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Greene: Canning With Mother's Ghost

10/27/10 5:55PM By Stephanie Greene
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(HOST) The late Janet Greene was an editor, writer and observer of country ways from her hillside farm in southern Vermont. She was also VPR's first commentator. Today her daughter Stephanie Greene - in her own commentary - reports that she's been canning and drying food for weeks  - and communing with her mother's ghost.  

(GREENE)  I've put up jams, chutneys, relishes, diced tomatoes, and enchilada sauces. I've dried shallots, peaches, apples and tomatoes by the bushel.  It all makes me think of my mother, Janet Greene, who wrote  Putting Food By with Ruth Hertzberg and Beatrice Vaughan.

My mother loved murder mysteries and she loved to cook, so food preservation, with its botulistic edge of danger, united these two enthusiasms rather elegantly.  She would often expound on the crafty Botulinum bacterium which lives in soil. Its spores are extremely hard to kill - merely boiling water won't do it. Plus, they thrive in an absence of air, and in moist environments.  This was an enemy worthy of respect.
    
When she was working on the book, which went into four editions, every week we would race down to the Post Office and pick up her copy of the MMWR, The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control out of Emory University. Once home, it was read out loud. All too often there would be an account of some housewife who'd reused old mayonnaise jars - or worse, their grungy lids - to preserve tomatoes and had killed off her entire family.
   
The performance was spellbinding. At its close, my mother would remove her glasses and look at me piercingly, as though I had committed these sins, or would, given the slightest chance.  This would get her going on the litany of bad practices it was her duty to scold people out of. Tepid boiling water baths, haphazard time keeping, slapdash sterilization could all send you to an early grave.

She was right, of course. I was a champion cutter of corners, more of an experimenter in the kitchen than a precise measurer. In fact I was her worst nightmare. Until recently, that is.   
   
It was when I embarked on canning diced tomatoes that I really began rereading my mother's book in earnest.  I recalled her lectures about the dangers of low acid tomatoes, since acid and salt can kill bacteria unfazed by heat alone.

One night I dreamed of Mother hovering over my case of newly canned Roasted Green Tomato Jam, shaking her head, baleful as Jacob Marley.  After a fitful sleep, I got up at dawn, and for once, followed her directions to the letter.  I redid the jam with more vinegar, more salt, more heat.
   
Nobody but my mother could get such a bang out of a pickle, or make canning so exciting, not even Elmore Leonard.   And thanks to her - or perhaps her ghost - my kitchen will never become a crime scene.
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