Down a short dirt road in Conway is the home of Annie Cheatham and Ann Gibson, prize-winning canners. In 2006, seven of the 14 items they entered in the Franklin County Fair won ribbons. In 2007, 17 entries produced seven ribbons, including Best in Show. The ribbons hang in their kitchen, a testimonial to their expertise.
Annie Cheatham grew up in a small North Carolina town near Raleigh. Her father gardened, her mother canned, and Cheatham helped both. They also froze produce, storing it in a community freezer at the local plant that produced Smithfield-style country hams. Cheatham still uses some of her family’s recipes.
Ann Gibson’s mother canned and Gibson says she learned to hate it because it was a chore that she had to do. Her dad made jams and they would freeze some food as well, but she didn’t really can until she and Cheatham became a couple. They met in Washington, D.C., where they both worked for the government, and moved here in 1981. Gibson, a sculptor and artist, now works for Berkshire-Pioneer Resource Conservation and Development, a nonprofit. She and Cheatham started Annie’s Garden Store in Amherst in 1990, then sold that when Cheatham became director in 2000 of CISA, Community Involved in Supporting Agriculture, in South Deerfield. Cheatham has since stepped down and is looking around for her next project.
Both women have always been attuned to the connections among growing, storing and eating food. Their garden store sold a line of about 20 pickles, chutneys and preserves, including an orange marmalade with rosemary that I am sorry I missed. My wife was a big fan of Annie’s Garden products and we ate the dilly beans regularly. Cheatham’s work at CISA provided a tight link between local farmers and the community.
Last summer, I wrote an article about freezing foods instead of canning, mostly due to my fear of accidentally poisoning myself and my family. Later, at a CISA event, I learned that Gibson and Cheatham were prize-winning canners, and I decided they’d be an excellent resource in getting over my fear of canning.
So, several weeks ago, over cucumber and Jerusalem artichoke pickles, they walked me through the process. One thing that struck me was their canning records. They have a record of each batch, with notes on recipes, processing times, etc. Often, when I asked a specific question, they’d consult the notebook. The women also swear by “Putting Food By,” by Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan and Janet Greene, calling it their bible. “It has the best explanation of how to do it carefully and properly,” Gibson said. “A great book, well-organized.” They have a stack of other canning books, including the “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving,” and a dozen church and regional cookbooks that they use for recipes.
One key component of canning is time. “You need to have the time to do it,” Gibson explained. “There’s no way to rush it.” They had about a half-bushel of carrots in their garden that they estimated would take three hours to clean, peel, cut, pack and can. While they are busy during the end of summer and early autumn, the results are impressive. Last year they canned 288 jars. Except for olive oil, balsamic vinegar and wheat flour, they are pretty much able to live on what they’ve canned.
Canning uses heat to kill bacteria and a vacuum to seal them out. Foods that are high in acids, such as most fruits and pickles, can be heated in a water bath to kill bacteria and to create the vacuum. Low-acid foods, such as sauces and salsas, need to be heated in a pressure cooker to achieve the right conditions. I remember reading a story about a very proper maiden aunt who became tipsy after eating several helpings of grape jelly that had fermented while sitting in the pantry. In reality, the most likely outcome of that situation would not have been very funny. “You can’t be cavalier,” advises Cheatham. “Don’t use old mayonnaise jars. And, if the lid doesn’t come off with a nice pop when you go to use it, dump the contents.”
For proper water-bath canning, you’ll need a canning kettle and tongs, and wire baskets for lowering the jars into the bath. Use good Ball canning jars and new rings and lids. Discard any jars that are chipped or use them for dry foods that are not preserved. Don’t reuse the lids, since a used lid might not make a tight seal.
When you are cooling processed jars, they should make a strong popping sound when the lid contracts as the vacuum forms. Also, when you get a jar from the pantry, examine it. A lid with a tight seal should be concave. A lid with a strong seal should also pop when you open it. If something doesn’t seal after canning, you can put it in the refrigerator and use it within a couple of weeks. But with jars that have spent six months in the pantry, anything that doesn’t open with the requisite pop goes into Cheatham and Gibson’s compost heap.
Speaking of compost, not everything has turned out well over the years. Their sauerkraut and kim chee are examples of efforts that were, as Cheatham puts it, “not successful.”
The two have canned almost everything that grows in their gardens, pickling cucumbers, string beans, beets, Jerusalem artichokes, green tomato relish and carrots. They like to make mixed-fruit preserves, combining low-acid and high-acid fruits – strawberries and currants, gooseberries and grapes, peaches and currants – or simply pairing natural combos like blueberries and peaches. They like preserves, which are more like chutneys and are less fussy than jams or jellies. They use a lot of lemon and sugar to bring the natural pectin out. They also include a lot of ginger in their preserves because they like the taste. Cheatham’s applesauce also has a distinctive touch: honey or maple syrup for sweetening and a stick of butter added to the simmering sauce.
The produce from their garden is organic and their blueberries are unsprayed. They only buy organic lemons, grapefruits and oranges for their marmalade since they use the peels. For other ingredients, they are more flexible. They don’t consider organic produce essential, but they do choose produce that has been sprayed only minimally.
Gibson ends our conversation by mentioning that she finds it satisfying to take a quart of canned tomatoes in February and make salsa or soup using other frozen or dried produce from their garden. As I gather my notes and finish off the last of the artichoke pickles, I comment that it’s easy to eat locally in August and September. The hard part is the rest of the year. Annie Cheatham smiles. “If canning was part of your tradition, try again to pass it on. It feels good to be able to provide for yourself in other seasons of the year.”
Originally published, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Friday, August 29, 2008