Eavesdropping is not my habit, but the people were talking loudly in the next restaurant booth. To avoid hearing their conversation, I would have had to cover my ears and hum loudly.
My ears perked, however, when I heard them describing their home canning practices. Actually, the hair on the back of my neck stood up as I thought about the ramifications.
“I just canned 50 quarts of green beans following my grandma’s recipe,” she announced.
“Wow, that must have taken a long time. Did you use a pressure canner?” the other person asked.
“No, I just boiled them in jars,” she said.
I wanted to pull out a food preservation police badge and make an arrest. Unfortunately, the badge does not exist.
“You need to use a pressure canner for low-acid foods, such as all vegetables, meats and most mixtures of foods!” I silently exclaimed.
Because I was not so bold, I hope they read this column. I really hope the beans spoil so they do not eat them.
With the resurgence in gardening, people are “putting up” canned goods again. But food preservation recommendations have changed through time. Great-grandma’s canning recipes published in the 1970 church cookbook probably do not stand up to current recommendations.
Botulism, one of the deadliest types of foodborne illness, is caused by eating improperly canned food, especially home-canned food. Commercial canners are extremely cautious about their canning procedures, but they have occasional safety recalls due to a botulism risk, too.
Vegetables and meats are low-acid foods, meaning they do not contain enough acid naturally to prevent spores (forms of bacteria) from surviving and growing. Spores can produce a deadly toxin in an airtight environment, such as a sealed jar, unless the food is acidic or has been heated under pressure for a specified time.
Boiling food will not kill the spores. For safe canning of low-acid foods, a pressure canner must be used. Using a pressure canner allows the mixture to reach a higher temperature than a boiling water-bath canner.
Unfortunately, foods containing the botulism toxin usually do not have an unusual taste or appearance. You cannot tell it is there.
Blurred and double vision are hallmark signs of botulism. Besides vision problems, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness can occur 18 to 36 hours after eating foods contaminated with the toxin.
Without treatment, the illness can progress from head to feet, weakening muscles and potentially paralyzing your respiratory system. Death can occur without prompt treatment.
I probably have scared all of my readers by now. However, I assure you that safe home canning is entirely possible. You just need to follow the latest instructions carefully.
If you are offered home-canned food, be sure to ask some questions about the methods the canner used.
Here’s a tasty way to enjoy fresh, seasonal vegetables with no canning involved. The recipe is from the Oregon State University Extension Service.
2 small zucchini, cut into half-inch pieces
1/2 pound green beans, snapped into pieces
1/2 small cabbage, sliced thinly or shredded
2 c. corn kernels
1 medium sliced onion
1 minced garlic clove
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 c. chopped fresh or canned tomatoes
1/2 tsp. dry oregano
Wash and trim vegetables. Prepare as indicated. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Add green beans and cook for two minutes before adding onion. Add other vegetables and oregano. Cook for five to seven minutes or until tender. Add chopped tomatoes at the last minute of cooking. Stir occasionally. Serve immediately.
Makes eight servings. Each serving has 100 calories, 4 grams (g) of fat, 13 g of carbohydrate, 3 g of fiber and 180 milligrams of sodium.