This canned American life

What ever happened to good old-fashioned, get-your-hands-dirty work?

Published September 28, 2005 10:25PM (EDT)

People tell me I work too hard, but I don't work nearly so hard as my mother did, raising six children, cleaning, cooking, washing clothes and hanging them out on the line, and then there was the late-summer orgy of canning. We scoured the garden for every last tomato, string bean, ear of corn, cucumber. The kitchen was a boiler room. Billows of steam from the pressure cooker, teakettles boiling -- hot water to skin the tomatoes! Boiling water to sterilize the glass jars! Children chopping and slicing! Mother slaving away, her hair damp as if she'd swum the Channel, sterilizing, steaming, aware that one little mistake could mean a jar full of botulism -- "Clostridium botulinum," which is Latin for "pushing up daisies." One jar of stewed tomatoes gone bad could wipe out our whole family.

But she plowed forward and fulfilled her quotas, 100 jars of tomatoes, 50 of beans, 20 of corn, plus beets and corn relish, in elegant Ball jars with the name "Ball" in cursive writing on the side, all lined up on deep shelves in the basement, and then she cleared the kitchen so she could start fixing supper.

Today, home canning has gone the way of the typewriter, the vacuum tube and the TV variety show. The Ball company sold off its jar division and now makes satellite sensors or something, and groceries stock fresh tomatoes all winter, imported from Mexico, which cost a buck apiece and taste more like tennis balls than tomatoes. But at least you don't have to stand in a steamy kitchen and ruin your hairdo.

Mother canned vegetables to please my father, who tucked into his stewed tomatoes satisfied that we had outsmarted the supermarket cartels scheming to sell us inferior stuff at exorbitant prices. He was a resistant consumer who instinctively distrusted all advertising, believing the world was full of con men, and you had to outsmart them by growing your own food, slaughtering your own chickens, shopping around for cheap clothes, reading the Bible and paying no attention to theologians, and sticking to Ford automobiles.

I think of him and his brothers and cousins, taciturn country men who were good with their hands and loved to get under the hood of a '53 Ford, their big rumps in the air, heads and shoulders down next to the engine block. They were proud of their good carpentry, their gardens and orchards, the concrete steps and sidewalks they had mixed and poured and smoothed with a two-by-four. I set myself apart from them as a boy, thinking their work dull, preferring the swashbuckling life of a writer -- Brilliance! Wit! Triumph! And gradually it dawns on me these fall days when I get to go into the woods and put on work gloves and cut my own firewood, that in search of brilliance I also found a great deal of B.S. as I went careering around and flaunting my great intellect in long meetings at which we may as well have been dropping clothespins into bottles for all the good we did, compared to which cutting firewood is useful work.

Ambition can take you far, but who are you when you get there?

I know plenty of people who could work up an expensive marketing plan to persuade you that having a doohickey is crucial to your well-being, and I know nobody personally who could build a stone wall or mill timber or drill a well. It's odd, but that's the world we live in. Here's Northwest Airlines, a good Minnesota company hijacked by corporate buccaneers in the go-go '80s and now stiffing its mechanics, hard-working people who actually know how to do something right.

We're not so different from the English gentry who settled on the Minnesota prairie in the 1870s and expended their capital to build a hunt club, a boating club, an Anglican church, and a brewery to produce ale and porter. Unfortunately, they didn't know how to plant wheat. They didn't scatter the seed; they knelt down and pressed it into the ground, one at a time. The grasshoppers wiped them out clean. Their land was bought cheap by peasant Swedes from Småland who did much better. They baked the grasshoppers in a crust and called it pecan pie. They put their shoulders to the wheel and hammered and cut and made a life with their own hands.

Beware of losing basic skills. Hang on to that pressure cooker.

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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2005 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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