A retro hobby for the end times

illustration of two tiny people standing on ladders putting tomatoes and salt into a huge glass jar.
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The delicious, divisive, and surprisingly political world of contemporary home canning.

Like a lot of Americans right now, Jennifer Gomes says she is doing whatever she can to spend less money on groceries. So on a recent Sunday, instead of heading to the store, she pulled some ham shoulder out of the freezer and some dried split peas off the pantry shelf and decided to can some soup.

She boiled a batch on the stove in her Northern California kitchen, ladled it into clean jars, and then put the jars in her pressure canner, a device with a locking lid similar to an Instant Pot. While they were processing (it takes about 75 minutes), she made a second batch to can. Eventually, she had eight pint jars of soup ready to eat, at a cost of only about $3 a jar — less than the price of a Big Mac.

Gomes, 39, is a longtime canning expert who teaches food preservation classes and co-hosts a podcast called Perfectly Preserved. But her strategy for getting dinner on the table (and tomorrow’s dinner in the cupboard) is becoming an increasingly common one. A growing number of Americans have taken up home canning in recent years, in what’s become a trend, a hobby, a political movement, and a response to the various bleak and bewildering conditions of life in the early 21st century.

Interest in canning started to spike in 2020 when a combination of supply chain disruptions, extra time at home, and unrelenting anxiety got locked-down Americans into DIY food. Marisa McClellan, author of Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, started noticing an upswing that summer, when the arrival of seasonal produce coincided with the waning of the early-pandemic sourdough trend. Google searches for “canning” and “Ball jar” — by far the most popular vessel for home preserving — shot up in August 2020 to far above their pre-pandemic levels. Sales of the All-American Pressure Cooker, a popular pressure canner, skyrocketed as more consumers learned to preserve soups and stews at home.

Now, long after lockdowns have ended, a combination of high inflation, extreme weather, and, maybe, a general sense of impending doom has been motivating Americans to try canning their own food. Sales of So Easy to Preserve, a cookbook first published by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension in 1983, have spiked 175 percent since the pandemic began, according to a spokesperson for the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Meanwhile, content creators like gracewalkfarm and fiveacrefarm have amassed follower counts in the hundreds of thousands on Instagram and TikTok with how-to videos and photos of immaculate pantries full of jewel-toned Ball jars. Some of these accounts just focus on recipes; some situate canning as part of an additive-free, “crunchy” lifestyle; and some are more overtly political, run by preppers and homesteaders who aspire to an off-grid life, or so-called “rebel canners” who believe food safety guidelines are just the government trying to control them.

The resurgence in canning is, like everything in the post-2020 landscape, a little bit inflected with fear of the end times: of the next pandemic, the next superstorm, whatever disaster will lead to the breakdown of society as we know it. Some canners, however, insist that putting food in jars doesn’t have to be about stocking a doomsday bunker. “My perspective has always been that we can out of a sense of hope and not out of a sense of fear,” said McClellan. “I’m preserving food for another day because I expect to be around to enjoy it.”

This is just the latest canning renaissance

Preserving food for another day is pretty much as old as food itself. Indigenous Americans had their own methods of processing and storing food, geared toward their particular traditions and the ecosystems in which they lived. Members of the Hoopa tribe in Northern California, for example, gathered acorns and dried them for six months, then ground them into a flour to make soup, said Meagen Baldy, the executive director of the Klamath Trinity Resource Conservation District and a member of the Hoopa tribe.

Storing produce in a vessel for later consumption is, likewise, centuries old. “I have a 1770 recipe for how to preserve tomatoes in a crock,” said Leni Sorensen, a food historian featured on the Netflix series High on the Hog. But canning as we know it today didn’t take off in the United States until the Civil War and in the years after, with food companies packaging vegetables like tomatoes and peas in tin cans. Campbell’s condensed tomato soup, for example, made its debut in 1897.

