Flashback: When canning was your patriotic duty

Last week, I put my own spin on the well-documented canning renaissance in a story about quick pickles and refrigerator jam for the Austin American-Statesman, where I work full time as a food writer/columnist/blogger.

Canning is the perfect example of the kind of domestic kitchen task that modern-day feminists are reclaiming. (The only problem is, I have a healthy fear of botulism, being pregnant and all, so I prefer to make pickles and jams and then just eat them before they go bad instead of canning them in a water bath or pressurizer.)

While researching the story, I came across a collection of war-era food posters, curated by Cory Bernat, at the National Agricultural Library. There are some real gems in this series. You can get a real sense of the times by seeing the references to rations, canning, farming, victory gardens and how women were encouraged to “do their part” in the kitchen. Women were patriots if they grew their own food, saved their used fats and wasted less food.

These tasks aren’t touted as being patriotic so much anymore, but food activists and conscious cooks value them just as much, but for different reasons. How many of us keep bacon grease in a jar under the sink because we know it’ll make our cornbread taste better? I’ve been composting food scraps ever since I found out how much better it is for the environment to compost them rather than let them rot in landfills. Like any good feminist, I pride myself in self-sufficiency, which has a lot to do with the do-it-yourself cooking stories I end up writing (homemade marshmallows, anyone?) and why I planted my first backyard garden on the day President Obama was inaugurated.

What motivates you to do some of the food-related tasks shown in these posters? Is patriotism still part of the conversation?

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10 responses to “Flashback: When canning was your patriotic duty

  1. O.K. Now I’m really ashamed. after reading this post… When my mother was in town recently, we fried some bacon for breakfast. She set the pan aside to cool, expecting me to pour the grease off into a mason jar to save for future frying. Naturally, she was taught to do so by her mother. Somehow, it didn’t take with me. I am sensitive to cooking smells, so I don’t save grease even though I know I should. The idea of opening up a cupboard and smelling bacon grease just makes my skin crawl. Odd, I know… most people love the smell of bacon. I’m embarrassed to admit that when Mom wasn’t looking, I ran some hot water and poured the grease down the drain. I know the hot water didn’t entirely dissipate the grease and I’m running the risk of clogged pipes, but I still haven’t been able to bring myself to face cold, congealed grease.

    • I admit that I don’t use my bacon grease that much, but I’m convinced that if I have it around, I’m more likely to find ways to use it. Seems like a good blog topic for Relish Austin…

  2. Addie, have you read Jessamyn Neuhaus’ “Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking”? A good chunk of it is dedicated to the WWII rhetoric you’re talking about here. A fascinating read.

  3. What an intriguing question, patriotism and DIY food practices. Do you know what this reminds me of? When fuel prices went up, and people took to the streets in bikes, carpooled vehicles, and public buses for a while. Like the wartime era, that gas price crisis was the last time I’ve felt a surge of homeland thriftiness and cleverness, when we Americans congratulated ourselves for being so resourceful.

    The main motivator does seem to be economic (in a macro sense), non?

    But that’s why the DIY movement is really great, shaping a rhetoric around this idea that we’re all in it together. With the internet, and globalization, it’s hard to ever imagine a world with classic patriotism…but, LOCAL may be taking “patriotism’s” place. Funny that I never brag about being an American, but I ALWAYS brag about being an Austinite!

    Now onto your main question – food scraps we save or conserve. I am a little embarrassed to reveal the answer (“not much”), BUT, I have been making kombucha lately, which requires me to save a “mother:” i.e., this gigantic culture that you have to put in a glass jar of tea and sugar for a few weeks, while the tea magically ferments. Then the mother creates a “baby,” I can give the original mother to someone else, and use the baby to make my next batch!

    • I’d say kombucha-making definitely falls in this category, with the added value of being able to pass along the babies (as well as the knowledge of how to make it) to others. No matter what we call it or what motivates it (economy, war, local pride), this “we’re all in it together” mentality is something I value about living in this country.

  4. Hi, Addie, I just wanted to mention that there was a (relatively) well-documented gardening, canning, and food conservation effort in Austin during WWI & II. The term “patriotic” doesn’t resonate in the same way these days, and motivations are different now for growing and producing food at home, but I think there’s a definite continuum from the wartime efforts then to the efforts many are making now, if only that we’re remembering and practicing our parents’ and grandparents’ thrifty tricks.

    Period photos and documents show that both men and women were very involved in victory gardening, but canning and kitchen conservation were definitely women’s work. Perhaps that’s changed at least somewhat this time around? I’m not sure.

    • I only know one guy who makes quick pickles, but none that can. I think there are plenty who save their bacon grease, though. :)

      Reviving our parents’ and grandparents’ frugality is a key point. Being thrifty has never been so cool.

  5. Hi Addie,

    This is the first time I’m checking out your new(ish) blog. It’s great! I keep up with you and Mike through the Statesman too. Best of luck with your new blog!!

    –Intern Emily

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