Jars of bright red tomato juice glisten in the sunlight. Tiny pieces of green and red peppers seem to dance in jelly. Chunks of string beans are suspended in clear liquid.
All of it looks too pretty to eat. And it won’t be eaten until later in the year when the cold wind blows across the bare garden where the vegetables and fruits came from originally.
This is just a small portion of the produce that Jason Gray and Nancy Hicks have canned over the past few weeks — produce that Jason has grown in his family’s garden.
Jason, 35, grew up in a family that froze a lot of peas and corn, things like that.
“But some stuff just doesn’t freeze well,” he said. “One of my grandmothers on my mom’s side always canned tomato juice and everything really. I was always around canning, but was really too young to do anything to help. But I was familiar with it.”
Now that he’s an adult, Jason hates to see fruits and vegetables from his family’s garden go to waste, so he decided about eight years ago to start canning as much as he could.
That first year, he had more tomatoes than his family could eat, so he canned them, about 30 quarts. He used the recipe from the Ball Co. that makes canning jars.
Over the years, Jason has also canned field peas, potatoes, string beans, salsa, pepper jelly, pear preserves, okra, beets, pepper jelly and a lot more.
But he’s not doing it alone this year.
When Nancy Hicks, 65, who grew up in Raleigh, retired and moved to downtown Goldsboro a year ago, she and Jason became friends.
She was ecstatic when she found out that Jason was into canning, and wanted him to teach her how.
“The very first thing we canned were picked beets and pickled okra,” she said. “Those are two of my favorite things that I really wanted to do. I just love them.”
Nancy said neither of her grandmothers canned, so she had no way of learning the dying art.
She was even more amazed when she found out that Jason’s family grew the produce he canned.
“I grew up in the city and didn’t really know about farms that much,” Nancy said.
“The first time we went to the garden and actually picked the vegetables to can, there was nothing like it. I was like a kid at Christmas.”
This year for the first time, Jason put up pear preserves. His grandmother has always made them. Jason would pick the pears for her. But this year, she was sick and was worried that the family was going to miss out on her pear preserves.
So Jason decided to carry on her tradition. And his grandmother was better by that time and gave Jason a hand making the pear preserves.
“Pear preserves are the hardest thing to make,” Jason said.
“We started with a couple bushels of pears from trees that we’ve got on the farm. It took us about 10 or 11 hours to do, with about six or seven people.
“It takes a while because you’ve got to make sure you get all the peeling off of every piece. And after you put the sugar and everything in, you have to cook it down to the consistency that you want it. That can take an hour or two. And you have to stir in constantly. If you turn your head, the pears will stick pretty fast to the pot and burn. We made about 20 quarts.”
Tomato juice is Jason’s favorite thing to can.
He said it’s something that his family uses a lot of in everything from soup to spaghetti. They even cook rice in tomato juice that Jason has canned.
“I did make something new this year that I’ve never heard of before,” Jason said.
“I just happened to run across the recipe online. I had so many cantaloupes come out of the garden at one time this year, and was just trying to find a way to preserve them. I made salted cantaloupe jam. It turned out really well. We think it would go really good on pork as a glaze. I was impressed with it.”
Sometimes Jason and Nancy tweak recipes to make them their own, like the picked okra they canned this year.
They added more peppercorns and a little more dill than what the original recipe called for.
“It turned out really good,” Jason said.
“So far, everybody that’s tried it likes it, whether they like okra or not. We’re running out and will have to make more.
“Tweaking a recipe is all about the flavor you want and knowing what you can and can’t do if you’re going to can something.”
Sometimes Jason will can something he’s never tried to can before and give it to friends to get their opinion on it.
“Canning makes me feel accomplished and proud,” he said. “I’ve grown this from seed and now I’m preserving it so we can eat it sometime in the next year or so. I find canning relaxing. I have kind of a stressful job and canning is my happy place. It gets my mind off everything else.”
Of course, there have been a few mishaps. Like the dill pickles Jason tried canning this year. He said they were too strong and soft and mushy. So he threw the whole batch out.
For Jason, it’s more than just preserving food from the garden to be eaten later.
“This is how people from the south survived for so long,” he said. “It’s agricultural history. They grew their own food and preserved it. And most people don’t know how to do it nowadays.
“A lot of the old southern culture is dying out, and I think it should be preserved. It’s something I want to teach my children if I have kids or my niece and nephew.”
Jason is also bucking tradition.
“I think especially in southern culture, traditionally the woman took care of the food,” he said.
“I think a man canning is just not something we typically associated with the south.”
Jason believes that home canned foods are very healthy because the produce is coming straight out of the garden and is being preserved by cooking instead of having chemicals added to it.
Jason and Nancy do their canning in a huge kitchen in his parents’ barn in back of the house. He keeps most of it in an old cabinet out in the barn kitchen.
Canning is a special time for Nancy as she gets the opportunity to visit with Jason.
“We visit and tell jokes,” she said. “We talk about anything and everything. And that’s part of why it’s wonderful, too.
“We had another friend help, too, and she had never canned before either. I feel like Jason’s spreading this knowledge.”
Nancy said she and Jason plan on making French pickles, cornichons, next year.
“I asked Jason if we could try them,” Nancy said. “You have to grow a certain kind of cucumber, fin de meaux. They’re very small and thin, and they’re very crisp and spicier than normal dill pickles.”
When Nancy opens a jar of the pickled beets she and Jason made this summer, it brings back memories of canning them.
“One of my favorite parts of canning is hearing the ‘pop’ of the jars when they seal as they cool,” she said.