The twist of a wrist and the snap of an unsealed Mason jar seemed like a magic trick to young Chelsea O’Leary, watching her grandmother make her favorite homemade chili. She poured out a quart of bright red tomatoes that looked fresh, as if she’d just plucked them from her garden in the Ohio countryside. How did they defy the ravages of time? Even now, decades later, O’Leary can still hear that snap of the Mason jar lid.
Her grandmother had taken to canning out of need. Food storage felt requisite for the generation raised during the Great Depression. But each summer and fall, she put up her produce with pride, making it clear she did so for reasons beyond financial necessity. Canning gave her a way to tailor her pantry and feed her loved ones, but it also furnished some sense of control over an uncertain future. Only as an adult did O’Leary, 32, realize she wanted those things, too.
That was in 2020, in the early weeks and months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Amid nationwide quarantines and food shortages, she launched Wiley Canning Company in Nashville, Tennessee, to take up her own canning practice and teach others to put up food like her grandmother. She quickly realized she was not alone. She wrote a cookbook that has sold thousands of copies, and every public workshop she’s offered in the last three years has been completely booked.
O’Leary’s success is one example of a surprising boom in food preservation. Google searches for “canning” hit an all-time peak in the United States in 2020. The metal lids and rubber bands needed to create airtight seals sold too fast that year for supermarkets to keep them in stock. Ball, the preeminent manufacturer, warned on its website that its products were “selling out as soon as the retailers put them on the shelves.” But the rush has outlasted that moment of crisis. The #canning hashtag on TikTok has drawn more than 800 million views and counting, along with a slew of videos that provide basic instructions and show off more creative concoctions.
For traditional canners who never let the practice be forgotten, this might feel like vindication. But there seems to be something behind this surge of interest that runs deeper than saving a few bucks or savoring sweet boiled peaches long past their season. Like any such fervor, it offers a glimpse into our collective consciousness and how Americans choose to view the future. And right now, that vision seems to be rather uncertain.
They developed a culture of self-reliance that persists today, with the rationale that “should adversity come, we may care for ourselves and our neighbors.”
Food preservation is an ancient practice. Early methods persist in plain sight. Drying meat gave us beef jerky. Salting gave us ham. Fermenting milk gave us yogurt and cheese. We still enjoy brined lox, smoked salmon and pickled vegetables like cucumbers. But these techniques weren’t reliable enough to feed Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops, so in 1795, the French army offered 12,000 francs to whomever could find a better way. Some attempts were as crude as wax caps or champagne bottles corked with a rancid, curdle-prone combination of cheese and lime. But 14 years later, Nicolas Appert won the prize with heat-based canning in glass jars wrapped with wire. It was American tinsmith John Landis Mason who improved on that method, inventing the eponymous jar in 1858.
Mason’s rubber rings and metal lids were easy to manufacture and easier to use. Soon, canning was adopted across the American frontier, including among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many already relied on ancestral knowledge to pickle vegetables, cure meats and craft preserves as they navigated the West’s great arid distances. They developed a culture of self-reliance that persists today, with the rationale that “should adversity come, we may care for ourselves and our neighbors.”
The federal government adopted a similar ethos as policy for much of the 20th century. The Department of Agriculture promoted “mother-daughter home canning clubs” to build up morale and food reserves during the First World War. Amid the Great Depression, the department created community canning centers for rural families to access costly equipment and put up food alongside their neighbors. Later, the government pushed canning as an act of patriotism that helped win the Second World War; of all the fruits and vegetables eaten across the country in 1944, the majority — three and a half billion quarts worth — were hand-canned by American housewives.
After the war, the world felt safe again — maybe safer than ever. America experienced an unprecedented boom, fueled by an uptick in industry and defense jobs and a privileged position in the global economy. Returning veterans went to college and became office workers or landed union jobs in blue-collar fields. They bought homes in sprawling new developments and drove American-made cars pitched in advertisements on television. Families that could comfortably buy fresh produce from local grocers or frozen dinners from shiny new supermarkets didn’t feel the need to prepare for shortages. That sensation endured, with a few peaks and valleys, for decades. Home canning fell out of favor.
That started to change during the Great Recession, when the collapse of the banking system gutted the global economy and left innumerable families on the brink. In 2008, The New York Times pointed out a familiar surge in sales of Ball jars, lids and rings. In 2010, Slate called canning “ridiculously trendy,” as hipsters found new ways to imbue preserved foods with odd or surprising flavors. But the practice of canning historically waxes and wanes with the health of the economy, and the trend faded as quickly as the country recovered.
Until disaster struck.
When the world feels adrift, people find ways to exercise control over their own lives. Few triggers in recent history have been more sobering or motivational than the pandemic.
The photographs seem eerie now. Fluorescent lights in grocery stores spotlight long aisles of empty shelves. Desperate and frightened shoppers push carts bloated with frozen food and piles of steel cans. It’s 2020 and nobody knows how long the pandemic will last. Or when the supply chain will provide again. Or if it ever will. Yeast? Gone. Toilet paper? Forget it. It’s a familiar scene at Costcos, Walmarts and Targets across the country. Wheels squeak beneath the carts’ unfamiliar weight as shoppers pause to examine whatever shelf-stable food they can find.
A study published this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one-third of Americans experienced some level of food insecurity in 2020. That was up from 10.5 percent in 2019, according to the Department of Agriculture. For some, it got worse than that. The pandemic cost tens of millions of people their jobs, almost overnight. The American Rescue Plan Act provided most citizens with stimulus payments, but that relief only went so far. Even toward the end of 2021, the Census Bureau still found that some 10 million households were behind on rent, while 20 million had too little to eat in the previous week. To stretch their resources, many turned to time-honored solutions, like canning.