Home canning came later, in the 20th century, with the invention of screw-on lids that allowed home cooks to preserve food in glass jars. At first, Sorensen said, it was largely well-to-do farm women who canned in their own kitchens (or hired local women to do the canning for them); they were the ones who could afford the equipment required. Less well-off or working-class women might go to a community cannery where they could work with neighbors to package their produce. These canneries could become important cultural and economic engines within rural communities; in Texas between the wars, for example, canning was a way for Black farmers in particular to protect their financial independence by eating homegrown food rather than more expensive, store-bought products. The canneries also “provided a new gathering place for functions such as picnics and festivals, further strengthening community identity,” historian Debra Ann Reid wrote in a 2000 paper.

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Women preparing pork products to be put into cans during the meat canning demonstration in this photo from Texas dated 1918.

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This 1946 photo, from a campaign to encourage Americans to preserve their foods during World War II, features a home canner showing off her pantry stocked with preserved foods in glass jars.

Community canneries began to close after World War II, thanks to the rise of supermarkets and home freezers. Home canning, too, started to fall out of favor in the 1950s. Young women of means who had been through war and the Great Depression decided, “Fuck it, they didn’t want to do all that stuff. They wanted brand new electric stoves,” Sorensen said.

Since then, canning has had several renaissances — one in the 1970s with the rise of counterculture and back-to-the-land movements, and one in 2008, after the arrival of the Great Recession. At that time, fears about the economy combined with an ascendant DIY movement and growing concern about BPA — a chemical found in some industrially produced can linings that may be linked to health problems — to create “a perfect moment for a canning resurgence,” McClellan said.

That resurgence leveled out a bit when people started raising concerns about the sugar in canned foods, and when foodies got into fermentation instead.

Then came Covid-19 lockdowns and bare grocery store shelves, and a whole new generation of people suddenly got very interested in making — and preserving — food at home. For Gomes, it was the first time in her adult life that there was “a sense of genuine food insecurity for the middle class.”

Storing food for the future may have felt novel to the middle-class Americans who were able to shelter in place while working from home and who found themselves with time on their hands. As they fed their sourdough starters and tended to their windowsill scallion gardens, they also started buying canning supplies. Sales for Newell Brands, the company that makes Ball jars and other canning supplies, tripled between April and June 2020, and a shortage of jar lids led to skyrocketing prices. Newell eventually had to ramp up production to meet demand.

Today, the Covid lockdowns are over, but getting food remains fraught, even for people who technically have enough money to buy groceries. The accelerating march of weather disasters across the country routinely leads to bare grocery store shelves as Americans stock up on bread and milk and Cheetos before the next episode of the climate apocalypse. Meanwhile, inflation has wreaked havoc on Americans’ grocery budgets, and while some food prices are finally dropping, a carton of eggs still costs four times as much as it did before the pandemic began.

Before Covid, a lot of people gravitated to Gomes’s website out of a sense of nostalgia, she said — a feeling that “I want to learn to do what my grandmother did.” Today, however, more people want to can for “the general sense of empowerment,” she said. The hope is that, by preserving foods at home, “I won’t have that feeling of when I was trying to go to the grocery store during Covid and there was nothing on the shelf.”

Canning is about being prepared. Not everyone agrees on what that means.

For some people, the desire to stock a pantry in case of emergencies becomes something bigger and more political: a rejection of anything that smacks of “the system,” whether that’s corporate food producers, government agencies, or mainstream scientific research. Self-described rebel canners, for example, proudly go against food-safety guidelines, sometimes labeling them a form of government intrusion. They’ll can foods not considered to be safe to can, like milk or butter, or use practices that aren’t recommended, like reusing jar lids or canning food in an oven or dishwasher.

There’s a lot of overlap between rebel canners and preppers, who stock up on everything from toilet paper to guns in anticipation of the coming apocalypse. A big subset of canning influencers — whether they identify as rebel canners or not — cite a distrust of the government and the conventional food system as a reason why they can. Many also express skepticism around vaccines and conventional medicine. Rebel canners are often the same people “who didn’t want to be told to wear a mask, or didn’t want to be told to get a vaccine,” Gomes said.

