Beyond Compost: An Interview With Eugenia Bone

Canning is like having an investment or retirement fund in your pantry. You make small deposits over time, and there’s a huge payoff in convenience, in flavor.

Eugenia Giobbi Bone grew up in a household where good cooking was the norm. Her father, artist and cookbook author Edward Giobbi, is an avid preserver whose home-canned foods were part of the daily diet. Bone began canning when she was eight months pregnant with her second child. She recounts this experience in Well-Preserved. Published in 2009, Well-Preserved is an invaluable modern manual dedicated to small batch preservation.

Like many cooks, I am both drawn to and terrified of canning. Bone’s friendly, no-nonsense explanation of spoilers and how to prevent them quelled those fears. But it was this sentence that truly liberated my inner canner: “Cleanliness is always important. Not fanatical cleanliness, just washing-your-hands-after-riding-the-subway sort of cleanliness.”

Really? No kitchen reeking of bleach? Just normal, everyday clean? I bought a cheap water bath canner, propped Well-Preserved on the counter, and made Bone’s tomatillo sauce. Everything worked: the sealed jars glowed a mellow celadon green. When opened, they exuded the sweetly tart taste of tomatillos. It required major willpower not to scarf down an entire jar with tortilla chips.

Five years later I acquired a gas stove and an All American pressure canner. Terrified anew, I opened my now-tattered copy of Well-Preserved and pored over the pressure canning section.

Pressure canning is not difficult, but it took a few rounds before I became comfortable using my canner. But when nothing blew up and the food didn’t get weird and nobody got sick, I relaxed. In fact, water bath canning is considered addictive, but pressure canning is much worse. Water bath canning is highly ph-dependent: unless your food is naturally acidic (pH 4.5 of less), or you acidify it — with vinegar, sugar, or lemon juice — you cannot safely water bath can. Make the leap to pressure canning and culinary worlds open. Once you’ve canned your own corn,or wax beans, carrots, or peaches, you’ll never return to commercially canned foods.

Yet for all the newfound interest in preserving, scarce little appears in the media about pressure canning. Even those cookbook writers and food bloggers familiar with pressure canning stick to publishing recipes for water bath canners. Those of us who pressure can often feel like a small, strange sect pursuing an archaic pastime.

Bone is among the few food writers who consider pressure canning part of daily kitchen life. Where Well-Preserved gave in-depth instruction on all aspects of preservation, The Kitchen Ecosystem, published in 2014, implements them into a workable paradigm. If you ever stared at carrot tops, woody asparagus bottoms, or reddish-pink apple peelings and wondered whether they could do more than become compost, you aren’t alone. Bone wondered, too. Then, in recipes from apples to zucchini, she chased down each food’s final whisper of flavor. She froze, canned, preserved in oil, and smoked. The result, she writes, is a perpetual pantry.

Instead of a static ingredient set meant for a single meal, The Kitchen Ecosystem pushes foods to their maximum use, putting each bit through its paces. A chicken or a bunch of carrots might be divided: some used fresh, some preserved, the remainder funneled into support ingredients that boost flavors in future meals. Thus, a chicken is tonight’s dinner, while the carcass becomes stock. This stock may be frozen or pressure canned. Carrots can be cooked or made into salad, while leftovers are pressure canned or pickled in a water bath canner. Lacy green carrot tops are neither trash nor compost, but a lively pesto.

Consider that jar of pickles while chomping its contents. The jar’s tangy juices make a fine artisanal cocktail known as a pickleback. Lemons, now in season in my part of the world, have thousands of guises: brightly salty preserves, marmalade, granita, Limoncello. Those support ingredients acting as flavor boosters mean a pantry’s worth of condiments, sauces, stocks, and relishes.

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Bone spoke with me on the telephone in a lively conversation ranging from Jacques Pépin’s milk cartons to the ways politicians impact food policy.

Why do you think pressure canning, as opposed to water bath canning—has as fallen out favor in our culture?

