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How did Grandma do it?

Over the weekend I canned eight pints of this and 5-1/2 pints of that. And from start to (endless) cleanup, it took about half the weekend.

The whole time I kept wondering, “How did Grandma do it?”

My grandmother (like yours, most likely) canned hundreds of pints and quarts of … everything. It was part of the routine of feeding an enormous family. And she did it without help. No one but Grandma was allowed in Grandma’s kitchen. (Which was unfortunate, because not only did she work herself to death; her daughters grew up with minimal kitchen skills. But that’s another story.)

I recall one time, after Grandma had been canning all day, my grandfather showed up from work with 100 pounds — 100 pounds — of overripe tomatoes he’d gotten a deal on. Grandma turned right around and canned the whole lot that evening.

I look at my 13-1/2 pathetic pints and am abashed.

Granted I was canning stuff that took a lot of processing and attention. But I also have tools Grandma might not have. (Bless that Victorio sauce maker, that Apple Mate peeler-corer-slicer, and the Santas who put them under my tree.)

I know plenty of modern people can at a Grandma pace. Just this week I read a comment online from a man who said he’d put up 250 quarts of applesauce this fall — making him either a prodigy or a liar in my book. I couldn’t do that if I used every pot in the house, installed an extra stove, and took enough amphetamines to stay up for two weeks running.

How on earth do they do it?


  1. M
    M December 2, 2012 8:04 pm

    You do it one jar at a time. With about 800 jars put up this year – I’m not even close to where I was last year. If I can do it originally coming from a background of “Ya’ want fries with that…” anyone can (pardon the pun).

  2. Rae
    Rae December 2, 2012 8:26 pm

    Our (great) grandmas were amazing! I wish mine were around to teach me a thing or two!

  3. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal December 2, 2012 8:57 pm

    Practice. The more you do something, the faster you can do it because you make fewer mistakes and fewer wasted motions. At least that’s my experience.

  4. furrydoc
    furrydoc December 2, 2012 9:00 pm

    The more you can, the bigger the jars get. It is more work to do smaller jars. With practice it becomes more efficient. Once you have a system that works in your kitchen it goes faster. Another thing our grandmothers didn’t have as much food safety knowledge as we have now and they didn’t usually do all the steps we do.

  5. Claire
    Claire December 2, 2012 9:06 pm

    Yeah, good points. Practice. Routine. BIG jars. And I suspect it would also help to have a really gigantomongous stock pot for prepping large batches. Then all you have to do is keep filling jars and rotating them into the canner(s). I’ve got a couple of pretty decent-sized soup pots, but might have to start watching garage sales for something industrial sized.

    It’s also easier to can fruits and jams than elaborate, multi-ingredient things like chutneys or slow-cooking things like fruit butters.

    And yeah … food safety. Even now I’m surprised at some of the dubious methods people say they use (in fact, sometimes boast of using) because, “Granny did it that way and she lived to be 90.”

  6. Howard
    Howard December 2, 2012 9:52 pm

    We live in Alaska and are now great grandparents. When all six kids and two foster kids were home and we lived “outside” (the lower forty eight states) my wife was canning about 1000 quarts of food a year. We did have a couple 20 quart stock pots and two pressure canners. Also that was her job in the summer. We did not take any shortcuts that would be considered unsafe by modern standards. Since we moved to Alaska we do more meat and fish in pints and less vegetables and fruits because of the shorter growing season (although now that I’m retired we are doing more with green house and hoop house culture.) Practice speeds things up.
    keep up the good work

    Copper Center, Alaska

  7. FishOrMan
    FishOrMan December 2, 2012 10:07 pm

    Living in the Skagit Valley we have access to lots of cabbage, (large, make that HUGE head version). Asked around the family and most everyone requested one maybe two heads — Great-grandma asked for 30! I described their size and she said she wanted to can them and IF it was too much she had enough friends she could share with.