Home food preservation can become, for some in the canning world, an expression of radical self-sufficiency bordering on isolationism: They’re not going to rely on anyone else, be it the government, a grocery store, or a food scientist telling them what is or isn’t safe. It’s an ethos that encourages people to fill their basements with food in jars because the systems of society are not to be trusted. As Instagram user our_off_grid_life, a farmer and canner with more than 150,000 followers, puts it, “our ability to thrive in any situation is our responsibility alone!”

Such attitudes trouble canners who don’t share the “rebel” ethos. “The food preservation conversation is resting more heavily on the prepper, right-wing fundamentalist crowd, which is unsettling for me,” McClellan said. “I think it’s something that should be more universal.”

Boxes of Ball canning lids on a shelf.
Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Ball jars, the gold standard for canning, are produced by Newell Brands, which saw its sales triple between April and June 2020 and was forced to ramp up production as new canners started “putting up” amid worries about supply chain and food shortages.

Canning content on social media, however, remains far from universal. The most popular content creators are typically white women, and the kind of work they showcase requires a certain level of economic freedom. “Who has the privilege and the time and the money to spend their whole day canning by choice?” asks Sara Petersen, author of the upcoming book Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture.

It’s typically the same group of women who have always been celebrated for doing domestic tasks in America, even when they weren’t the ones doing most of the hard labor. A lot of today’s canning content recalls the “cult of domesticity” of the late 19th century, when “white, upper-class women were sort of ensconced in the home as the moral center” and “women of color and women from lower socioeconomic classes were the ones doing the canning and scrubbing the floors,” Petersen said.

Online conversations about canning can also feel exclusionary for people of color because of a lack of understanding of food history among white participants. In 2020, some Black canners encountered dismissal or abuse in mainstream canning groups on Facebook “if they offered anything that was political or seemed to reflect on what was happening at the time, everything from George Floyd to Black Lives Matter,” Sorensen said. But for many Americans of color, it’s impossible to separate food from politics — you can’t talk about pound cake, for example, without calling to mind “all those cooks in the Civil Rights Movement who made cakes and sold them to support the civil rights workers,” Sorensen said. “All of it is part of this larger discussion.”

In response to feeling ostracized in white-dominated groups, Black home cooks and preservers have created their own Facebook communities, including Black Girls Can and Black Folks Love Canning Too, Sorensen said.

Canning is always going to be a little bit about self-reliance; it allows people to make food in their own homes that’s usually produced in a factory far away. But there’s also a more communal way to look at it. Sorensen tells the story of a canner whose community recently flooded, causing many of her neighbors to lose their houses. Because of her canning, “she had a whole pantry that she could share.”

For Sorensen, food preservation isn’t about hoarding or “zombie apocalypse prepping,” she said. It’s about having enough staples in your pantry that when there’s a storm, a pandemic, or another crisis, you can feed not just your own family but maybe your neighbors, too. It’s about making sure that whatever disasters hit us next, “we’re part of the solution.” That cooperative spirit feels of a piece with the community canneries of decades past.

Indeed, preserving food can also be a way of getting back in touch with ancestral food traditions. Interest in canning spiked on the Hoopa reservation when lockdowns started, said Baldy, who runs the tribe’s community garden. Partly, it was practical — the local farmer’s market felt safer than a store, and people needed a way to store all those fresh vegetables. But canning also brought back childhood memories for a lot of people on the reservation, like a grandmother or aunt making preserves or stocking a root cellar, Baldy said.

Today, Baldy teaches classes on canning and processing traditional Hoopa foods, including acorns, huckleberries, and salmon. For her, teaching her children about these food traditions is a way to keep them alive. “If I didn’t teach them how to gather and how to preserve foods and all these different things,” she said, “then when I’m gone, they’re not going to be here to protect it.”

It’s a common theme in conversations about canning — a connection to a more tactile and embodied way of life that, while less visible today, doesn’t have to disappear entirely. “We used to have to make things to survive,” McClellan, the Food in Jars author, said. “And then suddenly, in the last 150 years, that has not been necessary. And you can’t get rid of those urges in that short amount of time.”

Preserving food in your kitchen to eat another day, she said, satisfies a very real “desire to make and use your hands and be connected to something that is going to nourish you.”

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