Canning the Harvest: Preserving food, memories, and love in a jar.
With the warm smell of alder smoke in the air and the steady gurgle of the pressure canner bubbling away on the stovetop, I spent the last weekend salting, smoking, and canning this summer’s catch of king, coho, and sockeye salmon.
The onset of fall in Alaska finds many of us busily putting up the fruits (berries, veggies, fish!) of our summer labor as we make space in the freezer and pantry for hunting season’s fresh meat and the final pull of veggies from the garden.
Like processing any food you’ve caught or grown yourself, smoking and canning fish is truly a labor of love. Hours spent carefully cleaning, cutting, brining, smoking, cutting again, washing jars, packing jars, and finally lingering close to keep a watchful eye on the canner’s pressure level. Not to mention the time spent on the water this summer pulling those silver beauties from the ocean; all to produce a delicious jar of rich, nutritious, shelf-stable fish that will delight your taste buds and lift your spirits in the cold dark winter months ahead.
While the smokehouse rolls and the canner bubbles, I collect the remaining fruits of the few cucumber plants that weren’t decimated by summer slugs. These are packed into large half-gallon jars and covered with a vinegary brine to set for days per my late Grandpa Tony’s famous family pickle recipe; a treasured copy of which I hold close to my heart, with scribbled notes and revisions dating back to 1963.
My grandparents canned and processed fruits and veggies from the small rural farms and orchards near their home in the ‘fruit belt’ of western Michigan. I fondly remember picking late summer blueberries, strawberries, and cucumbers with my Grandma and mom to transform over warm, bubbling pots into jams and preserves for winter snacks and Christmas gifts. By summer's end you couldn’t leave their house without an armful of jars packed with Grandpa Tony’s pickles.
Here in Alaska, indigenous communities have long gathered together at fish camps, around smokehouses and drying racks to process and put up food for the winter months. Author Vivian Faith Prescott shares her own family's traditions and some of the poignant history around smoking fish in Southeast Alaska in her piece written for the Juneau Empire. These traditions do more than just fill the pantry, they build community and connect us to each other, to our food, and to the place from which it came.
Whether you’re putting up fish, vegetables, meat, or fruit, the ages-old practice of canning and preserving food requires a level of presence, attention to detail, and intimate relationship to your food that can feel difficult to find in our modern convenience culture. It’s a commitment of time and energy that allows me to slow down and engage all of my senses. It connects me to my own lineage of intrepid home-preservers and the unique, rich history of food preservation here in the Tlingit lands of Southeast Alaska.
My memory comes alive and I can smell my mom’s strawberry jam bubbling on the stove. I’m back in my Grandma’s kitchen snacking on fresh pickles. I recall the salty, sunny days on the back deck of the boat hoping to land a big one, and the subsequent bug bites lining my arms while we cleaned and filleted the catch. The jars I canned this weekend hold a lot of love, a lot of story, a lot of connection, and a lot of tasty goodness that will feed my friends, my family, and myself well through the winter ahead.
Find a wealth of great resources on canning and preserving fish, veggies, berries, and more from the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension Office
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