Canning makes more than just food

Kathleen Ellyn/Chieftain Casey Williams, 11, of Enterprise and her grandma, Alita Melville, test their best salsa. The jar in the foreground is the carefully selected one that went to the Wallowa County Fair. Casey is an accomplished cook, sewer and hog raiser in the “Sew Me The Bacon” 4-H Club. She entered half a dozen outfits in the sewing classes, cookies and biscuits and more in cooking classes, and a hog in the market hog division ... and one jar of salsa.

Casey Williams, 11, of Enterprise, is entering just one little jar of salsa in the canning division at the Wallowa County Fair this year. But a lot went into that jar.

She learned to scald, peel and core tomatoes alongside her grandmother, Alita Melville, and the two made that salsa from a carefully selected and tested recipe.

The good thing about testing a recipe is that the “failures” can be eaten. Failures are good eating, all right, but just not quite good enough for the fair.

Then, finally, Casey and her grandmother smiled at each other and nodded in unison. This is the one. They may have a winner.

“We’ll see what the judges think,” said Alita.

“It’s all homegrown,” said Casey.

They made plenty of it, but this jar in particular made the cut. Good color, good quality, straight out of Grandma’s garden on Getting Road, and filled to exactly one-half inch from the top of the jar. Not over-processed, not under-processed. Just about as perfect as you can get.

But again, blue ribbon or no ribbon, you can eat it. And the extended Williams/Melville family is doing just that with the other jars.

That’s both good and bad. The good part is pretty self-evident as the tortilla chips battle for dipping space. The bad part comes at the very same time.

“It takes five minutes for a family to eat the cooking it took you all day to create,” said Alita.

And here is where canning is a bit special.

Casey has to think awhile to come up with the words to explain it, and in the end she has to tell the story: “I like to make salsa because me and my grandma made it together,” she begins. And then she goes on: it came out of Grandma’s own garden, she loves chopping vegetables, they experimented and it wasn’t all Casey learning from Grandma, it was Casey learning with Grandma; and “I feel very proud of myself when I look at all the jars.”

And that’s the beauty of canning: when you go down into the pantry, it’s not all gone in five minutes like supper. The jars stand there, gleaming in the half-light of a single bulb, and tell a volume of stories.

There are the stories of generations of Williamses and Melvilles, both men and women. Of ancient family recipes that begin “take 100 pounds of tomatoes,” of a dad and granddad and the building of greenhouses and cultivation of gardens, of little sisters who helped pick and plant, cousins that helped weed, special spaghetti sauce made for that picnic, peach upside down cake made for that baby shower ... even Dad’s hunting stories are down here — over there are his jars of elk, bear, venison and kokanee.

“When you go down and look at it, rows of it, you feel so good,” said Alita.

It’s an art installation.

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