One of my fondest fall memories from childhood is that of driving out to Sauvie Island to visit the Bybee-Howell House. My mom, sister and I would wander the antique apple orchard and pick the newly fallen apples off the ground. When we first moved to the area, we asked the groundskeeper and he requested that we not to touch the apples still on the trees (they used them to make fresh-pressed cider in September), but that we were welcome to as many windfall apples as we could carry.
We’d fill paper grocery bags until they were nearly ready to split open and then head home to make applesauce. I’d help my mom with the peeling and chopping, and I quickly learned from watching her that it was easy enough to cut around the bruises and occasionally wormholes, leaving behind perfectly useable (and delicious, fragrant, delicately-flavored) fruit.
Because of that early education in the use of imperfect fruit, I’ve never been one to shy away from damaged apples, overripe pears (pear butter), brown bananas (banana bread) or a peach with a bit of mold on one end (peach jam, sauce or butter). I see the potential in each piece and feel compelled to help all the remaining good parts of the nectarine achieve its delicious destiny.
One might think that living in the center of a large city would preclude me from having opportunities to find and use this less than perfect produce. However, it is not solely the provenance of aging orchards and roadside farmstands. I see it everywhere. Just last week I bought four pounds of slightly squished apricots at Reading Terminal Market for $2.97 (which was enough for a full batch of jam). Sue’s Produce often bags and sells their declining fruit and veg for pennies. And the vendors at my local farmers markets adore handing over bags of imperfect fruit to people who appreciate it and will put it to good use (don’t forget, these are people who love the act of growing food and dislike letting their food go to waste).
I am not advocating using fruit that has gone off or has begun to ferment (that’s a whole other kind of preservation). However, in these times, when we’re all looking for ways to spend less and save more, it’s important to accept the imperfect and learn just how useful a good paring knife can be.
Several days ago, Salon.com published an article about canning, in which the author ruminates on the economic realities of home canning and concludes (after some first hand experimentation) that while it can be a rewarding hobby, it is neither an effective use of time nor a frugal endeavor (in one paragraph, she calls canning “a small, sustainable luxury and a craft”). While I can see the position she’s coming from (she bought her ingredients at a New York Greenmarket, which is conceivably one of the most expensive possible ways to buy produce), I find myself distraught by her thesis. While it’s true that jars cost money, and that if you’re not careful, you can spend more on fruit that you might have planned, to me, canning is an essentially frugal act. Particularly if you search out the imperfect fruit like I talked about above.
Canning is also about choosing to take the act of food creation out of the hands of large corporations and return it to the home. It’s about knowing where your food came from and what went into it. It’s about always having a delicious gift to give to friends and family. It’s about stashing away the peak of summer for the dark, cold days of December and January. It’s about investing your time in the things that matter. It’s about creating something soul soothing and beautiful.