Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Accounting, and the Start of Canning Season

Roasting strawberries may just be my new favorite smell. We got six pounds of juicy ruby red fruit from the farmer’s market, and just like that, Canning and Preserving Season had begun. The moment the fruit came through the door and went onto the big farm table, I started sorting it. Only the reddest ripest ones would do, because they were destined to be sliced up for the dehydrator. The rest I put, still unwashed, in a wire colander and set on the counter to ripen up a bit in the summer heat. They’ll get processed into jam in a few days. The trick to strawberries is very simple. DO NOT wash them until you are ready to use them. They are like little sponges, and the moment you wash them, they start to go mushy. Keep them dry, and they’ll last for days.

Susan and I set to work. She has recently been cleared to work with sharp knives, and was more than happy to help hull and slice strawberries. With two of us working, we had about four pounds of painfully ripe strawberries washed, hulled, sliced, and into the dehydrator within an hour of them coming through the door. I’m telling you, she’s hired. It’s really the way to go with strawberries anyway. They don’t last long. Some of those berries may not have had a few hours more in them. But oh, what a lovely aroma they have, warmed up to 135 degrees, and wafted around my kitchen by the fan. It’s like warm strawberry caramel. Yum.

I’m equal parts excited and trepidatious here at the start of the busiest time of my year. On the one hand, STRAWBERRIES – strawberry butter, syrup, sliced and dried, fruit leather, pie filling, jam, and maybe even some strawberry mead if I wind up with enough fruit. On the other hand, STRAWBERRIES – it will take me something in the neighborhood of thirty pounds of fruit to put up everything. That’s an awful lot of red juicy berries. And that wouldn’t be so bad, except that I actually sat down and calculated my canning for the season. Last year, I started with making all of my jam and fruit leather for the whole year. It was a total success. I could maybe make one more batch of fruit leather, but we are still eating the jam, and we didn’t buy a single jar last year. We didn’t buy any fruit snacks for the kids, nor did we buy any pickles or relish. Wait for it - because I put up enough for a whole year. Can I tell you how proud I am of that? I might just bust a button.

It is but the first step on the road to food sufficiency. This year, the goal is to do the same, and also to can up all the tomatoes we will use for the whole year (minus the ones we gobble right off the vine, of course). It may not seem like much of a step forward, until you stop to realize how many tomatoes we go through in a year. I mean, you’re talking almost one hundred and sixty pounds of fresh tomatoes just in sauce alone. When you throw in diced tomatoes, ketchup, salsa, and soup, you are talking well in excess of two hundred and sixty pounds of fresh tomatoes. Holy edible nightshade, Batman.

I mean, that’s kind of intimidating, right? I find myself saying it out loud at odd moments… two hundred and sixty pounds of tomatoes. Two hundred and sixty pounds of tomatoes. About one hundred pounds of that has to be skinned and chopped, as well. Think about that for a minute, blanching and skinning one hundred pounds of tomatoes. At least I don’t have to do it all at a whack. Tomato season lasts for something like ten weeks, so at least I only have to do something in the neighborhood of twenty-five pounds a week… which is still a lot of tomatoes. This doesn’t count, by the way, the green tomato relish I make at the end of the season. That’s another five pounds or so.

Twenty-five pounds a week doesn’t sound like a lot, until you realize that over those ten weeks, I also have to do twenty pounds of blueberries, fifteen pounds of cucumbers, forty-five pounds of peaches, and fifteen pounds of pears. Oh, and then there’s the apples. Let’s not forget the apples.

I didn’t make my apple goal last year. I drastically underestimated the amount of homemade apple sauce that my children and husband would eat. After all, we’ve never been big apple sauce eaters in the past. I thought a couple of gallons would see us through the whole year. Boy was I wrong. Maybe by an order of magnitude. Truth is, they ate it almost faster than I could get it in jars. So this year, I’m going to try and ration it to one quart a week. Yeah, it turns out that that is rationing it. I’m not kidding, they went through about a gallon and a half a week. So this will be an exercise in learning how to stretch your favorite foods to last the whole year for my family. Still, that’s fifty-two quarts of applesauce. That’s thirteen gallons, or something like one hundred and forty pounds of apples. When you throw in apple butter, pie filling, fruit leather, and dried apple slices, the total amount of apples that are going to be coming through my kitchen this year is something like one hundred and seventy pounds. I’m pretty sure I’ve underestimated that, by the way, as that comes to just over four bushels of apples, and I went through three last year. Surely my family didn’t eat nearly a year’s worth of apple sauce just during apple season last year… right? Right?

