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Gathering, preserving and feasting

With the official arrival of fall, many of us are beginning to take part in the yearly tradition of decorating to celebrate the transition of seasons. This may include adding pumpkins and straw to our front porches, lighting apple cinnamon scented candles and pulling out orange, red and yellow table decor. Autumn has always been intrinsically tied to aesthetics and food culture, representing the beautiful abundance of the harvest season and the yearly gathering of crops to store up for the winter. Canning, of course, is a natural component of preserving this abundance.

Both home and commercial canners at the Prince Edward County Cannery are driven by aesthetic and economic ambitions. For home canners, the preservation of food grown or purchased locally is often more affordable than buying large quantities of food at the grocery store. For commercial canners, their livelihood is wrapped up in their entrepreneurial endeavors. Author Amy Bently discusses how, in addition to economic necessity, canning had an inherent aesthetic or expressive cultural value:

“As the folklorist Charles Camp has observed, ‘Just as gardening provides a useful cover for aesthetic indulgences, home canning underscores food’s attractiveness.’ There had long existed what one scholar calls the “aesthetic of the full larder,” through which a woman gained “bourgeois prestige” by showing her friends and neighbors shelves of beautifully arranged preserved foods. For years, women had entered their canned goods in contests at county and state fairs, where the goods were judged by taste, color, arrangement, uniform size, clearness of liquid and quality of the jar.”1

Today, this aesthetic culture is present on both sides of the cannery. Commercial canners take care to choose glass jars that best showcase their product and to choose the labels that announce their product brand to retail consumers. While canning in tin does not always offer the same ability to emphasize aesthetics in the final production, one look at the cannery on a home production day demonstrates the care that canners take in selecting the freshest and most beautiful produce to make it into their finished cans. One patron even goes so far as to wait until her cans are cooled and dried to decorate the lids with small apples for the applesauce that she produces and gives as Christmas gifts each year, using red and green sharpies to complete the presentation.

In her article, “Simply Necessity?: Agency and Aesthetics in Southern Home Canning,” Virginia Tech Professor Danielle Christensen writes:

“In fact, home bottling in the rural South has never been purely about necessity…reducing past rural domestic practice to duty or deprivation alone ignores the agency and aesthetic sophistication of people already marginalized by gender, region, race and other contributors to socioeconomic status.”2

As we take time this fall to appreciate the changing colors of the leaves, temperatures dipping beneath 80 degrees and the delicious flavors of fall crops hitting our tables, let us also consider the way that aesthetic culture enhances our appreciation of gathering, preserving and feasting.

HANNAH EVANS is the Director of Virginia Food Works and can be reached at info@VirginiaFoodWorks.com.

1. Amy Bentley, Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 130.

2. Christensen, Danielle Elise. “Simply Necessity?: Agency and Aesthetics in Southern Home Canning.” Southern Cultures, vol. 21 no. 1, 2015, pp. 18.