good feeling to know that someone made that and gave it to me.

    But those crab apples look totally edible. I’d try them, maybe on something bready.

  6. The end of this post reminds me of one of my favorite passages from my grandmother’s old copy of the Joy of Cooking:

    “I should like to begin my chapter with the assurance that it is a thrill to possess shelves well stocked with home-canned food. In fact, you will find their inspection (often surreptitious), and the pleasure of serving the fruits of your labors, comparable only to a clear conscience or a very becoming hat.”


  7. I felt such an affinity reading this – I feel the same way about preserving things! I so love seeing all my shiny jars on the shelf, knowing I’ve gathered the fruit and made it into something that will outlive the summer’s warmth.

    Tomorrow I’m off hiking to collect as many wild damsons as I can… After the tarts, maybe damson & ginger jam, and some hedgerow jelly if I get some other wild fruit…


  8. Pickled Crabapples were always one of the condiments on our holiday tables. If we didn’t set the table at home, the crabapples were taken with us to be served at our hosts table. I haven’t seen a crabapple tree since we moved from our farm home when I was 15, although canning let us enjoy them for three additional years or so. Plucked by the stem from a shallow crystal dish, I remember the sweet, spicy bite, and the tickle of vinegar in my throat. MMMMMmmmmm. I also remember carefully lifting groundfall crabapples from the grass in the front yard (carefully, ’cause the wasps loved to eat them) and, with my brothers, inserting firecrackers into the softened fruits, lighting the fuse, then tossing them into the air. It made for a pretty messy front yard, but that’s the worst that happened. I am glad to be reminded today of crabapples.

  9. Last year we canned too much and, having used the tomatoes in a few weeks, we are left with jams, syrups, pickles and chutneys. This year we tried to be more practical and did lots of tomatoes and the jams that were popular gifts. I don’t think this type of preserving (and I have read recipes from the 1600′s) was ever considered to be a source of nutrition but they are practical if they make dull winter fare more palatable. Pickles aren’t really food, even fresh cucumbers have little food value, but a nice bread and butter pickle really perks up Boston baked beans. And I add a generous tablespoon of jam or fruit syrup to plain homemade yoghurt for a delicious snack. Is that a good enough excuse?

  10. You’re SO right about canning “comfort foods” for hard times! Variety is needed to keep our taste buds interested in eating.

    Also, are you aware that real canned meats (no water added), canned butter and canned cheese are now available? Just Google each term to find suppliers.

  11. This article inspires me to make pickled pumpkin again this fall. Just as pickled crabapples, it calls for vinegar and lots of sugar.

  12. My husband and I share the joy of gardening but, for him it end at the picking. I have a wonderful friend that lives in an apartment. She comes over and we spend hours, days canning our bounty. Her reward is that she get half the goods when we are done.

    I also give homemade canned goods as gifts. When ever we host a party (like the 4th of July) I make a note of who like what and then if I have it on hand at christmas time I give them a jar. I always get a hug for my efforts and that’s worth everything!

  13. I feel like it may be the apocalypse before I break out the vats of spicy plum relish I just put up! After an evening of picking, pitting, boiling, tasting, and bottling the whole tiny apartment retained the pungent vinegar/garlic/onion/plum smell for days and days. But, I know by this spring I’ll be scraping the last drops from the last jar and longing for more…

  14. The Globe & Mail site and the pictures with your process finally gave me the kick in the butt to try canning all of the tomatoes I’ve been gathering from the garden.

    Quick question. I followed your technique exactly, as well as referred to a current book I have on canning. After boiling the sealed jars and letting them cool on a rack, all of the tomatoes have risen to the top of the jars and there’s a good inch or so of clear-ish liquid on the bottom. The seals are good, so is this ok? I’m assuming everything will settle down, I just wanted to check.

    Thanks again!

  15. Jaymi: The process I outlined in The Globe & Mail is essentially cold-packing. The tomatoes are completely cold, but they haven’t been cooked or made into a sauce.

    That sort of separation tends to happen with cold-packing. It’s a nice and easy beginner’s method, but the separation does tend to frighten people a little. Check the seal by removing the outer ring and holding the jar with your fingers around the edge of the lid. If you can hold the jar by the lid, the seal is good and so are the contents.

    Sometimes with cold-packing some liquid can hiss out when you remove the jars from the canner. This is usually because the jars were removed before they’d had some time to settled (about 5 minutes).

    If that happened you should also wipe the sides of the jar clean with a damp cloth. This is important for keeping things safe now, but also means you can check later to see if anything has leaked and know with certainty that there was nothing there before.

  16. Raspberry jam has so far been the only … well … fruit of my labours. We put it in small jars and open each one like a little celebration. It may not actually be any cheaper than store-bought jam. And usually there’s an imperfect quality to it, with some fruits staying a bit lumpy. However, we always love it the best and feel sad when we open our last jar sometime during the winter. It always reminds me of the hot, late-summer kitchen at the cottage, picking over the ripe fruit and watching the ships pass on the river as we wait for the jars to boil.

  17. I didn’t can this year and really feel sorta empty for not having done it. I think it’s because out of everything I canned last year and gave away, I felt safe only eating one. Now I’ve tons of spaghetti sauce doing nothing but gathering dust. Should I toss it after a year?

  18. Bethany: Was there a particular reason why you only felt safe eating one or was it just beginner’s fear?

    You’ll need to answer that question first before you or I can say if the sauce is still good after a year. If everything was indeed done safely, well, all of the books, etc say you should eat within a year, but they will also tell you that they personally eat their high acid stuff if it is a bit older.

    Of course, you should always carefully inspect all jars for signs of spoilage, too.

  19. I think it is beginners fear. I madke pear butter and have eaten that through-out the year without any issues. But for some reason, I am afraid of the sauce. LOL

  20. Totally unrelated, but asking advice…

    My tomatoes, after I thought they were done weeks ago, just threw out another flush of blossoms. As I’m in Chicago, those fruit are probably not going to get mature before frost comes. What am I supposed to do with that? Should I pinch them, so as not to drain resources from the existing fruit? Or should I let them go and see what happens?

  21. Those crabapples are beutiful! I know what you mean about taking the jars out to look at in the dead of winter. A little shot of summer on a cold, dreary winter’s day.

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