by Weenta Girmay

Funded by a Seed Award in August 2013, the Pittsburgh Canning Exchange is a resource for learning how to can, trading home-canned goods, and building a community of home canners. With events like canning exchanges and demos with featured speakers, the Pittsburgh Canning Exchange is showing Pittsburgh residents the benefits of canning their own food. Now, with the organization nearing its first birthday, one of the group’s founders, Sara Blumenstein, sat down for a talk with Sprout.

Who are the members of the Canning Exchange?

The canning exchange is four friends, it’s two couples. Our friend taught us how to can a few years ago. We made jams the first time from beginning to end. I noticed that when [he] taught me how to can, after we did it together, I was way less afraid of it than when I was using some of my mom’s old cook books. That experience was helpful in decreasing my anxiety [about] poisoning myself and all the other things that I was a little bit worried about at the beginning.

How did the Exchange get started?

What got the canning exchange going was that we were interested in figuring out how we could connect with other canners. This kind of classic problem with canning is that there’s an economy of scale by which it makes sense to make a lot of one thing at one time because it’s labor intensive and it’s easier to make a big pot of tomatoes to can than a small pot of tomatoes. So that’s great. So then you end up with a lot of jars of canned tomatoes, which is also great, but then by the middle of winter those tomatoes begin to look kind of overwhelming.

Where does the canning tradition stem from? Was it a part of your families’ traditions?

In farming communities and in the olden days what people would do is that they would have a canning swap where they would get together and they would trade the things they had canned over the summer. That way people in their communities could have a more diversified barter for the winter.

Also there’s a really compelling inter-generational component to that as well. Home canning is something that our grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles know how to do but it’s something that maybe fewer people our age know how to do. It’s a really easy way to connect across generations because people who know how to can have lots knowledge to share and because canning hasn’t changed a lot.

What is it about the canning process that makes it difficult for people to break into it?

The type of canning that we do is water bath canning. That means that you put something in a jar and you screw on a lid and you boil it for awhile until that creates a seal. With water bath canning it’s really clear when something has gone wrong. You’ll know that something has gone wrong because you can see that the seal wasn’t made on your jar or when you open it things are clearly wrong. Those are things that you don’t really trust yourself with. Or even the knowledge of how do you know when your jar lid is popped? How do you know when it’s sealed? What does it sound like?

If I had just done that by myself the first time, I think I would have been a little unsure that I had done it right. In other words, I think the big road block for people learning how to can is knowing that they’re doing things correctly. And if they do these basic things correctly then you’re going to have a good outcome. It’s safe. The only way you can hurt someone with a jar or can is by throwing it at them.

 Why did you decide to create canning parties? How do those work?

In my experience going to a canning class when I listened to someone do a power point on canning did not make me less anxious about doing it myself. So what we developed, and what I would say is our signature programming is what we call “canning parties.” The canning exchange rents out a commercial kitchen and we buy a lot of local produce from a local farm and we invite a lot of people to come and can with us. We try to make it fun, we have music, we have pie to eat and by the time people leave a few hours later they’ve walked all the way through the process from beginning to end. Our hope is that once they see how it works and understand why it works they will be ready to go home and try it out in their own kitchen. I would say that these canning workshops and then the canning swap at the end of the season (we had our first one last November) they are the two key parts of our programming.

Who comes to these events? Canning newbies or veterans?

I would say both. Probably the majority of people who come to the canning parties are newbies who want to learn a new thing or want to try something different. There’s a pretty nice range in age. We had kids come to our applesauce party last year in Greenfield, some of these kids are as young as 10 or 12, and we had older people in their 70’s who didn’t want to mess up their kitchens but wanted to make applesauce, or knew how sort of how to can but wanted a refresher.

Pittsburgh Canning Exchange at Marty's MarketThere’s also been a great opportunity to build community among people who know how to can. For example, at the rhubarb social we were joined by a woman from the Penn State Extension who is a certified master food preserver. So she came and her expectation was to be there with some brochures and pamphlets she could give to people. She ended up having a great time, by the end of the night she was like these are my people, I feel like I’ve found my tribe. She got to talk to other people who are canners and they were able to swap stories and compare knowledge and geek out about a thing that they all really like.

It’s very gratifying to know that those are connections that we helped to create and helped to facilitate.

What organizations have you partnered with?

We’re great friends with Slow Food Pittsburgh. We did the canning swap in collaboration with them last fall. We ran our swap in conjunction with their pickle contest…Trevett Hooper (owner and chef of restaurant Legume) and Slow Food Pittsburgh both are collaborators and friends of the canning exchange and likewise Regina Koetters (founder) from Marty’s Market. She’s been a great advocate for the project and helped us think through it early on.

How do you see the canning exchange in relation to the urban gardening movement? The organic food movement?

We try to support local agriculture and try to connect people with local agriculture. We use local produce and use produce that’s sustainably farmed in our workshop. That’s a standard that we set for ourselves. I think food preservation is an important part of the ecosystem of people who are interested in issues around what we eat. I think if you’re interested in eating local, being able to preserve your food gives you the opportunity to eat local year round, which is really interesting. If you want to have tomatoes in Pittsburgh in February and if you grew those tomatoes yourself or you bought them from a local farm and you can them, and you know exactly what preservatives are in it and you know where it came from then you’re intersecting with the supply chain and environmental impacts in a substantially different way then you would’ve if you bought those tomatoes from Whole Foods and they would’ve come from Guatemala. For us canning is very much about decreasing the distance between people and what they eat and the people who produce their food.

Any upcoming events?

For July, August, September and October we have scheduled one canning party one weekend in each of those months, and then November 9th we’ll be doing the swap. Stay tuned to our Facebook page for upcoming events and activities.

What are you looking towards in the future?

In the future it’s going to be about how we price our workshops. We want it to be accessible. Paying for produce from local producers is expensive. So we’re asking how do we balance the upfront price for our workshops so that it’s not prohibitive? And it doesn’t keep people from engaging with us so that we can continue to support local producers and also so that we’re financially sustainable.