There was a time between root cellars and refrigeration when pressure cookers were used to preserve food. The Great Depression and Dust Bowl were blowing full force, home gardens fed the populace and preservation of meat and produce was an absolute necessity for survival.
Canning with steam pressure dates back to Napoleon Bonaparte, the French general who offered a cash prize to the person who invented a process to preserve food for his traveling armies. The invention was born and leaked to the public, and soon many businesses were preserving food using the new process. By 1900, canneries all over the world were using pressure cookers.
At our farm, once the garden started producing, family and neighbors gathered to shuck corn, shell peas, snap green beans and chop tomatoes and squash. Each family had recipes handed down from generation to generation for relish, pickles, chow-chow and stew stocks. During certain times of the year, livestock were butchered and processed. Some of that meat was preserved by steam canning.
Our kitchen cabinets were filled with fruit jars, jar rings and flats, each checked for flaws and condition. All were boiled, steamed and sanitized. Next, the boiled jars were filled, capped and placed in the pressure cooker, where steam pressured the container and preserved the contents. Upon cooling, if the flat lid popped up, the jar was not sealed and the contents had to be used immediately or reprocessed. If the lid stayed down, it meant the canning was a success and the food could be stored in the cellar for the coming season. Most preserved food remained edible for years.
Ida Garrett, my aunt and an early pioneer in Ochiltree County, Texas, reminisced about her part in the earliest days of home canning. The county paid her tuition to attend a government-sponsored canning school in Amarillo, Texas, where she learned the latest processes. When the school concluded, she brought home a large pressure cooker and all the accessories needed to teach home canning. This was the first step in organizing Home Demonstration Units in that county.
She established a canning school at the local Civilian Conservation Corps camp kitchen and started demonstrating home canning techniques. Each day interested local women were asked to bring various fresh vegetables and meat to the kitchen, where she taught them to home-can the commodity. The canning school was conducted through the summer and fall and many women learned the process. Most then purchased pressure cookers for home use. Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward & Co. offered canning equipment and cookers for home use along with selected meat curing tools and ingredients.
One odd accessory among Ida’s tools was a tattoo device to place black numbers between the toes of chicken’s feet. I found this strange until I realized all chickens look alike with their heads and feathers removed and the tattoo was needed for identification.
This early, well-used steam canning process is a far cry from today’s deep freeze but at one time was the “cat’s meow” in food preservation. I can still recall the sounds of canning time in our kitchen with the steam hissing through the valve and the rattle of the steel ball releasing pressure as our pressure cooker worked its special magic.
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. His wife, Ruth, collects antique dolls, is secretary/treasurer of the Devil’s Rope Museum and the Old Route 66 Association of Texas, and, according to Delbert, “Queen Mother of the local Red Hat club.” The two share authorship of this column, and Ruth is the able photographer. Contact them at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org