The government, aided by corporate food lobbies and food producers, dissuaded postwar cooks from preserving of any kind. It wasn’t modern. It wasn’t convenient. The modern kitchen was filled with commercially canned foods that were widely available. The idea of thrift in the kitchen, so prominent prior to Word War II, tanked.

You grew up with an Italian father whose friends included numerous European chefs, including Jacques Pépin. All were habitually thrifty cooks. In The Pleasures of Cooking for One, Judith Jones writes that when Pépin worked with Julia Child on their PBS series, he was disgusted by the treatment of vegetable trimmings, ends, and stems. He told Jones that at home he saved this “waste ” in a large milk carton kept in his freezer. When it came time to make stock, out came the milk carton, its contents dumped into the pot. Do you think you somehow internalized this notion of thrift?

Yes. I didn’t know about the milk carton. Dad shoved things in the fridge, then, when he made stock, he would scrounge around to see what was there. I’m of a different generation than those guys, but what they taught me was stock-making was not a big deal. That it’s easy, an everyday task, not a hard one. They also taught me to appreciate the difference between homemade stock and commercial. They gave me a palate. People today need recipes for everything. You don’t need a recipe to make stock.

Pressure canning, despite the rise of interest in artisanal cooking, really seems the uncrossable line. People are willing to attempt brewing beer, cheese-making, charcuterie. I know people who have rigged wine refrigerators to cure sausages—yet mention pressure canning to them and they freak out. Why so much fear?

I push it a lot. Obviously making tons of strawberry jam isn’t the answer. Who needs tons of strawberry jam? Pressure canning makes things interesting. But not a lot of people are writing about it. It’s like why people are afraid to eat mutton. During World War II, a lot of GI rations had bad mutton in them, and GI’s returned home and spread the word the that mutton was foul-tasting stuff.

Likewise with pressure canning: in the past, the machines were unsophisticated, and there’s a hangover about poorly operating machinery. In the past, many people used wood or coal-fired ovens. It was hard to control heat. There’s a fear of old contraptions, a fear the pressure canner is going to blow. But you have to be really negligent for something to go wrong these days. All you have to do is be mindful that something is on the stove.

I also think there’s a concerted effort to turn people from home canning by the government and companies like Hormel. I have no research conclusively proving there was an agreement between them (the government and commercial canned meat companies), but the fear campaigns about home canning are linked to commercial interests.

Do you think some of the pressure canning fears are related to food going off or botulism?

Heating a jar above 212 degrees Fahrenheit for ten minutes means a sterile jar. For food, a combination of time (sometimes a lot more then ten minutes) and heat (sometimes requiring the kind of heat obtained with pressure canning), are necessary.

If you understand bacteria, then you understand these are critters who need certain conditions to metabolize, and that is what creates toxins. If you take one circumstance from the mix, the bacteria is unable to metabolize, and they cannot create toxins. But you know you can always sterilize canned food by dumping it into an open pan and boiling it hard for ten minutes.

What advice would you give a novice about pressure canning?

Stock. The ultimate technique in this book is stock. The stockpot is your compost. Peels, stems, chicken bones, mushroom stems. I don’t make more than two pints at a time. I don’t even use a stockpot—a saucepan is enough. And I use it up quickly. If I’m using it in the next couple days, I’ll refrigerate it. Otherwise, I’ll pressure can it. I’ll have the pressure canner going the same time I’m making dinner. By the time dinner is over and I’m cleaning up, the cans are cooling on the counter.

What are you having for dinner tonight? (Our interview took place on 26 January 2015, as an enormous snowstorm blanketed New York City.)

The supermarkets are empty. I defrosted some lamb steaks. Bread is rising as we speak—I got it going this morning before I showered. I have a can of marinated red peppers that I put up last summer. Some stock, which I can every few days. Wine, which I always have in the house. I didn’t have to leave the house to make dinner. If you can’t can it at the same time you’re making dinner, there’s a problem.

And you have a beautiful dinner.

Yeah. The point is, I didn’t have to go out. It’s all in the house.

