A Passion for Preserving

If you love the gentle pop-pop-popping of a jar lid, you might just be a home canner.

For Michelle Christensen-Toews, it’s one of the many satisfying things about preserving food.

“You only hear it as you’re clearing up. You’re washing the dishes and you start to hear the popping and you know that things are sealing.”

Christensen-Toews is a long-time Yukoner and a lover of food. She spoke to me just before leaving on a moose hunting trip, in the midst of cooking up a fragrant dinner. She cans and processes food harvested from her garden and the wilderness, as well as purchased food from the grocery store — jams, vegetables and antipasto.

“I participate in my food. I still have cherry tomatoes from my garden, just ate the last of the lettuce, still pulling carrots and potatoes,” she said.

“It’s nice when you have friends over and you can say the only thing that didn’t come from my garden is the horseradish and the moose that came from the woods.”

Christensen-Toews appreciates being involved in her food.

“You like your food a lot more when you’ve touched it from start to finish, or halfway through in the case of moose meat. Knowing that I shot it and packed that meat out from wherever in the wilderness.”

She also prefers food processed at home in order to have more control over what goes into her meals.

“Take canned peaches. If you buy them from the grocery store, they’re in a syrup. I can choose how sweet mine are by making my own syrup – you have more control over your food and what’s going in it.”

Health and taste aside, one of the most satisfying things about home preserving is the social aspect.

Preserving can be intense work requiring focus, speed, and often many hands, making it well suited to teamwork.

“I might make raspberry jam by myself, but for sure peaches, beets, antipasto, always with someone else. We share the work, the rewards of the food, and we share the recipe or the skill.”

Preserving is not for everyone, though, and friends who work together in the kitchen must cultivate a partnership in order to reap the harvest.

“You need two hands going at times. When the production line starts, you have to be moving. You have to be flying,” she explained.

“It’s a dance. We can work across the counter from each other, but there are moments when your hands are going to be in the way of my hands and we have to coordinate that. It’s awareness and trust of your partner.”

If you’re thinking about home canning and preserving, the best way is to learn from others.

Gail Thiessen has been canning most of her life from when she was young and helping her mother, through her 30 years in the Yukon.

Now, she shares that knowledge by teaching introductory canning classes through the City of Whitehorse in the fall. The classes are popular; this year they take place mid-October and were already full by Sept. 15.

“I’ll give them some general information first about preserving and different types of preserving, like what’s a kettle bath and so on,” she said of her upcoming classes.

They’ll continue with a practical lesson. “In the past I’ve done jams and relish, but this time we’ll be making pickles as the hands on component.”

As an instructor, one of the challenges is teaching something that is second nature to her.

“When you’ve been doing it for so long, you forget what it’s like to learn how to do something for the first time.”

As for Christensen-Toews, her advice for aspiring preservers is to learn from others and pick up what you can.

“The internet has a wealth of information, but you still need a mentor. One of mine was Lee Pugh, along with my mom and my mother-in-law. You get gems of information from each and every one, because everyone does things differently.”

Consider yourself a food apprentice and be willing to learn from the ground up.

“Find a friend, be invited, say that you’ll be the whatever the person is in the kitchen who has to scrub, wash whatever. If you’re invited, go, and then decide if you want to pursue it further.”

But don’t be afraid to experiment, she said. “Ask around. Talk to someone who’s done it. Get some tips and be adventuresome and try it.”

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