My wife, Sue, asked me a couple of days ago if I was tired of eating green beans since we had some for both lunch and supper. My answer was no, I’m not tired of garden-fresh green beans yet. Nor am I tired of fresh beets, summer squash, and, of course, fresh tomatoes. I call the latter real tomatoes as opposed to those artificial things that look like tomatoes that can now be had year-round from the grocery store. It seems that the very taste and texture we love about tomatoes was lost in attempting to breed a tomato that could be picked somewhere far away, then shipped, and then sit on the store shelf for a day or two and still look right. I’ll admit that the breeders got the look alright. I still succumb to the temptation to buy one of those pretty tomato-looking things every once in awhile during the winter, but I’m always disappointed when I actually eat it.
Fresh garden produce is on the table almost every day, now, and what we don’t grow right here in our yard is generally available from one of the farmers’ markets or as a gift or swap from a friend’s garden. It’s been that way for my family as long as I can remember. Another tradition that brings back fond memories is "putting up" the excess produce that couldn’t be eaten fresh. Canning and freezing was a family affair that often included several generations all working together.
It’s a wonder that those memories are fond ones when I think of the actual work that went into the process and the conditions that work was performed in. It always came in late summer when the temperature was high and the humidity not far behind. The day might start with baskets of sweet corn to shuck and pull the silks from, wash basins full of peas to shuck, or beans to snap into bite-sized sections. The corn had to be boiled on the cob in large kettles and then was cut from the cob while still hot before being transferred to freezing containers. The canning jars and lids had to be cleaned and boiled to sterilize them before they were filled and transferred to hot water baths or the pressure cookers. We didn’t have air conditioning then, but, thankfully, I recall fans blowing some of the steam-filled air around. I can still remember waiting to hear the little metallic pop as the jars cooled down and the canning lids sealed tightly.
My family canned, froze, and/or pickled quite a few things back in the 50s and 60s. The cherries from Grandpa’s trees made wonderful cherry sauce if we could beat the robins to them. We made some pretty big batches of apple sauce when we had good apple years. We grew some of the corn we froze and got more from the neighbors. Cucumbers became dill pickles with our own home-grown dill unless they got too big. Some of those might have become cucumbers boats. Many quarts of beans and tomatoes were on the shelves down in the basement by the time that colorful leaves signaled the end of the growing season. It was then time to dig potatoes and carrots and harvest the various kinds of winter squash we grew. Potatoes, carrots, and sometimes even fresh apples were kept in the root cellar, but that’s a whole other story. Sometimes the last of the green beans were left in the garden to dry. Those would be shelled out and kept as dry beans for hearty bean soups that were so good on cold winter days.
My garden operations are small compared to those my family kept when I was a boy, but they’re large enough to provide fresh produce nearly every day in late summer, with some excess left over to can and freeze or share. The whole process keeps me in touch with fond memories of growing up out in the country with a large garden and lots of family time working together to till, plant, cultivate, harvest, and put up the bounty. The superior taste of home-canned and frozen produce helps, but I think it’s the family aspect of it that makes the memory of all that hard work a fond one. Now it’s time to fire up the pressure cooker. I have about five pints of green beans ready to can.
(Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.)