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Articles & Essays

"Canned heat: There's only one real way to use a Mason jar"

Published 08/08/17
West Virginia South magazine (Beckley, WVa)
    I was canning before canning was cool. Actually, when it was hot – very hot.
    I was a kid out of school for the summer, hoping for blissful mornings sleeping in. But my mother regularly turned my vision of heavenly slothfulness into sweaty, red-spattered hell: tomato canning day.
    When the backyard garden ejected barrages of tomatoes during high summer, my mother had one guiding principle, that they could not and would not be wasted. The mounds of red which landed on the kitchen counters were going into jars. At 8 a.m., my mother’s face already would be moistly glazed as she dipped tomatoes into simmering water to remove their peels. They emerged looking like skinned knees. The reek of hot, acidic tomatoes, despite every window being open, was enough to snap me awake long before she would shout for me to get in there and get to work, or else.
    Oh, I didn’t mention that there was no air conditioning? There wasn’t any in our house until after I left for college. No fans were running because my mother believed they “sucked in the damp.” (I still don’t get it.)
    By the time we bulldozed through tomato mountain, the kitchen would look like a crime scene.
    Adding to the heat was the cumulonimbus of steam that rose from water boiling in the big canning pot. Inside it sat Mason jars, their rings and lids, being sanitized before getting filled with tomatoes, then replaced in the pot and processed.
    Months later, even on the coldest day of winter, the sight of my mother opening one of those jars of tomatoes to make soup or spaghetti sauce would make me break out in a sweat.
    With these kinds of memories, I would no more use one of those Mason jars as a drinking glass than I would employ a dented fender from a car accident as a spoon. I was raised to believe that jelly jars were meant for jelly, mayonnaise jars were meant for mayo and Mason jars were meant to contain the suffering of my summers.
    Not everyone thinks that way about the jars. Today, about one-third of sales of Mason jars are to craft markets, according to Gabe Bullard, a Louisville journalist who actually studied the history of the Mason jar.
    I’ve seen some appalling Mason jar co-opting including one jar that was covered in leather and had a handle, intended as a coffee mug. Using Mason jars as picture frames consists of dropping a photo inside a jar and using the result for centerpieces at a wedding reception. Either that, or the bride and groom are sending messages to save them from a deserted island.
    I hate to even bring up the “redneck wineglass,” which is a Mason jar affixed to a stem. it’s an insult to both wineglasses and rednecks, besides appearing structurally unsound.    
    I have seen Mason jars used as vases on restaurant tables and as the globes of chandeliers.
    And they still look like Mason jars, not vases or chandeliers.
    The jars were invented by, yes, a Mr. Mason, in 1858 because people needed sturdy, inexpensive containers in which to preserve food before the existence of freezers or the need for fake firefly lamps. Bullard has called them “the alligators of kitchenware” because they never go away.
    By the Great Depression, preserving fruits and vegetables at home was so popular that thousands of community canneries had sprung up across the country. The facilities, often established by county governments or at high schools, would allow people to can produce canned goods in larger amounts than they could at home, for a small fee. Canning continued to grow during World War II, as victory gardens contributed to the war effort. But by the end of the war, canning – and Mason jars – dropped off the food world’s radar screen.
    That’s why, when I got over my childhood trauma and began canning my own jams and pickles, people thought I was nuts and said that nobody under age 80 was doing it.
    But a few years ago, canning got hot again, this time seized by hipsters. Now people want to know if I smoke my figs before turning them into jam or where to find fresh local turmeric root for pickles.
    And the poor Mason jar has become a cliche for restaurants trying to create the image that their food is straight from the farm, a knee-jerk attempt to symbolize the homemade. The meaning of the once-proud Mason jar has been sapped.
    Put dried beans and little candles in the bottom? How about fake Christmas trees and water, a la a snow globe? These are just a couple of ideas from the miasma of Pinterest, and they look like things a first-grader might make in vacation Bible school.
    For me, Mason jars still say a lot. But they’ll never say anything remotely connected with a church unless it’s about fire, brimstone and hot tomatoes.

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