Today, the labor market has surpassed pre-pandemic levels, but people from rural Idaho to North Carolina continue to pack food preservation courses more now than ever. “There was a shortage of food, grocery stores were empty, people couldn’t get necessities to feed their family. People did turn to gardening and preserving their own food which a lot of them have stuck with,” says Amanda Henning, agriculture and food systems team leader for Cornell University’s Extension Program in upstate New York. “We could have the class probably every night of the week and it would be full.”
One reason they cite is rather obvious: inflation. Inflation rates started climbing as the country started reopening, peaking at 9.1 percent in June 2022 — the highest annual rate increase since prices rose 8.9 percent over 12 months in November 1981. That doesn’t even account for food and energy prices, which are too volatile to include in the government’s core inflation calculus. Overall, inflation has since cooled off, slowed in part by higher interest rates, which have their own impact on family finances. The cost of living hasn’t come down and hourly earnings have been slow to catch up, so most Americans have smaller cushions today between their income and their needs. No wonder they’re looking for ways to make a difference, though that drive may involve more than basic financial arithmetic.
The cost of home canning has evolved, too. In 2023, it is no longer reliable as a cheaper way to feed families who don’t grow their own food. People who preserve produce purchased from grocery stores or farmers markets must include the cost of tempered glass jars, lids, bands and a water bath or pressure canner — apparatuses that tend to cost no less than $100 — on top of the cost of the food itself. This raises more questions than answers.
“I think the market has changed to where it’s just not cheaper to can anymore,” says Brock Cheney, author of “Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers.” He’s now passing his own stock of Mason jars on to his daughters, helping them to start home canning practices of their own because he sees more to it. “Food is something we all do every day. Food is an opportunity to engage in a creative process and make some art, to do something just for the joy. I think all of that has nothing to do with economics.”
Most Americans today seem to have enough distance from utter necessity to practice canning for no other reason than the joy it gives them.
On the screen, a middle-aged mom stands in a modest home kitchen, behind a massive metal bowl full of green beans on a wooden counter. Susan Snider tells us she bought them for $4 a bag off the back of a pickup in a Walmart parking lot. Steam rises behind her from pots on a gas stove, under sloped ceilings, and her husband’s hands can be seen trimming the beans. Across a three-minute clip, she walks her daughter’s 850,000 TikTok followers through the process of packing, seasoning and sealing the whole batch into 11 quart-sized Mason jars, using a pressure canner. A wardrobe change — to a T-shirt that declares “YES, I CAN” above illustrated cans of produce — suggests the process takes longer in real life.
Most Americans today seem to have enough distance from utter necessity to practice canning for no other reason than the joy it gives them. While she lucked out on the cost, what stands out from the video is Susan’s ebullience at every stage, while her daughter, Sarah, chimes in from behind the camera. Sarah’s account — FunnyFarmDaughter — offers a near-endless selection of videos, many on food preservation: Canning CARROTS! Canning butter! Canning Banana Bread In the Oven! Posted in January 2022, the video has more than 1,450 comments, most from motivated newbies. “My grandparents raised me and (canned) everything, but I didn’t have time to learn it before they passed,” writes one viewer. “Your videos mean the world!” Another adds: “I will never can anything in my life but I just can’t get enough.”
Some are elevating the practice in culinary ways. Vintage canning cookbooks have popped up for sale on Etsy. There are podcasts like “Perfectly Preserved” that double as canning tutorials. Popular recipes like raspberry lavender jam, prime rib stroganoff and mango chutney are making the rounds. Some folks bottle vividly colored produce for aesthetic reasons. And canning still leads to blue ribbons from county fairs, inventive recipes and even friendships, explains Danille Christensen, assistant professor of religion and culture at Virginia Tech, in a 2015 article for the Southern Cultures journal. “A person might develop an important relationship with someone he knows only via a blog — or a jar of blueberry marmalade sent through the mail,” she writes.
Even so, beauty and pleasure also fall short as reasons so many would endure hours of repetitive labor, peeling and chopping food they won’t eat for months in a kitchen that feels like a sauna. According to Megan Elias, a food historian and director of Boston University’s gastronomy program, it could be a coping mechanism, or a political act. “Most people don’t eat seasonally. They’re not going to sit through the winter, only eating what they’ve canned, because they don’t have to,” she says. “But you can say: Do I have autonomy? Do I have some kind of different relationship with food and with food chains? Can I have independence from big agriculture?”
Or perhaps, when the world feels adrift, people find little ways to exercise control over their own lives. Those early days of the pandemic are a haunting memory, but few triggers in recent history have been more sobering or motivational. “At any given moment, we could be confined to our own properties because of something like a worldwide pandemic,” says O’Leary, from her home in Nashville. “It feels like that could happen again.”
Plus, crises have now compounded. A majority of youth struggle with “climate anxiety” when considering the future of a warming world. The last president threatened to disrupt a peaceful transition of power. A Gallup poll last year showed that only 17 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction of the country. There’s widespread panic about artificial intelligence. Some philosophers argue that the 21st century is the most important and challenging of all, with more changes to endure than ever.
In times like these, people often return to the fundamentals. A tradition like canning can feel like an anchor. That might be as simple as the tomatoes O’Leary learned to can with her grandmother. “The pandemic reinforced the value of autonomy and self-sufficiency,” she says. “My grandmother taught me how wonderful canned goods could be. Knowing that I can teach my son this skill, it feels a bit more meaningful.”