Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why food preservation is "fun" for me

Dried Thai chili peppers.  Throw them in stir fries.  

When I told a good friend I would be giving a talk about food preservation - freezing, drying, pickling, canning, etc. I think she responded in a way that I could only describe as...scoffing.  If I didn't adore this woman, I'd be really offended.  Here's where I think she's coming from:  being a former farmer, canning and other forms of food preservation were a part of her household duties.  Sow the seed, weed, harvest, figure out how to save the abundance to feed your family the rest of the year.  As a relatively new canner, I've mentioned how "cool" it is to be able to cook and process food so that it's shelf stable.  It's kind of miraculous, no?  I mentioned how "fun" it is.  "Fun", she did not like.  That's the difference between us, she said.  I do it for fun, she did it because she had to.

Holy basil.  Dried leaves are great made into tea.

Yes, I live in the burbs.  I have a small garden plot - far from being able to sustain my family.  I'm not sure I'd even be able to feed my pets on what I'm able to grow.  Gardening for me is for fun.  It's actually soooo freaking fun.  So is being able to put together a gift basket with some good olive oil, a crusty loaf of bread, and a jar of bruschetta made from my own heirloom tomatoes.  I love to pull my bright red lingonberries out of the freezer to top my Irish oatmeal in the middle of winter.  It's totally fun to dry my own peppers and announce over a nice spaghetti dinner - red pepper flakes anyone?  However, in my defense, it does go a bit beyond fun.

Dried Chinese dates.  Throw in soups, cut and use to decorate breads,  or rehydrate in water.

My father is from a rural, but educated, well-off family.  No one would know this though because with the onset of Communism, all material wealth was stripped, and villagers in Shantung, China starved for decades.  My father tended a farm and a smaller garden plot solely for survival.  Napa cabbages, radishes, turnips and a few other crops did well in their climate, but there were certainly no pantry items, no means for jarring tomato sauce, no freezer to store berries.  Before the ground froze, my father and other villagers would dig giant pits in their nearby family garden plots.  In the pit would go all the cold weather harvests for winter storage.  Each week, he would remove the snow and dirt cover and dig out a few cabbages to feed his brother and mother.

Gigantic winter melon.  Stores up to 6 months in a cool dry area.  

A few summers ago, I was given the task of running out to the pier over my parents' pond to bring in the fish before it started raining.  These fish, wrapped loosely in paper towels, had been sun drying for days now.  After drying fully, they would be preserved in salted oil.  I had never had this salted fish before, but they said it was a thing.  A simple, homely dish - a little bit of salted fish with each bite of a plain, white, steamed bun.  We all looked forward to it.  It was delicious.

What my parents don't know is that despite the salted fish with steamed bun being flavorful, simple, and satisfying, each bite also brought me closer to the life and part of China that I would never know.  A life that is told to me in fits and starts, but never really as a joyful reminiscence.  Eating the foods they ate, saving foods in the way they did (despite the fact that my survival does not hinge on it) brings me closer to them and their world in a way that words cannot bridge.


  1. Hi Wendy, I'm so sorry I've been away so long. I've missed your informative and fun posts. I love how you're keeping your heritage alive by preserving food. Although it's much different than how your father did it, I can totally understand your affection. And I bet your enthusiasm is rubbing off on your kids to keep the momentum alive for the next generation. Very cool.

  2. I never thought of drying our Thai chili peppers. They always either just mold up in the fridge or...well, that's about it. Do you do it in the oven, or do you have a dehydrater (or some other method)?

    1. my mom freezes her peppers and they're great b/c she throws them in stir fries. I usually dry mine and crush them. I use my oven - lowest setting - with the door cracked. Usually takes a couple hours.

  3. Wow, that is cool. It's amazing how things change over generations, and how quickly we get used to the way things are. It's easy to forget, and loose skills that were once essential to survival. I love that you're able to share this with your parents!

    And I agree, canning is fun :)

  4. Hi Wendy..gorgeous dried chili peppers..yumm..we love them here too...and I am with you, love creating preserves..it is such fun..and eye candy too! Very rewarding! Lovely basil..
    and as always...a wonderfully written post too!

  5. Hello Wendy,
    Well I am in agreement with you, gardening is fun. I loved your story about sharing the fish.
    You never know what your kids will pick up from doing tasks with you...someday they may think it's fun. I have to admit, I did not think it was fun to plant hundreds of trees with my dad on his tree farm when I was a teenager. It helped that I was getting paid.

  6. Oh yes and to end the confusion, my pen name is Rosey Pollen of Dung Hoe.

    1. that kind of flips my world upside down!!!! :)

  7. It's nice to learn a little more about your lovely dad...and that despite hard times, he still finds joy in gardening and cooking. Many friends think I'm "nutso" for working (I call it playing) over a hot canner at summer's end, but they do like getting the results in little gift baskets.

  8. I enjoyed reading about your family heritage. We never know what may happen next, so the skill to grow food is a wonderful thing.
    Have a beautiful week-end!
    Lea's Menagerie

  9. Interesting post, Wendy. Sometimes as I am working in my vegetable garden, I wonder what it must have been like to know that if your crops failed you might starve. The stakes were so much higher, weren't they?


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