–Aurora Swearingen, Hillsboro, WV
Canning peaches is a labor that starts with bare feet on gray bark as you climb to reach all the highest fruit, which you drop down to an older brother who promptly catches them in his shirt and puts them in a wagon that you pull over grassy bumps for what feels like miles. You battle imaginary bad guys with sticks-turned-swords, but this harvest is for grandma, and no imaginary villain can have it. You put the peaches in baskets to take them up the steps, and your little arms are weak with the weight.
Into boiling water for 30 seconds, then ice for another 30, to stop them from cooking the now more vibrant fruit burns your hands through the cold water as you take off the once-velvet-smooth skin. Grandma grabs them with bare hands as you wonder at her magic to not feel the boiling water she grabs them from. She tells you stories of how her grandmother canned things because she had to, and how she helped because she knew she would be hungry. You don’t understand what she meant.
Your brother is long since gone to battle the villains still waiting outside for him, but you wait with Grandma to learn about heroes while she grabs the jars from the oven that she washed and put in boiling water for 10 minutes. She tells you that you must keep them warm, so they don’t break from the cold peaches, you don’t understand that either. Your hands still burn as you cut them into halves to stuff them into jars so that she can cover them with sugar syrup, 1 part sugar and 2 parts water with a touch of cinnamon she tells you is secret. On his reprieve from battle, you and your brother both sample the syrup more than once with hushed giggles. It’s a secret she knows but ignores for your sake.
When all is said and done, the peaches sit until cooled with small pop sounds to let you know they’re sealed, then are put in the pantry on shelves that you later climb to grab them from. You hold the jar with both hands, carefully not to drop the glass, as this jar is for grandma.
This tradition continues even as the wagon is replaced by a bucket and a ladder, and your hands no longer burn. There is no brother with bright armor and sword, and you no longer climb shelves or sample syrup. But even if she isn’t there, each bite of peach is still for her, and she will always be your hero.
Canning has a rich history in West Virginia and has played an integral role in feeding families and boosting morale during challenging times. In the face of economic hardships during the Great Depression, canning emerged as a critical means for households to stretch their food budgets and preserve fruits and vegetables for future consumption. The federal government recognized the importance of canning and actively encouraged families to participate in canning programs to alleviate food shortages. With the government no longer backing canning in the same way, it is up to programs like Grow Appalachia to keep the torch lit until it can be passed.
While commercial food preservation methods have become more prevalent in recent years, the tradition of home canning has persisted in West Virginia likely due to most of the state being a food desert. Now, there is a renewed interest in this time-honored practice as individuals seek to embrace locally sourced, sustainable food.
At our canning workshop, there has been an incredible response from attendees who were eager to learn and share information. These events bring together people of all ages and backgrounds, creating a sense of community and connection as participants swap tips and techniques. All in attendance engaged in interactive exchanges of knowledge, shared stories and offered advice to one another. Older generations were particularly eager to impart their wisdom, recognizing that some of this information may otherwise become lost with time. The knowledge shared by older generations was valued by the participants, and attendees were grateful for the opportunity to learn from those who have been canning for decades.
The renewed interest in canning is a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of West Virginians. By embracing this time-tested practice, individuals are not only preserving their food, but also their cultural heritage. Through canning, people celebrate the bounty of the land, connect with their neighbors, and take positive steps towards a more sustainable future.
Here is a recipe that was shared with us:
- 8 cups mashed strawberries from about 4 quarts of fresh fruit, or about 4 1/2 to 5 lbs)
- 6 cups sugar
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- Wash and hull strawberries to remove tops.
- Mash strawberries and measure the fruit. You should have about 8 cups.
- Add strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice to a deep, heavy-bottomed dutch oven or jam pot.
- Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat on the stove, stirring frequently to prevent scorching or overflows.
- Boil gently over medium heat for about 45 minutes to an hour, until the jam reaches its set point. The time will vary based on the water content of your strawberries and the exact heat from your stove.
- When set, ladle into prepared jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Seal with 2 part lids to finger tight.
- If canning, process jars in a water bath canner for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the jars to sit for an additional 5 minutes before removing them with a jar lifter to cool on a towel on the counter.
- Check seals after 12-24 hours and store any unsealed jars in the refrigerator for immediate use.