    I hauled all the cabbage over the mtns. to Eastern Washington, came back home and called her three days later. She had been working steady and had just finished the last batch — pickled, canned or just bagged and frozen — only giving away a couple of heads. She absolutely loved doing it. Also she is in her 80s and her and great-grandpa, (80s too), took out their living room carpet and put down laminate flooring this fall too.

    Grandmas are great!

  8. Richard
    Richard December 2, 2012 11:04 pm

    I’m a bit surprised you don’t have it but Jackie Clay has a canning book out. But you can always just “Ask Jackie”. Maybe she’ll post an answer on her blog.


  9. LarryA
    LarryA December 3, 2012 12:09 am

    “Even now Iโ€™m surprised at some of the dubious methods people say they use (in fact, sometimes boast of using) because, โ€œGranny did it that way and she lived to be 90.โ€”

    There’s the story about the man who was watching his wife get a roast ready for a family gathering. She cut the end off the roast and put it in the pot. He asked, “Why did you cut the end off?”

    “I don’t know,” she replies. “That’s the way my mother always did it.”

    Later her mother comes over with her contribution. The wife asks, “Why did you always cut the end off a roast before putting it in the pan?”

    The mother said, “I don’t know. That’s the way my mother did it.”

    When the grandmother arrives they corner her. “Grandma, why did you always cut the end off a roast before you put it in the pan?”

    Grandma said, “I didn’t have a pan big enough to hold a whole roast.”

  10. EN
    EN December 3, 2012 12:34 am

    It seems like every time I’m in Italy I end up some place where Grannie is doing a seemingly complicated pasta dish, smaller dishes, meats and all with fresh ingredients like eggs, flour and herbs… and it takes her less than an hour. I doubt if many in the US could cut that time down to a day. Practice, practice, practice. As for canning, someone mentioned a pressure canner? Is that the same as a pressure cooker? I’m sure my Grannie did a lot of her canning in her stand up pressure cooker. It was right next to the stove and she would run an assembly line and do massive amounts of fruits/jams, veggies and my fave, fish. There even potatoes in brine, which I peeled for her and were awful, but they loved them. She had a pantry about the size of my bedroom and always complained that she missed her basement in Minnesota. There just wasn’t enough room.

  11. EN
    EN December 3, 2012 12:36 am

    It also needs to be pointed out that Granny didn’t have a blog or even a computer. She watched Mike Douglas in the Afternoon and “her shows” until about 8:00 PM. Then it was off to bed and up at 0500. Lots of differences.

  12. WolfSong
    WolfSong December 3, 2012 4:23 am

    Practice,practice, practice.

    And, yeah, like EN said, different time usage. Myself, I put up an average of 600 jars a year, both water bathed and pressure canned. I found things to make it easier time wise. Like when I know I’m going to have a batch of something to can, I prep the night before, mostly while I’m making supper. I’ll have the canner, jars and lids washed and ready for the next (early) morning. I also make sure that the kitchen is spotless the night before, and all my needed utensils are clean and ready to use. I use slave labor, in the form of my Kid and Hubby…they both learned the fun of snapping bean ends off-we only had 100 lbs of snap beans to do this year!

    Really though, it’s practice. I remember when I first started canning-it was only 7 years ago, and I had no previous experience, because I was not encouraged to be in the kitchen growing up, and my mom hated canning!-I never thought I’d get the hang of it. I really couldn’t see how it was even worth doing. But as I fumbled my way through it-with tons of help from Jackie’s column-I’ve gotten to the point where I can throw out a batch of home canned soup, bake bread and make a full supper all at the same time.

    That said, I usually fall asleep watching the 6 o clock news. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Water Lily
    Water Lily December 3, 2012 5:33 am

    My grandmother never canned a thing in her life.

    She was what we used to call “a character.” She used to “buy” furniture “on time” and never pay for it. When they came for the unpaid furniture, she’d wait a day and then go to another store and “buy” another apartment full of furniture. She wore her necklaces, earrings, fancy dresses, and hats every day of her life – even when in a nursing home, and on the day she died.

    I did some canning a few years ago. It was time/labor intensive, but I really enjoyed having those canned foods on the shelf and on my plate. I’ve been thinking about doing some canning again. I’m just afraid that it will take over my life.

