Not long ago, home canning was almost a lost art. Now it's being embraced by a new generation of gardeners, foodies and penny-pinchers.
Last summer, local canning guru Ana Micka was so busy showing other people how to can that she never got around to doing it for herself.
"Classes sold out so fast -- I spent every weekend in August and September teaching," recalled Micka, the St. Louis Park author of "The Fresh Girl's Guide to Easy Canning" (www.freshgirlsguide.com). "All I got was some leftovers from a can-along [workshop]."
Micka isn't the only canning expert whose services are in demand these days. Tight budgets, growing awareness about eating well and a longing for Granny's good old days have combined to make canning hip and trendy, as well as practical. People aren't just steaming up the kitchen on their own -- they're attending canning parties, canning bees, canning day camps for kids and a wide variety of adult classes.
"There's definitely been an upswing," said Claudia Rhodes, education and events coordinator at the Seward Co-op in Minneapolis. "The whole homespun thing is back. A lot of our cooking classes don't fill up. But the canning classes are always a go -- they're never canceled."
Chef's Gallery in Stillwater also has seen a growing appetite for all things canning-related. "We tried this [canning classes] a few times before, with minimal interest," said Stephanie Jameson, cooking school director. This year, the store is offering -- and filling -- five different canning classes and reports a rise in sales of canning products, including jars, lids and lifters.
Why are so many people clamoring to learn a practice that, until recently, was in danger of dying out?
"There's a certain nostalgia around this," said Jill Jacoby of Minneapolis, a former farm girl and 4-H member who now teaches canning classes at local co-ops and Chef's Gallery. "A lot of people remember Grandma doing it but never learned it themselves."
Then there's the local-food movement, which is renewing interest in food preservation in general and canning in particular. "Consciousness is really growing," said Alexandra Spieldoch of Minneapolis, who learned the basics last year, thanks to her friendship with Micka. "In Minnesota, in particular, with the short season, it's a way to celebrate the food here."
Canning is a lot of work -- hours of washing, peeling, packing and boiling, in a hot kitchen. But it's also fun, especially when you do it with friends, Spieldoch said. "We turned it into a girls' day, put on music, laughed a lot. It's a bonding experience."
And in today's struggling economy, canning is appealing for economic reasons -- plus those who can't find paying jobs have more time to do it, Rhodes noted.
But you probably have to be a gardener -- or know a generous one -- to realize the savings, according to experts. "If you're growing your own produce, over time, canning can save you money," said Suzanne Driessen, Extension food safety educator, St. Cloud, who teaches canning classes at farmers markets and community centers. "But initially there's some investment. And if you have to buy the produce, it doesn't save you money."
Most of those taking Jacoby's classes have culinary -- rather than financial - motives, she said. "People want to make something creative, like special jams and relishes to share as hostess gifts or Christmas gifts. Old-style canning -- 20 quarts of green beans -- is not practical or economical. Green Giant cans local beans."
Not all of the people signing up for canning classes are newbies. Some are brushing up skills learned long ago. "I grew up in a family that did can, and I've done a little canning here and there," said Jackie Thureson of Grant, who recently took one of Jacoby's canning classes at Chef's Gallery. "It's worked when I've done it, but I thought it would be good to know a little more, in terms of safety."
Food safety is on many people's minds, Jacoby said. "There's a lot of fear around it. There are stories out there, about botulism poisoning."
"People's biggest concern is not doing it right and hurting their family," Micka said.
Canning can be intimidating, agreed Driessen, but there's little risk if you learn the basics and follow the rules. "It's a science, not an art," she said. "You can't get creative with recipes." She recommends using only recipes developed in the past 15 to 20 years. "Old cookbooks or Grandma's recipes probably aren't safe."
Once you understand the science, however, you can begin to customize recipes, Jacoby said, as well as understand which foods allow more or less creative license.
Safety starts with a quality product, Driessen said. "Use only the best produce." Tomatoes with a spot of rot on one end are not good candidates for canning, for example. Even a bruise can allow micro-organisms to enter the food.
The incidence of poisoning caused by home-canned food is low, but it is real. According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation's website, there have been at least three events of botulism poisoning in the past two years, caused by improperly processed food. (For information about canning and food safety, visit the University of Minnesota Extension's website.
Help for new generations
There's a lot of information out there about canning, and some of it has been around for a long time. But it isn't always accessible to a new generation of canning wannabes, according to Micka, who taught herself how to can in the 1990s. "It wasn't hard to find good resources, but you have to commit to them," she said. "There weren't a lot of pictures. They were written for a different generation, with a different way of accessing information."
The reason she published her book and companion DVD was because she had so many friends asking her for help, she said. "My book is four-color, with lots of diagrams, so people can glance, not read a whole chapter."
Canning resources aren't the only thing that's changed. Today's canners enjoy better technology than Granny ever had access to.
Kettles of boiling water haven't changed with the times, but pressure canners have. "The equipment was redesigned in the '70s," Driessen said. "It's lighter now," with better seals and vacuum-release features, so there's much less danger of boiling-hot food explosions.
"With our technology now, there are much better canners and products," Jacoby said. "The pressure canners in the '50s and '60s weren't that great."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784