Well-Preserved discusses small batch canning. What food would you suggest people put up lots of?

What do you eat a lot of? If you eat tomatoes all winter, yeah, take a couple days and bring your pantry up to speed. But don’t make a lot of something with the idea of gift-giving. I’ve found it doesn’t work. By the time I remember the jars, they’re too old or people don’t want them, anyway.

A lively and inquisitive subject, Bone was happy to turn the tables, quizzing her interviewer. What did I can? Did I find that implementing a kitchen ecosystem made me a more creative cook?

(startled) I made a stew recently using leftover braising liquid from another stew. I pulled that from the freezer, and added pressure-canned chicken broth, canned tomatoes, and a heavily reduced bottle of red wine. We sipped the resulting broth from shot glasses. I realized dinner was the end result of six months worth of prep: the braising liquid was a couple months old, the tomatoes were put up in August, the broth was canned in September. Although I was using (sustainably raised) veal, the dish would have worked with lamb, pork, or beef.

Exactly! Like tonight, I have home canned marinated peppers with lamb. But I could have used my artichokes. I know what went into them. The recipe sets are similar. Either would work with the lamb. When you’re thinking that way, you’re making your kitchen ecosystem work for you. It’s a slam-dunk.

I want to try pressure canning the cabbage broth in The Kitchen Ecosystem.

People misunderstand the idea. They go out and buy a cabbage to make coleslaw and then throw out the rest of it. The idea is to make broth and pressure can the leftovers, then use them as support ingredients for another recipe. It’s like having an investment or retirement fund in your pantry. You make small deposits over time, and there’s a huge payoff in convenience, in flavor.

After Well-Preserved came out, a friend threw a party for me, and everyone was supposed to bring a dish made from the book. I was disappointed, because the food was good, but lacked the punch mine did at home. So I called around afterward and asked how people had prepared them. I found out that people were substituting commercial ingredients in recipes where I used homemade. The homemade ingredients were far more complex, making the end result better.

What do you say to people who say they have no time to cook?

I tell them to change one thing. What do you buy a lot of? What’s one food you really like? Pick one thing and make it at home to improve your quality of life.

Take mayonnaise. Homemade is better, and it will make your cooking better. Yes, it’s hard to make the first time, but you’ll get better at it, you’ll improve, and soon you’ll be able to make it quickly. It’s a learning curve. Or yogurt. You can make it at night while you’re watching TV. You can get it set up and allow it to rest overnight. I started with canning tuna and crab apple jelly.

An enthusiastic advocate of small-batch canning, Bone cans while preparing dinner. “If you can’t can while you’re making dinner”, she said to me, “something is wrong.”

When I mentioned my huge canner requires majors stovetop real estate, prohibiting other cooking, she suggested purchasing an artichoke pot. These tall, narrow pots, fitted with racks, accommodate either a pint or half-pint jar.

Then, while making dinner, you can water-bath can that extra corn into relish, or make preserved lemons, or lemon curd, building a diverse pantry. Not only that, your pantry becomes a doppelganger of meals past.

Are there any questions you wish interviewers would ask?

By and large writers have understood the book’s big picture, the message I wanted to send.

Which is?

I hate having my diet controlled by Monsanto (a large-scale agricultural company). I want to take my food into my own hands. But I am limited by living in New York City. It’s not always easy. I can’t grow my own food. But I want to live my values.

I had not considered The Kitchen Ecosystem a politically left cookbook. But looked at in that light, it is.

My values happen to coincide with flavor. But these values—independence, thrift, hard work—are very American. They are the basis of our exceptionalism. The industrialized food scenario is bad, bad, bad. I knew a farmer in Iowa with 4,000 acres. He grew a wide variety of crops, he had pigs. His entire family worked there. Now there are two people on the farm, and one handles the business side. He grows corn and soy, which he sells as industrial pig feed.

We discussed the problems small farmers face in the States, along with increasing obesity and easy access to junk food. Meanwhile, the planet struggles with hunger.

It’s a huge problem. We can do something right here at home: make stock from your bones.