Every year, just as the dill was flowering and summer in Soquel was fading into fall, Lyn Kenville would pack up jars of pickles and sell them or give them away to friends and neighbors like Angie Reed, who grew up next door. When Reed got older, she would ask if she could pay for the pickles; Kenville would say no, and so Reed would ask if, instead, the older woman would teach her how to make the pickles herself.
“She always had an excuse—she was like, ‘My kitchen is too small,’ or ‘I don’t have the time,’ or ‘I’ve taught other people and they don’t do it right.’ She always had some reason,” Reed remembers, “so I kind of gave up on asking.”
Things went on like this for several years, with Reed asking Kenville to teach her the tricks of the pickling trade and Kenville always demurring with a different (and somewhat unconvincing) reason. “Then one year,” Reed recalls, “just out of the blue she said, ‘Angie, you come over this weekend, I’m going to teach you how to make pickles.’”
That weekend in the fall of 2003, they packed pickles together, and Kenville shared with Reed several of those savory secrets that are jealously guarded by practitioners of folk arts like canning. She gave Reed her brine recipe, showed her how to use a grape leaf (from green grapes, not purple ones) to keep the pickles crisp and told her which flea market vendor she purchased her cucumbers from.
“I just spent a few hours with her,” says Reed, who won the blue ribbon for her Garlic Dills at last year’s Santa Cruz County Fair. “I remember that winter I asked her, ‘Can I get a refresher course?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure.’” It never happened, though—in February of that year Kenville succumbed to an eight-year battle with lymphoma. Now every fall, Reed jars pickles in her neighbor’s memory, doing it just the way Kenville taught her that day.
Yes, We Can!
In the last several years, the art and science of canning has come back into vogue on the strength of the local food movement and a recession-era DIY revival. Around these parts, renewed interest in canning and preserving has spawned classes and demonstrations at DIG Gardens, Love Apple Farm and the Santa Cruz Reskilling Expo and whole establishments like the Happy Girl Kitchen Co., which opened last fall in Pacific Grove. Closer to home, Mountain Feed and Farm Supply in Ben Lomond opened an entire food preservation section in spring with information and equipment for making everything from jams to sausage.
For three Santa Cruz County Fair blue ribbon winners—Reed, Mary Bannister of Watsonville and Dan Scripture of Corralitos—the practice of canning has run like a thread through their lives, weaving together the places and people they’ve known and locating each in a time and taste.
Bannister, whose day job is general manager of the Pajaro Valley Water Management District, started canning when she was a little girl in Port Townsend, Wash. She has done it everywhere she’s lived since, from the Pacific Northwest to the East Bay and Alaska. “In Alaska it was a lot of rhubarb—rhubarb and sauerkraut,” she says. Here in Santa Cruz? “Oh, apples! Apples and berries, for sure,” says Bannister, who won a blue ribbon for her applesauce last year. “Apricot jam is one of my favorites, too, but it’s a very short season—it’s already come and gone. If you don’t get someone to run over to Gilroy and get some apricots, you can miss it pretty easily.”
“We’re really lucky” in Santa Cruz County, she says. “I think one of the benefits of living here is that we have so much fresh produce available for us."
“Out on Freedom Boulevard, the Silvas have a little roadside stand,” Bannister says. “You can go and get any variety of apples and peaches out there, and it’s on the honor system.” The flea market also always has good deals on apricots, she advises. Right now she has some lima beans coming up in her garden that she is going to can with garlic.
Recipes For Success
When Dan Scripture’s daughter was little, they lived in house that had blackberries in the backyard. “She loves blackberries,” Scripture, a retired UCSC professor and canner of award-winning ginger jelly, explains when asked how he got into canning. “She’s almost 40 now, so this is a while ago, but she asked, Could we make some blackberry jam? So I found a recipe in the Joy of Cooking and we made some blackberry jam.” They have moved in the 30-odd years since, but Scripture found another house with blackberry bushes in back, so now every year for Christmas his daughter still gets a jar of jam.
For beginners interested in canning, Scripture says, “Start with the Ball Blue Book and follow the directions carefully. Those recipes are tested very, very carefully so they’ll work.”
Bannister agrees. “I say start with the basics and then get brave.” Last year, for instance, she made a “Meyerkiwicot” marmalade using Meyer lemons, kiwis
and apricots. “I don’t know if it tasted that good, but I thought the colors were really kind of fun,” Bannister laughs.
Judges at the fair evaluate each entry based on appearance, texture and flavor. The ginger jelly Scripture made that won for last year, for instance, had to be filtered several times through coffee filters so it would be clear. “This is why you win prizes—because you have the patience to filter and filter and filter,” Scripture laughs. “You can make a perfectly good-tasting jelly without all that filtering, but the judges care about clarity as much as the taste.”
To make a tasty jam or jelly, Scripture says, “You have to have really fresh produce and not overcook it. Like the blueberry jam—if you cook it too much it begins to taste cooked, not like nice blueberries.”
The timing indicated in recipes is key. “Follow it religiously,” he says, “and when you have it in a hot water bath—I don’t use a pressure canner; you don’t have to for things that are acidic or have tons of sugar—don’t process it too long.”
Expect that there will be disasters, too, like the time Bannister shattered 16 jars. She was just a kid, using a pressure canner to preserve beans with her mother. “She left, so I took the big pressure canner and I put it under cold water and opened it and it blew up all the bottles,” Bannister laughs. “Yeah, I’ve had some disasters.”
It’s all part of the experience, though. Sifting through the disasters and triumphs, canners learn the special tricks that make their jams, jellies and pickles special. For Reed it means using the grape leaf to keep her pickles crisp. This year, Bannister will be experimenting with homemade pectin boiled down last year from apple cores and pits. “I remember my mother used to boil those down and get the pectin,” she says.
Once a person learns some tricks, he or she gets to decide whether to share them or guard them furtively. For her part, Reed says, “I’ve had some people ask, but I haven’t taught anybody else. It feels circular—here I am and I’m able to make these pickles in [Kenville’s] honor and I’m doing really well at the fair and I wonder, ‘Do I want to teach someone else right now or do I want to keep it to myself?’”
Laughing, she says, “She had the same excuses for why she didn’t want to teach people. I guess one day I’ll just decide. I guess the time will come.”