R. Ann Parris on Canning: “Grandma Did It”


Canning: “Grandma Did It” by R. Ann Parris

In some cases, the wisdom of our elders has stood the test of time. Others, however, have failed. Preservation methods are no different.

Hearing “grandma did it that way” – commonly followed with a “for X years/decades” or “and nobody ever died” – is a guaranteed way to make some of us flinch on forums and discussion groups where canning gets discussed. See, it’s real regularly a defense of a particular style of canning – usually a style that has been listed as “risky”.

When we evaluate a practice, particularly safety and foods, keep a few things in mind.

Despite modern medical science, grandma and great grandma actually had stronger, healthier systems than us and our kids.

One, there’s resistances they built that we don’t, akin to how moose don’t get sick with their daily drinking of beaver-lake water, but my just-visiting dogs sure do.

Two, there was a large difference in the micronutrients and nutrient density of their soils and foods.

Contact exposures to living soils that created healthier microbiomes on and in our forebearers, and more nutrient-dense and nutrient-diverse foods from plants and animals fed by soil that wasn’t yet played out either at home or in for-sale crop fields created very different conditions.

That means they got away with things we can’t.

Grandma and the greats have far from a perfect track record when it comes to health and safety.

Some of the people swearing these canning methods were totally safe – and totally unrelated to other conditions – and passing them on through the generations are and were raised by folks who…
– branded the egg a source of heart failure and obesity (it’s returned to the Incredible Edible Egg again)
– handed their kids lead and lead-paint-covered toys and water from lead pipes
– put together the War Garden videos, photos, and instructions where we can see children pumping pest-control poisons all over their foods, inhaling no telling how much of that stuff

That list can go on, from “the vapors” to green M&Ms.

We also have to remember that some of these ageless wisdoms come from lack of general knowledge we now possess.

Technology and understanding of microorganisms and the human body allow us to look back on the past, go “gee, you know, that Salem witch thing … yeah, those poor birds were high on PCP from the fungi-infected barley”.

Expanded knowledge rewriting history includes canning and other food-handling and food-preservation techniques. We now know that an awful lot of the illnesses people did, in fact, go down from are actually various types of food poisoning.

Too, food poisoning is still frustrating to diagnose and track backward to source, because the cases that lead to hospitalization don’t come from something we ate today or last night.

The worst cases of food poisoning come from things we ate 24-72 hours ago, and in some cases, even earlier.

Then there’s the conditional cases.

Depending on our microbiome, we’re fine even with minor exposure to the Big Bad Botulism. However, weaken our system, alter diets and thus the microbes thriving in our guts (they’re supposed to be there), or consume antibiotics either by prescription or from foods where they naturally exist … boom.

What we’ve shrugged off seventeen or seventy times before suddenly puts us on our back.

Better yet, since we’ve been doing “that” for so many years, and so did Mom, Grandma, and the Greats, it’s absolutely and in no way even possible that our illness (or somebody else’s) could ever be linked to home-canned foods.

Why, no. That’s ridiculous.

That is an incredible risk to be willing to take. It’s bad enough for “us”, but it’s really incredible when we risk giving it to others, especially those in high-risk groups.

I also find it incredible that the people who argue that it’s totally safe to put non-water bathed jams in a pantry for storage (or water bathed fish and non-pickled green beans, or oven can their jelly) are also so often the ones who jump and scream that we shouldn’t use newsprint, cardboard, or chem-treated pallets and timbers in our gardens, but that’s maybe just me.

The risks are even more incredible given that safe canning and preservation is so easy, for the most part inexpensive, and reputable information is so easy and inexpensive to source.

Food safety is important. While some of the restrictions faced by large-scale producers can be over the top, for the most part, they’re there because risks do, actually, exist. If it seems too onerous, apply a different mentality entirely:

Just err on the side of caution, for Pete’s sake.

It’s no different than wearing goggles and safety gloves running a saw, a seatbelt in the car, or making sure somebody knows where we’re going and when we’re coming back before hiking, boating, or hunting, just in case we win that one-in-a-million unlucky lottery.

We’re preppers here. Preparing for things to go sideways, preparing for the expected and unexpected, trying to mitigate risks. Don’t undo all that by gambling on food safety.