  14. R.L. Wurdack
    R.L. Wurdack December 3, 2012 7:11 am

    We do the heavy fruit canning in the fall in our outdoor kitchen. Lots of counter space, plenty of room and you can clean up with a shovel and a garden hose.

    BTW, gas/propane can generally get more BTUs into the sauce faster than an electric range. Large pots with lids are good. Assembly lines work well for preparing the food for canning.

  15. Karen
    Karen December 3, 2012 7:23 am

    “I look at my 13-1/2 pathetic pints and am abashed.”

    Everything is relative. With just 2 of us in the household, I rarely do huge batches of anything, so 13 1/2 jars sounds like a big batch to me. With a big family or a truly remote location, 600-1000 quarts is probably just barely a season’s food supply, but we’d be hard pressed to go thru that much food in a timely manner unless it was absolutely our only source.

    I had high hopes of canning a lot of fresh produce from the farmer’s market this year, but the prices were so outrageous that I had to pass. It’s sad when corn is $0.50/ear, but a can of corn(about 3 ears worth) is $0.65. I know the canned stuff gives me salt and preservatives and BPA, but being over 60 and a smoker makes me less concerned about what’s in the food and more concerned about just having food.

  16. Matt, another
    Matt, another December 3, 2012 8:03 am

    Grandma probably started before daylight. She also knew all the steps and which were sequential, and what could be multi-tasked. The apples for sauce might of started cooking down several day in advance.

  17. just waiting
    just waiting December 3, 2012 8:29 am

    My Grams left us this past spring at tender young age of 106. Until she moved away at 100, I could stop by Grams unannounced on a Monday at noon or a Thursday at 2:30 and she always just happened to have a roast with all the fixins, including her special yorkshire pudding, that’ll be ready in “just a minute, go wash your hands”. She had that Gramma feeling that someone might be coming. There were always fresh made biscuits and bread to take home.

    She was born and raised in a different world than we have now. Her hometown went electric around 1960. She went to enough school to learn how to read, so she could read the Bible. As the oldest daughter of 12 kids, each year of age brought new responsibilities to the family. Men fished, and she canned, salted, smoked or pickled. She cooked for the family. She sewed and knitted (we all have Grannyquilts). She raised her younger siblings.

    The one thing she didn’t have back then that we have today is distractions. No radio, no tv, no internets. No groce stores that she could run to if she needed a cup of milk. Primary focus was on performing the tasks one needed to perform to survive, because if she didn’t no one else, her family wouldn’t. The better and faster she got at them, the more time it freed up to practice doing something else faster, because the family kept growing and their were always more needs to feed.

    Until she moved to the US in the 20s, Grams lived a hard life by necessity, it was all she knew. She found it strange hearing tales that many of us are trying to live that same kind of life by choice.

  18. -s
    -s December 3, 2012 9:10 am

    Capital equipment, what the Austrian economists call “factors of production.”
    Your new gifts are part of the capital required. If/when you invest in larger pots, bigger and more powerful grinders and strainers, bigger canning jars, more powerful stove burners, etc. you’ll find that the amount of effort to can 15 pints is not very different from the amount to can 15 gallons – once you are properly equipped to do so.

    Practice helps, but no amount of practice will produce the gains you can get by investing in the right equipment for the job.

  19. Anne Ollamha
    Anne Ollamha December 3, 2012 10:02 am

    I imagine that your grandma was probably very organized after many years of canning, and had her procedures and processes refined to a science. My darling MIL taught me how to can, and I quickly learned that it was organization, and lots of room to work, that were key.

    The kitchen table had its leaves in for maximum space, and she used a two burner hot plate to keep her rings and lids simmering, and the kettle on for a continuous supply of hot water as needed.

    She was a city girl herself (sang in a “country orchestra”), and learned canning from a neighbor lady when her two oldest boys were toddlers.

    I do smaller batches these days myself, but I never forget to organize, and have everything ready to go before I start cutting, peeling, chopping, etc., and clean up as I go.

