Catching Summer in a Mason Jar


The ripe ear of corn came off in Eula’s hand with a rubbery squeak. “I must’ve missed one,” she said, raising her eyes to survey the garden-acre. After thinking about it for a minute she concluded, “My bucket must’ve been full. That’s probably why I left it.” Her conclusion made sense, because Eula Vines doesn’t miss much.

Eula has tended gardens as long as she can remember. She recalls learning to preserve summer’s bounty for leaner months as part of her upbringing in Watauga County, North Carolina.

She said, “When I got married, the only way you could make it was to grow a garden and can…We had no refrigerator and you had to can it to keep it. You used to have to do a water bath, but now we’ve got pressure cookers.”

Eula’s pressure cooker is fifty-two years old – a double decker job that, when it’s on the stove, is nearly as tall as she is. She recalls buying it for twenty dollars from Sears and Roebuck.

Sitting in her kitchen, she said, “I remember when we first got a freezer. Nobody canned then, but I always liked to can. Berries are good frozen, but I think beans are better canned.”

Though Eula keeps herself busy everyday with garden chores, there is a careful schedule to her process. She believes in canning by the signs. It is a long-standing belief among food preservers that zodiac signs can affect the outcome of any batch of canned vegetables, especially those that are pickled.

You can find the signs -marked as tiny fish (Pisces) and lions (Leo) among others- on certain calendars and in many almanacs, often with a corresponding graph of the human body. Each date has a designated zodiac sign, and each sign indicates a relationship to a specific body part.

“I never pickle when the sign is in the feet,” Eula said, flipping through her wall calendar. “I pickle when the sign is in Aries or Leo. One of them’s in the head; one’s in the heart.”

She explained, “I know the signs work. Yesterday was an Aries day, but I’ll pickle through next week because the sign will still be in the neck. I’ve pickled when the signs are in the legs, but I won’t pickle when they get into the feet. I’ve had kraut smell bad and be soft when it’s in the feet.”

Beans and tomatoes make up the bulk of Eula’s canned produce. On a recent afternoon, she set about canning tomatoes and offered seemingly simple directions.
She advised, “You put the tomatoes in boiling water for about a minute ‘til the peel comes right off. Of course, you need to wash them before you scald. I’ve already cleaned out a lot of the seed pockets. You don’t really need many of those.”

After putting the lids in boiling water for sterilization, she carefully washed mason jars of different proportions until she had enough for the two pots of scalded tomatoes. Once the jars were dry, she put a teaspoon of salt and sugar into each quart and a little less in the smaller jars.
When each jar held appropriate amounts, Eula put a yellow funnel into the mouth of the first jar to keep it clean as she filled it. As each heart-red tomato quarter went down the chute, she mashed it with a fork and stressed, “You have to get juice in all the crevices.”

Once her tomatoes filled the jars and she secured the sterilized lids, Eula put them in the pressure cooker and set its gauge. Soon, the kitchen was filled with the high pitch of a steam whistle.

Eula buys twenty-dozen lids a year, on average. “I like to have them on hand,” she explained. This year, she bought sixty dozen. “I’d just as well grow it and give it away,” she said. She shares her bounty with her children, grandchildren and friends including Marilyn Penley, who often stops by to help with the shucking and snapping prep work.

“A lot of people that work fulltime don’t have the time to can,” Eula said, adding that, “store bought vegetables aren’t as good as ones from the garden.”
Though she’s not sure it’s the most economical route, she maintains that there is something to be said for canning fresh vegetables even if they’re purchased through a farmers market or a local gardener.

Eula’s advice for beginning canners is to pick up a copy of the Ball Blue Book, a guide published by the Ball jar company. Better yet, find a family member or neighbor with the know-how and willingness to let you can with them during harvest time.

In Eula’s springhouse pantry, her canned goods line the walls. The pantry is a cool space where small saws hang on the wall and onions dry on patches of newsprint on the floor. This room is where she pickles corn the old-timey way – letting it sit in salt brine for a week, rather than using the newer method of boiling the mixture.

In a quick review of the fruits of her of her labor, she pointed to canned pears, beets, dilly beans, chow-chow, relishes, pickled corn, shelly beans and the list went on.
The sixty quarts of sauerkraut she made on Monday were still waiting to be shelved or given to friends.

“Look up there,” she said, pointing to the highest shelves of her pantry where empty canning jars were lined up ready to report for duty. Nodding towards the jars, she smiled and said, “All this and I’m not done yet.”


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment