Preserving tradition

The joy of canning

I still fondly remember as a child playing in my Uncle Ray Herscher’s basement in Gilman, Ill. Behind one of the doors was a room where my Aunt Lucille stored all of the foods she had canned. It seemed so big then, those rows and rows of jars filled with every color of the rainbow. It was all harvested from their large backyard garden and it took a lot of food to feed their family of 10!

Today, with the increasing interest in eating locally-grown foods and growing your own, “old-fashioned” canning and preserving are making a comeback. Although there is nothing quite like venturing into your garden and biting into a big, juicy, ripe tomato, the closest you can come to capturing that flavor year round is by canning. Even if you don’t have a garden, local farmer’s markets and orchards offer a variety of freshly-picked vegetables and fruits.

Unlike those canned vegetables you purchase in your local grocery store, you know the ones you are using are at their peak of freshness. And, your family is being fed the very best! It’s not an easy job, but capturing those bright flavors is well worth the effort and it is economical.

Seventy-two seasons of tradition

For 91-year young Jean Gillespie, an Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative member from rural Ashkum, Ill., canning was, and is, a way of life. Growing up during the Great Depression, Gillespie learned to can by watching her mother. Living on a farm in the 1920s, preserving food was a necessity, not a pleasure. Back then you didn’t run to town for a few items like today. And, during the Depression there wasn’t money to spare, and canning was what fed the family.

The pressure canner she uses today is the same one her father gave her when she got married and it’s still being used 72 years later! She says the only thing it needs is an occasional seal replacement.

Gillespie canned to help feed her late husband, Clyde, and five children – Don, Penny, Dan, Linda (deceased) and Jon. Living on a farm, she also fed farmhands and guests through the years, thanks to a large garden and the beef cattle and pigs they raised. In addition to cooking three big meals each day, she also handled all of the bookkeeping for their farm, trucking and grain elevator operations.

Son Jon recalls the winter of 1983 when a snowstorm stranded 32 people at their house on Route 45-52, due to low visibility and drifting snow. Motorists on their way to Chicago on Interstate 57 tried to use other northern-bound roads when the interstate was closed. They found themselves stranded, not far from the Gillespie home. The stranded travelers were very appreciative of the Gillespie family hospitality. She was able to feed everyone three meals a day for two days, thanks to her well-stocked canning cellar.

She still cans beef and pork, as well as a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. And it’s not unusual to find jars of carrots, peaches, plums, pears, tomatoes, green beans, salsa, tomato juice, jams and jellies and pickles in the cellar. Plus, she keep a freezer with corn and applesauce.

Their large garden provides an abundance of vegetables to can or freeze. She still helps with the garden and its wide variety of vegetables. In addition to the usual sweet corn, green beans, green peppers and variety of tomatoes, you can also find broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, zucchini and jalapenos. Her backyard also has an assortment of fruit trees including apple, pear, cherry and plum.

To better accommodate their mother’s desire to continue gardening, her sons bought an older Harley Davidson golf cart a few years ago and refurbished it to make a gardening cart for her. While she recovered the seats, son-in-law Mike had it painted, grandson Steve checked out the engine and son Don added a flatbed to the back for her gloves and garden tools. The cart helps with navigating the uneven ground out to the garden and hauling the bounty back to the house.

When asked why she continues to garden and can, she says, “It saves money, and it feels good to preserve fresh vegetables for my family to enjoy.” She usually cans more than 60 quarts of tomato juice in addition to everything else. What she doesn’t use, she gives to a local food pantry.

One item that has been a huge help to her over the years is the dumbwaiter they installed when they had to rebuild their house after a fire in 1983. A neighbor had one and said it was the favorite thing he had put in, so she and Clyde decided to install one as well. It comes in handy for transporting all of those jars back and forth to the basement cellar. Now the family will load it up in the basement with items she regularly uses and send it upstairs, which keeps her from having to navigate the stairs.

She still takes real joy from feeding her children and their spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They all have their favorites, two of which are her frozen corn and pineapple/pear jelly, the recipes which she graciously shared.

