... down-home word pictures from the 1930s ...
When ever I hear that song from 'Porgy and Bess' about 'Summer time and the living is easy,' I recall our summers that were very busy preparing fruits and vegetables for winter enjoyment.
Our summers were spent in a small town on the edge of the Pine Barrens in that delightful garden state known as South Jersey. We had fresh fruits and vegetables all summer long from the local farms. To enjoy them in the winter meant frequent trips to the local farms -- baskets of tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Then off to the orchards for baskets of peaches and apples. These would all be put in jars for our winter larder. The smells of summer were of ripening peaches, cinnamon from the applesauce cooking and vinegar.
The canning process took hours of work, but in the end there were the rows and rows of beautifully filled jars of food that we would enjoy during the cold winter months.
My mother did all the heavy labor; my job was going to the pump on the back porch and filling buckets of water for my mother to use in the cleaning and cooking process. I would also have the job of hiking the half mile to the nearby store with the glass gallon jug to fill with kerosene so that the stove would keep working 'til this process was completed. When the tank on the stove "was all", I also had to fill the tank so my mother didn't have the smell of kerosene on her hands. ("Was all" is a Pennsylvania Dutch expression meaning it was all gone. The gallon of kerosene cost 25 cents can you stand it?)
The month of August began by washing and sterilizing dozens of quart mason jars, boiling water on a kerosene stove to pour over peaches and/or tomatoes to make peeling easier, packing the stocked jars into large special racks and inserting these racks into big vats to place on the stove and bring to a boil. There wasn’t any air conditioning in the thirties and forties when this was going on, but Mom did have a fan that kept oscillating back and forth to blow across her face to “keep her cool” even as the sweat was streaming down from her forehead and over her cheeks.
This canning process went on almost daily. First it would be tomatoes and catsup (that was made from the juice that Mom squeezed out of the tomato). Then as the peaches ripened, they were peeled, sliced or halved and were “canned”, and peach marmalade would be made from the “soft spots”. Apples became apple sauce.
The crock was filled with cut up red and green peppers and onions that were smothered with Heinz vinegar and spices to “pickle” before being jarred as relish. When the pickling process was done, the relish mixture would also go through the canning process. This would be the tasty treat to serve the next winter with "wiener schnitzel" -- thin slices of veal cutlet that had been breaded and fried.
The stove had two burners going under the oversized container which held a dozen jars and as the water boiled, the room became very steamy, adding to the heat and humidity of the day. Mixed in with the steam from the kettles were the aromas of tomatoes, peaches, apples, cinnamon, and vinegar.
When the cooking time was done, the jars were taken out of the tub of hot water and placed on the zinc top of the cupboard to cool. When they were finally cool, the last tightening of the jars was done to seal the lids. That was Dad's job. He had the strong hands that made them really tight. Next winter he would called upon again to loosen the jar.
When mom first did this process, the lids were zinc tops and a rubber ring was placed on the jar first to complete the seal. Later years was the round disc that was placed on the top of the jar and a ring top lid tightened the seal.
My friend’s father worked for the Atlantic City Electric company and the he was fortunate to have the opportunity to use new electric appliances. That is why my friend's mother did her “canning” with a different method. She had an electric stove. I don’t remember exactly how it worked, I just remember it was called "cold pack". Her jars went into the oven for a period of time. So much cooler. No, they didn’t have air conditioning, but the electric oven didn’t heat up her kitchen like that kerosene stove did to ours.
Now the waiting is easy for next winter when we would be enjoying the fruits of mom's labor.