  20. Mic
    Mic December 3, 2012 12:26 pm

    I am still blessed to have my grandma with me. She used to do this type of stuff without batting an eye. She doesn’t can like that anymore and has only a few plants in her garden, but she is almost 80 so I have to give her a break.

    However I still have so much respect for her and how hard she worked and the skills she knows. I don’t think I could do what she did. When I tell her this stuff she just shrugs it off and says “well, that is just what you did” ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty December 3, 2012 12:33 pm

    My paternal grandmother was born about 1850, in rural Scotland. I doubt she did any canning, but was likely very well prepared to dry or pickle most anything.

    I can things that don’t dry well, or if I don’t have room to freeze them.

    Mostly I’m glad that I have so many options these days. Our grandmothers usually did not.

    And what, pray tell, would anyone do with 250 quarts of applesauce? Unless he sold them, of course. I can’t use more than a dozen or so pints a year.

  22. Ellendra
    Ellendra December 3, 2012 2:39 pm

    And here I’m wishing I had the 250 quart jars to do the canning with!

    I think I have maybe 50 jars all totalled, but they’re different sizes. And dad is always complaining that there’s too many of them and that they’re in the way.

    (Dad believes “prepping” is an excuse for hoarding disorder. On the other hand, mom wants me to can up the leftover turkey so she can learn how it’s done, and even mentioned getting some more turkey to can up. Not looking forward to those arguments.)

  23. Hanza
    Hanza December 3, 2012 8:09 pm

    Back in the ’40s and ’50s my mother did a lot of canning. Me, I’ve never been interested.

  24. Bonnie
    Bonnie December 4, 2012 3:20 pm

    EN – just read your post & question. A pressure canner & a pressure cooker are 2 different things – a cooker doesn’t have to be standardized for the amount of pressure it can produce. . When I teach canning classes I tell the students, “You can cook in a pressure canner, but you cannot can in a pressure cooker.”

    My mother ended up with her mother’s canner & did much more cooking in it than canning. I have it now.

  25. jackie clay-atkinson
    jackie clay-atkinson December 4, 2012 5:53 pm

    Coming from a long line of family canners, I never felt overwhelmed at canning. But I learned at a young age how to make a big job easier. And I do that with everything today. With experience, you learn to make big batches in big pots; it takes just a little longer to can 14 pints than it does 3. The processing time is the same, of course, but the prep time doesn’t take that much longer. I use big stainless steel stock pots I bought cheap through Northern Tool as a nesting set. I cook down my tomato sauce in a big turkey roasting pan, in the oven overnight instead of standing over the stove for hours, stirring sauce so it won’t burn. Your grandma probably canned those 100 pounds of tomatoes as stewed tomatoes, which after the peeling, takes very little prep time and she would fill quarts and water bath them, then fill more until they were done. It really doesn’t take all that long if you peel tomatoes, quarter them and toss them into a stockpot to cook down. Experience teaches you lots of shortcuts and the more you can, the better…and faster you get.
    Time management is another learned skill. And it sure helps during canning. I take breaks between steps and go read part of a book while water is heating, the canner is trying to get to boiling, etc. But I don’t waste time playing video games, watching soap operas, etc., either! After all, I only go on my computer two or three times a week. To work. That leaves plenty of time to can. I never make a chore of it. Canning is FUN! That and the fact that your’e eating gourmet quality food all the time keeps me canning. Hang in there, Claire. You’ll get so it’s all easy, too.

    Jackie Clay-Atkinson

  26. Claire
    Claire December 4, 2012 6:10 pm

    Jackie — Thanks once again for coming by here with your old-timey wisdom! As it happens, I just took your name in vain in another post today.

    I thought of you — and Grandma — while canning this weekend.

    I’m sure you (and others) are right when you say big batches and good organization are among the big keys. And those big stock pots, too …

  27. Claire
    Claire December 5, 2012 6:11 pm

    Benjamin — Excellent! I hope Kindle owners grab that. I’ll have to try to get to my Windows machine with the faux Kindle reader on it and see if I can figure out how to make this work.

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