I hate this time of year. The leaves crackle underfoot like the bones of tiny children. And the light takes on a certain harshness that reminds me that, even as I grow closer to death, I have gotten no closer to realizing my dreams.
Most of that is made tolerable with a dose of self-medication, but there's one autumnal rite that nothing can help. Beginning in August, adherents of this practice descend on U-Pick orchards like magpies on road kill, and by September, this cult – and yes, I think it can be called a cult – is engaged in a primitive ritual involving steamy kitchens, boiling water, blistered fingers and sterile jars.
Yes, it is the season of canning, when people obsessed by food prostrate themselves on the altar of the root cellar of yore and "put up" the harvest. Then they brag about it.
"I put up 60 pounds of tomatoes this weekend," one of the followers told me the other day, her voice sticky with self-righteousness. "And today, as soon as I get home, 10 bushels of pears await me!"
I thought about saying, "I made it through 200 pages of Infinite Jest, and I think I finally understand the plot." But that would only prompt a reply like, "Oh, is that an heirloom tomato?"
Last week, the cult came close to home when my wife and mother spent a full day preserving tomatoes and salsa. This worries me. My mother generally avoided the kitchen when I was a kid. When forced to cook, she relied upon Kraft dinners and frozen enchiladas in tinfoil platters. My wife, Wendy, meanwhile, is alarmingly blasé when it comes to food-borne illnesses and ignores "sell by" dates. She probably figures if she poisons someone, she'll never be expected to cook again, which is fine by her. Still, the two of them forged ahead into the battlefield of boiling water and sterile jars.
Wendy's description of the ordeal was so awful that guilt compelled me to agree to participate in the next session. I wanted to educate myself first, though, and soon discovered that there's lots of lore on the subject. Indeed, there may be more people writing about canning than doing it. The cybersphere has exploded with blogs extolling the virtues of "putting up," and one even advocates a "canvolution." Another goes so far as to compare canning to sex.
Then, in the scariest chapter of one book, I discovered that canning really is like sex; that is, if you do it recklessly, it can cause various forms of bacterial infection. Canned stuff is a leading cause of botulism, the nerve toxin that can kill you. Tomatoes are especially prone to the bacteria, and so, the book says, one should always add acid to them before putting them up.
As I take another bite of the lime-free salsa made in my kitchen, I feel my eyelids drooping, and I have a hard time moving my arm. And when I ask whether they boiled the jars for long enough, I apparently slur my words beyond recognition, for neither my mom nor Wendy seems to hear me.
"Couldn't we just freeze these?" I manage to ask, eying the pile of tomatoes that we're about to can. I receive a caustic look in return; it's just not the same. And besides, as the manifesto of canning explains: What if the power goes out? No cult is complete without an apocalypse, and the canvolutionary's version of Armageddon includes freezers sans electricity regurgitating rotten produce. As with all end-of-days scenarios, the canners' version separates the saved –- that is, the people who have put up plenty of green beans and peaches -- from the damned -- those who put up nothing and now must spend eternity, or at least a few minutes a day, wandering the supermarket aisles.
So I throw plenty of bacteria-killing garlic, lime, and chili into the salsa. After the third burn-blister erupts on my hand, I ask myself: Wasn't technology intended to free us so we could spend time doing the things that make us human, like reading or watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica? Isn't that why our grandparents gave up home-canning in the first place? Or is it just because canned fruit is merely a slimier shadow of its former self, not unlike Mickey Rourke?
But five hours after it begins, our canning ritual is complete. I have to admit that the salsa looks beautiful in those jars. And it's going to be tasty come mid-December. I get the canning thing now. And to prove it, all of you canvolutionaries can come try some of the salsa I put up. Don't worry. I sterilized those jars really well. At least I think I did.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org), which he edits in Paonia, Colorado.