After months of nurturing seeds in the basement, a summer of tending and harvesting on their roof and six weeks waiting for cucumbers to pickle, it was crunch time for the rookie canners - literally.
Tracie Donald, a teacher, grabbed a jar from a stack in her cupboard. She handed it to James Padwick, a Bay Street lawyer, who cracked open the lid.
Each hoisted a fat garlic dill pickle in the air as if they were toasting with beers after one of their regular Ultimate Frisbee games, then took a bite, chewed and, finally, declared a verdict. "It's good!" Padwick said, a little surprised at just how tasty their own handiwork could be.
Thirtysomething urbanites are not who usually springs to mind when you hear "preserves," but the Toronto couple is among a wave of first-time canners holding jam sessions this fall.
The newbies are helping to fuel a canning revival across Canada and the United States. Unit sales of canning supplies in Canada were up 11 per cent in the year ending in May over the previous year, according to Nielsen Canada.
Canning workshops are also seeing a surge in interest from a younger clientele. Like their grandparents before them, hipsters are hosting pickling parties with friends.
"Oh my goodness. I cannot believe how many people have come out of the woodwork," said Kim O'Donnel, co-founder of Canning Across America, which hosted a U.S.-wide kick-off to the canning season last weekend.
The Seattle-based group offered how-to classes, demonstrations and group canning sessions under the slogan "Join the Canvolution!"
The new breed of canner is driven by politics as much as practicality. A desire to eat locally and regain control over what goes into our food is fuelling a resurgence in farmers' markets and backyard kitchen gardens. Many see canning as a necessary step toward having year-round access to produce from their own region - or roof, in the case of Padwick and Donald.
Saving on food costs is also a welcome option on the heels of a recession and rising unemployment. Trend watchers, including Neilson Canada, say the state of the economy is also fuelling the craze.
"When times are difficult, people go back to basics," said Emerie Brine, executive chef for canning-supply company Bernardin Canada. Sales of the firm's iconic mason jars are up 20 per cent this year over last year, he added.
Canning workshops are springing up in response to the trend. At the Workroom, a hip drop-in sewing studio in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, rookies will learn to can heirloom tomatoes this weekend; the $50 course sold out soon after it was posted.
Putting up food when it's at its freshest is like sealing the best parts of summer inside a jar
But modern technology is also helping to revive an old skill. Design*Sponge, the do-it-yourselfer's online bible, recently dished on how to make preserves if you're an apartment dweller. (One of the bonuses cited: Your food won't go bad "should your apartment, or city for that matter, ever experience a power outage due to a freeze, hurricane or other act of nature.") AllRecipes.com, a popular online recipe site, found that nearly half of its readers who can their food are 40 or under and, of those, many were first-time canners this year. The site recently created a new canning section featuring how-to articles, recipes and safety tips.
Canning Across America got started when O'Donnel posted a notice on Twitter, urging folks to, among other things, "do the can-can." "At the time I was canning with two other canning virgins. We were like the blind leading the blind," she says. Now the group has a Facebook site and more than 500 Twitter followers in cities across the United States and Canada.
While their grandparents' generation may have preserved peaches and tomatoes in order to bridge the months when fresh produce was scarce, today's canners are more interested in making mango chutneys to garnish the West Indian takeout they picked up on their way home from work.
Donald, for example, has made chunky, zesty and "garden patch" salsas, tomato sauce for homemade pizza and mango chutney to go with her favourite takeaway rotis.
But some of the biggest rewards have been decidedly old school. Part of the fun, Donald says, is learning canning etiquette (always return someone's jar), giving canned goods to friends and neighbours (instant popularity) and discovering age-old truths (pickled beets are delicious).
Besides, most of her Christmas shopping is taken care of - and fall hasn't even begun.
"I'm looking forward to winter," she said.
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