The Newest Way to Celebrate Local Food Year Round – Canning Swaps!

-Jessica Greenblatt Seeley, Deputy Director

At FoodRoutes, we’re fortunate enough to hear a lot of inspiring stories about the work being done in communities across the country to support local food and farms. From Farmer/Chef “Speed Dating” to Iron Chef Farmers Market Challenges, we’ve learned about a lot of unique and creative ways to educate consumers and businesses about the importance of local food systems. Yet, I was pleasantly taken by surprise when two good friends visited our farm last weekend and told us about a brilliantly simple and fun way to have fun with local food. My friend Randa handed me a pretty glass jar of vibrantly colored salsa. “We got it last night at our Canning Swap Party,” she said.

A Canning Swap Party?

Canning Swap Parties aren’t a cultural phenomenon – yet. However, the sheer simplicity and benefit of the event makes me question how long it will be before friends across the country are stocking up on Ball jars. I had a chance to speak with the event’s creators, Ezra and Audrey Schwartzberg, both 30. Ezra is a PhD student in Entomology at Penn State University, and Audrey is pursuing her Masters in Rural Sociology. This was the second year they brought friends together for an annual Canning Swap, and they’ve been delighted with the fun and enthusiasm that’s been cultivated.

The group of about 12 canners, ranging in age from their late 20s to early 60s got together in early November, bringing armloads of their canned and preserved goods. From your standard canned tomatoes to spicy habanero salsa to homemade beef jerky that’s been marinated in a fellow homemade hot sauce – there are seriously delicious goods up for grabs. Many of the canned treats are preserved from fresh local produce either grown in a Swapper’s garden or from one of the several Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in the State College area. This year, Swappers brought on average about 20 items to the Canning Swap, and headed home with a diverse array of healthy, local preserved food. Ezra and Audrey came up the concept both as a way to diversify their canned good collection and also convince others to can more.

Both of them had both dabbled in home canning of their summer garden and CSA’s bounty over the last few years, and had several good friends who did the same. While most of them didn’t have extensive canning experience, Audrey admits that canning is “addicting,” a sentiment echoed by several other Swappers. She grew up on a vegetable farm in Massachusetts, and while her family usually preserved food by the standby freezing method, they would get a lot of peaches from a local orchard every summer. “It would drive me crazy that there were all of these peaches going bad,” Audrey said. “And there is only so much fruit salad you can stand!” So she and her mother began to can peaches in order to minimize waste, and that’s how she got her first taste in canning. The urge to can wouldn’t reemerge until several years later, when Ezra and Audrey joined a CSA and started a small home garden. The CSA would offer large quantities of things like tomatoes for canning at relatively low rates. Plus, the produce was certified organic and grown within 40 miles of their home.

“It’s fun and a bit old-fashioned,” Ezra says of why he cans. “You go into the grocery store and see things made by companies and factories and by canning you realize you can do it yourself, save money, and have it taste better.”

Over the course of this past summer, Ezra regularly reminded Swappers to “keep canning!” so they would have enough to bring to the party. Randa Jabbour, another PhD Entomology candidate, thought that “Ezra’s emails were great because they kept me motivated to can. We got off to a slow canning start this summer, but then we kicked in strong – we didn’t want to get left out of the canning swap! And since we knew the swap was coming up, pretty much every time we canned something, we canned extra just for the swap.”

The other Swappers agreed that the Canning Swap party helped motivate them to not only maintain last year’s amount of canning, but try out new canning recipes, and actually increase the amount they normally can. This second year of the Canning Swap not only had more Swappers attend, but the number of jars that each person brought increased, so that they could even open up a sample jar for tasting.

Is a Canning Swap Party starting to sound like a Farmers Market? “Definitely,” says fellow Swapper Josh Kaffer. “Last year we would go around and one-by-one present our goods to everyone and it was more formal. This time, there were nearly twice as many people so it was more like a free-for-all – there was just too much great stuff to go through can by can. I would take, say, two jars of my salsa and bring them over to get some pickled watermelon rinds. It was nice because we’re all friends and fellow canners, so we’re sensitive to what an equal trade constitutes because we know how much time can go into the final product. So if someone brings plain canned tomatoes and then Randa brings tomato preserves with candied lemons that took her all day to make, they realize they should probably offer her a couple of cans for 1 small jar of tomato preserves.”

One of the most creative items at the Canning Swap this year? Apple Peel Jelly, a unique way to go even beyond the basic concept of minimizing your food wastes with canning. The jelly utilizes apple peels leftover from an applesauce recipe! On top of this unspoken rule for fair swapping, the more gourmet and diverse items like apple peel jelly can up the ante for Swappers. Those whom I spoke with who attended the Canning Swap last year all agreed that the canning swap gives them the inspiration and motivation to try new things. “It gives you ideas for the following year’s Swap,” Randa said. “You see someone pickling cantaloupe and you’re like, tell me how you did it so I can try it next summer!”

Based on my conversations with these four seasoned Swappers, here are some tips and recommendations on forming your own Canning Swap Party:

  1. Plan ahead. Gauge interest with your friends early on, and then remind them throughout the planting, growing, and harvesting season to be thinking about canning!
  2. Don’t be afraid to grow or buy a lot of something. If you’re a budding salsa artist, plant that extra row of tomatoes! Or if you see a good deal on a box of local pears – get them. Don’t worry, you won’t be stuck with 40 quarts of pears if you have a Canning Swap Party to look forward to.
  3. Try new recipes on your Swappers. Why not bust out that crazy 5-alarm salsa verde recipe that you’ve always been slightly scared to try? It will bring a unique extra edge to your Swapping power and most likely you will get several requests for the recipe! Make sure to can extra so you can pop a jar open for samples.
  4. Be aware of what constitutes a “fair” trade. This is simple. You’re all friends and canners who know how time-consuming canning can be.? Be open and if you see something you would love to get, ask the person what they feel comfortable giving one jar of their Grandma Edie’s secret recipe preserved apricot chutney for.
  5. Feel free to think outside the Ball Jar. Not everything at the Canning Swap Party has to be pressure canned or boiled in a hot water bath. At Ezra and Audrey’s Canning Swap, folks brought everything from dried items to homemade baked goods and candies to homebrewed beer. It’s amazing what can be preserved from the season’s bounty!
  6. Have Fun! It does have the word Party in its name, folks.

 

Final words of wisdom from our Swappers? “I feel like I’m at the beginning of the next Tupperware party,” says Josh, half-jokingly. “Don’t hold back. If you have a water bath and equipment ready for canning, there is no reason not to make the maximum amount of jars every time. And then throw a party.”

Special thanks to Ezra & Audrey Schwartzberg and Randa Jabbour & Josh Kaffer. Photos courtesy of Bryan Banks.

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