I grew up in a fairly rural area, though not actually on a farm. But my grandparents had a series of farms, always with enormous gardens.
My grandmother would can, freeze, dry or smoke just about anything. After she died, my grandfather, who was by then retired, took on that task in addition to growing all the fruit and vegetables.
This was surprising to me. Although he'd been a master plumber and was able to fix almost anything, he wasn't used to fending for himself when it came to household tasks. (He once called my mother because the clothes dryer wasn't drying; turned out, he hadn't cleaned the air filter so no hot air was getting through.)
Yet he became so adept at preserving food that when he died a few years ago he had shelves full of canned goods: quarts of tomatoes and juice, pints of beans and jelly, even homemade pickles.
Somehow the family couldn't put those jars in his estate sale. A lot of it went home with us, our last taste of the old farm.
Food, especially prepared by someone you love, is personal, and that's a feeling many home canners share.
My friend Angie Stephenson is a great example of this. She put up 80 quarts of green beans, about 30 pints of salsa, a similar amount of sweet pickles, plus apple butter, blueberry jam, canned tomatoes and peppers from her garden this year.
All of the fruits and vegetables either came from her yard in the Chevy Chase area, or from relatives and friends. And some of the recipes also came from family, like the "society" pickle from her husband's grandmother. And the pepper "butter" recipe from her mother.
"It's a way to provide for my family; it's fresh, organic, and I know where it's coming from," Stephenson said. "I remember going to grandmother's farm, helping her pick, and breaking beans, sitting around, talking. ... It's something I saw my grandparents do, and I like to keep doing it."
Several items have become staples: their salsa was something she and her husband, David, discovered 20 years ago.
"It was a farmhouse cookbook, and everybody raved on it, and we started making more and more, and then we started canning it," she said.
The pepper butter was a way to use up extra jalapeño peppers.
"A lot of people do pepper jelly," she said. This is a little different.
"Think apple butter with a pepper-ish kick."
It's become a favorite treat. "It's great on toast. We like crackers with cream cheese, and the pepper butter on top," she said. "It's a Christmas staple that we bring out for parties."
All because of a few extra peppers.
"I hate seeing things go to waste," she said. So she keeps canning until she runs out of jars. And then thinks about going out to get more.
The personal connections, as well as the sweat equity invested in her pantry, create an intrinsic value that's hard to measure.
Even though they don't live on a farm, her daughter, Tory, has "been raised to see where food comes from," she said. That lesson also has value.
Knowing that you can create your own food, even with limited resources like raised beds in a yard or by landscaping fruit trees and bushes into your yard can give you self-sufficiency, a confidence in your own resourcefulness.
Stephenson got her start — and many of her basic recipes — from the Ball canning book, which is still available. Information is available at Freshpreserving.com, Ball and Kerr's online guide to getting started.
According to Jarden Home Brands, the parent of Ball and Kerr, home canning is hotter than it's been in decades. And it isn't too late to get some goodies on the shelf for the winter. The Ball website has recipes, instructions and all kinds of inspiration.
For more ideas, check out Wisdom for Home Preservers, a new book from The Taunton Press. It has 500 tips for everything from marmalade to sauerkraut to canning fish, should you ever feel the need.
As for Stevenson, she is re-evaluating her yard space and planning for fall crops and next spring.
"I'm thinking that although we like lettuce and spinach, what could we get more of out of this spot?" she said. "I'm debating — I still have some jalapeños — whether I want to do some more pepper butter. We're almost out of jars. And I'm thinking if I put some more beets out, will I get them in time?"
Once you start, preserving your own food can become almost addictive. Good thing you've got family and friends around to help you out by eating it.
Homework: Go online to Freshpreserving.com and check out the recipe for easy Apple Jam. You'll need a waterbath canner and six pint jars plus lids and bands. You can get great apples at your local farmers' markets if you don't have a tree of your own.
With apples coming into season from local orchards, now is a great time to lock in the best fall flavor. If you feel a little more confident, try the recipe for canning apple pie filling, so you have something special for the Thanksgiving table.