Safety tips for home canning:

  • Follow recipe instructions, especially if you are new to the process of canning.
  • Know which foods to can in each type of canner. Low acid foods need a pressure canner.
  • Check your jars to be sure there are no nicks or cracks that can prevent the jars from properly sealing or shattering during processing.
  • Check the seal on your pressure canner and have gauges tested. Check with the manufacturer of your canner about how to get your gauge tested or attend a local extension class in your area.
  • Check processed jars for proper sealing once cooled. If not sealed, you can add a new lid and re-process within 24 hours.
  • Always use new lids.
  • Only use clean kitchen surfaces, utensils and dish towels.
  • Sanitize your jars before using.
  • Know how to leave the appropriate amount of head space in jars. Too much or too little can keep them from sealing properly.
  • Never put hot jars from the canner directly on a counter, they may shatter. Set them on a rack or kitchen towel to cool. Once cooled, store in a cool, dry place – 50 to 70 degrees is optimal.

Grandma Gillespie’s Freezer Corn

  • 1 – 12 oz. can evaporated milk
  • ¼ c. sugar
  • 1 stick butter
  • 16 c. sweet corn, cut from cob

Mix all ingredients together in a large pot, bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and cool. Once cool, spoon into freezer bags and place in freezer. When ready to use, thaw and warm before serving.

Pineapple/Pear Jam – a Gillespie Family Favorite

  • 2 c. finely chopped peeled pears
  • 2 c. finely chopped pineapple
  • 7 c. sugar
  • 1-1 ¾ oz. pkg. fruit pectin

In a 6- to 8-quart heavy pot, combine fruit, sugar and pectin. Bring to boiling over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Boil 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; skim off any foam with a metal spoon. Ladle into hot, sterilized half-pint canning jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Wipe jar rims and add lids. Process in a water bath canner for 5 minutes (start timing when water returns to a boil). Remove jars; cool on a rack.

Yes! You CAN

Whether a seasoned veteran, or new to the process of canning, it’s never too late to learn new tips about food preservation. The University of Illinois (U of I) Extension Service offers food preservation classes across the state entitled “Yes! You CAN: Preserving Safely.” You can learn the basics of food preservation, receive the most up-to-date home food safety guidelines and methods for preserving food safely and get your dial pressure canner gauge tested by the University of Illinois Extension, all for a nominal fee. To find a class near you, contact your county extension office. For your local extension office go to and click on Offices.

Canning is an economical way to preserve food. It can save you half the cost of buying commercially-processed and gives you a sense of pride and fulfilment knowing you are giving family and friends the best you have to offer. Home-canned foods typically contain more vitamins and nutrients because they are harvested at their peak of freshness and processed much more quickly than those sent to commercial facilities.

Before starting food preservation, there are a few considerations you need to make, according to Caitlin Huth, U of I Nutrition and Wellness Educator serving DeWitt, Macon and Piatt counties. “The start-up costs of canning can be a little pricey in order to purchase all of the necessary equipment,” says Huth. “But once you have it all, you’ll save money. You also need to figure out if you have the space to store all of the jars or containers after you’ve done all the work.”

Once you’ve decided to jump in, Huth says food safety should be paramount. Botulism is the biggest safety risk of home canning. While relatively rare, botulism is very dangerous because “you can’t see it, smell it or cook it out of food.” You also need to be sure your hands, counter tops and dish towels are clean and you are using food that is clean and not past its’ prime or bruised.

Huth also explains it is important to know which vegetables require pressure canning and those that can be processed using a water-bath canner. “It comes down to the pH levels in each vegetable or fruit. Pressure canning is for vegetables low in acid,” she explains. “Most fruits can be processed in a water bath, however, some recommendations have changed. For instance, paraffin is no longer a recommended method for sealing jams and jellies because it doesn’t make a tight enough seal. They should be processed in a water-bath. Also, years ago many used a water-bath canner for green beans – it is now recommended they be processed using a pressure canner. You should always follow the recipe’s processing directions and, if not sure, call your county extension office.”

Another good source of material about processing methods for all types of food preservation is the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation (HFP), The site has a multitude of factsheets about food preservation, including pickling, freezing and drying, compiled by the University of Georgia along with a link to the book, So Easy to Preserve. The book, which Huth highly recommends, covers the basics from how to put together the equipment, safety considerations and frequently asked questions, including a list of the recommended process for a variety of foods. It also includes more than 180 recipes. At the HFP site, you can also download the United States Department of Agriculture’s Complete Guide to Home Canning.