Canning, Thirties Style

I mentioned a while ago that I was going through some old recipes that came from my grandma’s house. I came across a scrap of paper with faded pencil script on it that I found interesting.


I  found a few similar pieces of paper addressed to one of Grandma’s neighbours and hand-delivered, I imagine, by my mom or her sister. I expect that they stood in the neighbour lady’s kitchen, perhaps munching on a gingersnap, while waiting for the response to be written out so they could deliver it back to my grandmother. This was the most efficient way of communicating in a tiny hamlet on the dusty prairie where there were no telephones.

It seems so far away from the instant communication we are used to these days. Just the other day I marveled at how I appreciated being able to take a few minutes to check in with friends and family via Facebook while I stood at the stove stirring a pasta sauce for the evening meal. I love the convenience of text messaging and Facebook status updates. I appreciate the online groups I belong to where I can find recipes and ideas for my latest canning endeavour.

Not so with my grandmother in the 1930s. Here is the question she posed to her neighbour. (I love the salutation–it’s so formal, so respectful, so polite. Please disregard the errors in grammar and punctuation.)

Mrs. Armstrong,

How do you do those berries up in cold water. Would you please write it down.

Here is where I imagine my mom–bare foot, hair disheveled from having been blown about in the hot prairie wind, her slender frame attired in a simple cotton dress–standing in Mrs. Armstrong’s kitchen impatiently waiting for the older woman to jot down the response that follows.

I do mine with hot water, Belle. I sterilize the sealers then put the berries in and pour hot water on them. Put the sealers in the oven till the fruit starts to cook then seal them tight and let them cool. I put the lids rubbers and all on when I put them in the oven but not seal tight. I tighten them and then turn them back about a half turn. Don’t fill the sealers too full of water–about an inch or so from the top. Put the sealers in a large bread pan and put some water in it to set the sealers in. I never break any but don’t have a direct draft on them when you first take them out of the oven

Donalda Armstrong

I can tell you for certain that, based on what I’ve been reading in a canning group that I am a member of, that there are people today who are still using a method similar to the one described by Mrs. Armstrong to preserve food.

I’m all about living simply and I have a great appreciation for many of the practices from years gone by. I believe that, in some cases, we’ve allowed our lives to deviate too far from the core values, work ethic, and attitudes of our grandparents and those who came before them. I choose to spend my time and energy on things like gardening, preserving the season’s bounty, and cooking from scratch. I’m a rebel in our neighbourhood because I hang my clothes out to dry (I don’t have a clothesline yet but I’ve got a super clothes horse that fits my purpose for the time being.) For the majority of things I don’t use commercial cleaners, I use water, vinegar, and baking soda for most things; I’m experimenting with making laundry and other soap.

Yet common sense tells me that this isn’t a safe way of preserving food these days so I am happy to use my water bath canner for acidic foods like jams and pickles, and my pressure canner for low-acid vegetables and soups.

I’m also not prepared to give up the instant communication I have with text messaging and Facebook. I have no kids at home I could get to deliver handwritten notes to the neighbours anyway.

This is one of the many blessings of my retired life–the opportunity to slow down, live simply, get back to the basics, and yet still enjoy those conveniences of the twenty-first century that I choose to partake in.

It’s a good life.



I’m a writer, reader, and creative. I thought by now I’d have things figured out, but I keep coming up with more questions. I think that’s okay. I’m here most mornings pondering ordinary things and the thin places where faith intersects.
  1. How fortunate we both are to have hand-written recipes from our Grandmas. Here is one from my Grandma Longenecker with her pot pie recipe also in faded pencil script:
    By the way, my Grandma made lye soap to on the back porch. Her chopping them into big squares fascinated my small eyes.

    The real and the imagined letters are endearing.

    1. I enjoyed reading your memories about your Grandma Longenecker, Marian. We are, indeed, blessed to have these hand-written snippets of their lives.

  2. I vividly remember one grandmother canning her vegetables, but as a child of those days what I truly remember is how miserably hot it was in the sticky kitchen–no breeze of fresh air and most certainly no AC. I, too, appreciate our modern coincidences.

    1. I remember the heat in my mom’s kitchen too, Letty. No air conditioning in those days and it was h.o.t.!

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