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  • Simply Necessity?Agency and Aesthetics in Southern Home Canning
  • Danille Elise Christensen (bio)

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Women from the coal camps of West Virginia to the wetlands of Louisiana have had much to say about need, beauty, display, and exchange as they’ve discussed the production of home-bottled foods. Pearl White of Oklahoma standing in front of her prize-winning canning exhibit at the national 4-H canning exhibit contest sponsored by Kerr Glass Mfg. Corp., Sand Springs, Oklahoma, 1931, 4-H Projects and Demonstrations, Home Economics (UA023.008.100), Special Collections Research Center, NCSU Libraries.

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In a 2008 ethnographic celebration of American county fairs, Drake Hokanson and Carol Kratz pointed to pigs, quilts, and dirty pickup trucks as surefire signs of rural culture. Jars of colorful award-winning preserves also affirmed the vibrant life beyond urban centers: after all, the authors asked, “Who in the city makes jelly?” Indeed, jars of sweet potato butter, corncob jelly, pickled ramps, and peach-pecan preserves proclaim country pride in venues across the South today. They crowd the shelves of the Museum of Appalachia store in Clinton, Tennessee, and balance in stacks at the Western North Carolina Farmers’ Market in Asheville. Farther east, in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the Charleston Farmers’ Market offers downtown visitors half-pints of muscadine-apple jam from Grace’s Kitchen, and a repurposed gas station off the Charleston Highway stocks condiments like sweet tea jelly (from Rina’s Kitchen) alongside local barbecue sauces and plates of fresh pie.1

Yet county fairs and regional gift shops hardly have a monopoly on home canning displays: preserving food in city dwellings and urban apartments has become hip in the twenty-first century. Liana Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors for the Modern Pantry (2010) is just one of many recent publications oriented toward novice canners and new canning contexts. The book’s roots lie in Krissoff’s memories of her parents as they worked to contain the surpluses of their Virginia and Georgia gardens, but it caters to those who associate pickles with curried lentils and sashimi, who would bypass standard peach jam in favor of “a small spoonful of fig preserves with port and rosemary alongside a wedge of veiny blue cheese and a thick slice of dark bread.” Krissoff unapologetically promotes the pleasures of home preserving, not least because of its social benefits: a jar of marmalade received in the mail can materialize an otherwise-virtual relationship with a fellow food blogger, making the connection as tangible as the blueberries spread on her morning toast. Upbeat, intimate, practical, and epicurean, Canning for a New Generation advocates a sensual revival characterized by playful creation and exchange.2

The same year that Krissoff published her cookbook, Slate columnist Sara Dickerman wrote that preserving at home had become “ridiculously trendy,” its products mere “culinary trophies” meant to display an “overwrought” and morally framed gourmand aesthetic. In the second decade of the millennium, she lamented, canning had shifted from a modest, frugal, and routine practice into one overlaid with a “revivalist fervor” that centered on the “thriftiness, healthfulness, and environmental virtues of marmalades and dilly beans.” Dickerman doubted that the production of small-scale fancy condiments constituted a meaningful political statement, that project-based preserving could effect significant environmental or economic regeneration, or, she implied, make a dent in larger American problems such as hunger or an abusive industrial food system. But on another level, her displeasure [End Page 16] hung on the social and sensory aspects of new-generation efforts, which she characterized as expensive “fits of showy industriousness,” their products “bloggable and boastworthy” but ultimately frivolous. In this view, rosemary-infused fig preserves are out of step with historical practice, which focused on “serious” food like unadorned stewed tomatoes or salted green beans—the kind of goods “on which you could actually base your diet.” “As with many food trends,” she concluded, “today’s cultish hobby was yesterday’s necessity.”3

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In 2010, Slate columnist Sara Dickerman wrote that preserving at home had become “ridiculously trendy,” its products mere “culinary...


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