Now, the vast majority of this food will be canned or dehydrated, but in order to get some of it in the freezer, I have to make room. I buy my meat half a cow and pig at a time from a farmer I know, and we are getting ten Red Ranger chickens of our own this year, so there will be quite a lot of meat in my freezer come fall. Some of it has to move out to make room. So, in addition to all of the fruits and veggies, I will be canning up a significant amount of soup and stock. It, of course, has to be pressure canned, and my pressure canner (being aluminum) does not work on my induction cooktop. We have to use a big propane burner outside. This is just not something I want to be doing when it is thirty degrees out there with the wind just-a-whippin’. Just… um… no. So, it must be done before the end of October... which is still pretty darned chilly, let me tell you. The goal for this year? Slightly over thirty gallons.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is eight hundred and fifteen pounds of food to put up in just over twenty-one weeks. That means that I have to put up just under thirty-nine pounds of food a week, without fail. This week, if I am lucky, it will be thirty pounds. That’s all that is available. Now, eight hundred and fifteen pounds of food may sound like a lot, and it is. However, even if you figure that equates to the same amount of finished food (and it’s not even close), and you add in about five hundred additional pounds of pork and beef(no, I am not counting the meat twice), and about fifty pounds of chicken we will raise ourselves, that means we’ll put up about thirteen hundred and sixty-five pounds of rich, nutrient dense food before snow flies. Sounds impressive, right? Well, we go through an average (as a family of four) of three pounds of food per person per day. That’s forty-three hundred and eighty pounds. At this point in the calculations, I start to feel a bit like Charlie Brown. Good grief.

It’s not quite as bad as it looks, we eat a staggering amount of local produce in season, plus local dairy, honey, and maple syrup. Still. Forty-three hundred pounds! I should give myself a break, really. I did the math, and we managed to purchase about sixty percent of our food locally last year. This year, with an increase in local dairy consumption, my canning goals, and the addition of five new laying chickens to our flock (not to mention the meat birds) I am hoping to hit seventy percent. But, no matter how I look at this, if I want to be growing and buying as much local food as I feel is right, then I am easily going to have to double the amount of food I put up during canning season. Right now that feels quite overwhelming, to say the least.

Look, I’m not looking to be a heroine, here. I have no desire to give up vanilla, cinnamon, or cardamom. You can have my tea when you pry it out of my cold dead fingers, let me tell you. But, if I can figure out a way to put a root cellar in, and not buy carrots or onions at the grocery store, I’m going to do that. After all, those two things are staples, and together they account for about four hundred and twenty pounds per year.

The thing to do here, I think, is to let this year be this year, and let next year be next year. I have four hundred and eighty-eight canning jars, ten gallons of mead, twenty-six sheets of fruit leather, and the butchering of ten chickens to get through in twenty-one weeks. I also have a studio to clean out, an herb garden to plan and plant, a vegetable garden to tend and harvest, six weeks of friends and family booked for visits, children to supervise and educate, and regular domestic chores to do. Not to mention Father’s Day, two birthdays, a major family holiday, and several small ones to plan. With all that said, this winter, the only fresh fruit in my kitchen will be bananas, apples (grown and stored locally) and citrus fruits. This year, I will not buy tomatoes anywhere but at the farmer’s markets. I will be able to crack open jars of last year’s green tomato relish all summer long, and share them with my loved ones. These are the fruits of my labor, and I really need to keep my eye on the prize. Canning Season has begun. So I’m just going to buckle down, put on my big-girl-pants, and do it. Here we go.


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