Shane shared this article on Google Reader tonight and it had what I imagine was the intended effect – getting me thinking about the small canning empire I started last summer. The author argues that canning – in its current urban incarnation – is less about frugality and more about a bourgeois sense of connection to what we eat. (Is bourgeois the right word? I’m never sure if I’m using it correctly. Anyway.)
There are a couple of things I take issue with in this article. First, the opening paragraph references the author’s ” $15 per pint, straight-from-the-Greenmarket, homemade and canned in Brooklyn, N.Y., macerated and simmered in unprocessed sugar, spiked with organic chiles and small-batch Kentucky bourbon strawberry jam” in her calculation of a $17 PB&J sandwich. $15 per pint is a ridiculous figure for jam – I think we can all agree on that – but unless she ate the entire pint, her sandwich probably works out to more like $3 at most. She makes an important point, though – you’re not saving money by canning when you’re paying more for the raw ingredients than you would the finished product in the quantities produced.
I started canning last year in the midst of an eating-local mania. Over the course of the summer and fall, I canned around 2 dozen pints of tomatoes, 8-10 pints of peaches, and a lot of applesauce. In addition, I froze zucchini, asparagus, roasted tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, green beans, and roasted red peppers. We’re still working our way through all the frozen stuff, though we exhausted the peaches earlier in the summer, and are on our last (I can’t believe it!) jar of canned tomatoes.
Has it been worthwhile? Taste-wise, mostly. The frozen vegetables didn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped, but the fruit was all great. Always having tomatoes on hand is excellent, and the peaches were a treat long before they’d returned to the market. Has it been financially worthwhile? Not sure.
We buy most of our produce from the assorted DC FreshFarm markets. It’s always a toss-up as to whether the market produce is cheaper than what’s at the grocery store. Much of the time it’s comparable, and the primary gains from shopping at market are being able to select the specific quantity you need from higher quality products – in addition to the warm fuzzies that come from dealing with people who have first-hand experience with the produce, rather than a stockboy who doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
When I started thinking about canning, I realized right away that it was only going to be financially worthwhile if we could get the stuff to be canned very cheaply. The author refers to putting up the bounty from a home garden – which is what my grandma did for years. With no home garden to plunder, the only financially feasible option was buying 2nds produce – or going the you-pick route. Whenever possible, we buy 2nds produce – things like tomatoes, apples, peaches, and pears that are still edible when less than perfect. 2nds produce is generally at least $1 cheaper per pound than the unblemished stuff, so by my calculations, it works out something like this:
10 pounds of tomatoes at $2 per pound produced 8 pints of tomatoes plus 3 pints tomato sauce.
Total expenditure on raw materials: $20
Cost of comparable store-bought items:
8 14 oz cans Giant-brand whole tomatoes @ $1.39 each: $11.12
3 14 oz jars Giant-brand Thick & Rich spaghetti sauce @ 1.25 each: $3.75
Total expenditure: $14.87
Does it work out to be financially worthwhile? No. Or at least not really. This also doesn’t calculate in the cost of the jars and lids – a one-time investment in infrastructure – or the electricity used in the process. At the same time, the oft-extolled “satisfaction of a job well done” is worth $5 to me. I felt immensely proud to have done the dirty, sweaty work of canning. I have continued to feel proud every time I open the cabinet to grab a jar of tomatoes at the last minute. In the last 12 months, I can count on one hand the number of jars of tomatoes we’ve purchased – 3 at most, and those were because we were cooking in bulk for Obama volunteers.
Canning is not financially worthwhile at $16 for two quarts of strawberries, which is what the author paid – but then I guess if you can afford to pay $16 for two quarts of strawberries, the financials don’t really matter all that much. Taking a $5 loss on something you enjoy doing is much more reasonable. $5 would get you (maybe) two games of bowling or a skein of yarn or a single ticket in the bleachers at a baseball game. Depending on where you live, $5 covers a beer or a Value Meal.
Last weekend I made 9 pints of Lodi applesauce – $16 for a peck of apples + $.07 for 1/4 C sugar = $1.78 per pint. A 25 oz jar of Giant-brand Apple Sauce (Natural) is $1.69. The price difference is about $.05 per ounce – except that Lodi apples aren’t usually available in the store. They’re early apples, with a very short production season and a limited shelf-life. They’re also the apples my grandparents grew in their backyard, so I grew up with Lodi applesauce, rather than the overly sweet or cinnamony stuff most kids had. The extra $.05 per ounce is worth it for taste and – for me – nostalgia.
Will I be canning this year? It depends on what’s available, and how much it will cost. I’m volunteering at the market this year, and as a result I get half-price produce. Half price might be worthwhile.