Marisa McClellan’s Center City apartment is filled with jars. Jars on shelves. Jars in cupboards. Jars in closets. Jars under couches. Most are filled with canned fruits or vegetables, jams and pickles and compotes and salsas. A good many more are empty, waiting to be filled with Marisa’s concoctions. “Everyone has to have their collection,” she says. “My husband has Legos. I have jars.”
Marisa hasn’t always had a home full of glass canisters. She started canning for the same reason most people do: She had a large amount of fresh fruit—in her case, 16 pounds of blueberries—that she wanted to preserve. Surprised she couldn’t find more information online about canning, she started a blog herself in 2009, naming it, simply, FoodInJars.com. The timing was good: That year, unemployment in the United States was hitting a new high, and suddenly, wasting excess fruits and vegetables seemed no longer an option for a large cross-section of the country. A new generation of would-be canners began looking for the same sorts of instructions that Marisa had sought, and just a few months after taking up the hobby herself, she found she was being seen as an authority. Four years later, she has two cookbooks to her name: Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year Round and Preserving by the Pint.
Today, Marisa and I are making jam out of Italian plums, and she’s slicing up a beautiful batch of the purple fruit with a practiced hand. Italian plums are only in season for two weeks, and they don’t have a lot of flavor when they’re fresh—a clean juiciness, yes, but not the fruity sweetness you usually associate with plums. They’re a fruit that’s enhanced by the cooking process, which makes them excellent candidates for canning.
Marisa’s kitchen is little more than a hallway with a stove, but there’s’ still plenty of room for this kind of work. We’ve got a small batch, so the equipment is minimal. Marisa has put three-half-pint jars in a “fourth-burner pot.” It’s basically a tall narrow pot with a little wire rack set inside in it; she fills it with hot water and brings it to a boil. Meanwhile, she chops four cups of plums and adds two cups of sugar—not just for flavor, but also to pull the moisture out of the fruit, turning the juice into a sticky syrup. As the fruity transformation begins, she grabs three fresh canning lids and plops them into the fourth-burner pot with the jars. “You have to use a new lid each time you can,” she says. “Because the adhesive on the lids—it’s not resilient. After you melt it on to a jar, it’s not going to come back. “
With the plums looking sweet and sticky, Marisa dumps the whole lot into a frying pan. I taste the concoction as it’s cooking, and indeed, the fruit has a much stronger plum taste cooked than raw. In ten minutes, this will be jam. If it seems easy, well, that’s because it is. Which surprises me. I’ve always been suspicious of food that doesn’t need refrigeration to keep; I keep my eggs and peanut butter in the fridge, even though I don’t need to and it makes the peanut butter harder to spread. So canning always seemed to me to be just this side of wizardry—far more esoteric, certainly, than just stuffing things into the freezer.
“Freezers are great,” Marisa allows, “but freezing is sort of impersonal. You pack things in a bag and throw it into the freezer, and you’re done. Canning is a little bit more tactile, as far as I’m concerned. And it gives you an ability to reconnect with your food in a way that I feel like has really been lost.”
That human-food relationship is precious to her. “Generally, as a culture, we don’t have to cook,” she says. “You can survive perfectly well without ever cooking a day. But there’s this sense of disconnection ... canning gives you a chance to remedy that.”
With the jam cooked and the jars sufficiently hot and sterile, it’s time for the actual canning. Marisa fills each jar, leaving a little air at the top; without that space, they wouldn’t get the vacuum they need to be shelf-stable. She then stacks them back in the canning pot and brings the water to a boil once again. After they’ve cooked sufficiently, she removes the boiled jars of jam and places them on the counter. One has already formed its vacuum, but the others are still working at it, slowly pulling the metal lids down; one at a time, we hear the tell-tale pop of lids inverting.
The jam will be fresh and delicious long after the plums would have lost their luster. It will be ready to eat even if the power is shut off and everything in the freezer melts away. It will be just as sweet if it has to be packed up and moved to a smaller apartment, with more manageable rent. The future, in other words, is far from certain—which means the power to fix those jars in time, no matter what may come, is a deceptively profound one.
Jared Axelrod’s new PW series, “Made New,” explores a broad spectrum of artisans, makers and thinkers who update old-fashioned practices to enhance 21st-century life. A West Philly resident, Jared is by turns an author, illustrator, sculptor, costume designer, podcaster and more.