The art of canning: A recent revival
For 34-year-old Lana Mustafa, farm director of Montclair Community Farms, preserving and canning foods has always been a familiar way of life.
“I'm a product of migration – we’re Palestinian,” Mustafa said. “Back home in Palestine, you live very seasonally, close to the land. You're canning and preserving everything – kind of like what the United States was like in the 40s and 30s and 50s.”
While living in Palestine, Mustafa recalls how important the process of preserving food was to the culture. “This is like a huge part of their life,” she said.
There, Mustafa said, harvesting and preserving olives and other fruits and vegetables is a common practice to ensure families have food during the cooler fall and winter seasons. As a child, Mustafa remembers growing curious about the practice as she watched her mother and aunt do it.
However, as Mustafa got older, and when her grandparents moved to the United States, the practice of preserving and canning faded as her family became introduced to the world of convenience, accessibility and affordability. Having almost any produce or product available at a nearby grocery store changed her family’s understanding and connection to foods, Mustafa said.
“It was like the cool thing to buy things from the grocery store,” Mustafa said. “When my grandma came to the United States, she was like: ‘Breastfeeding? Who does that? We have formula here in America.’ So my mom didn't actually breastfeed.”
This dichotomy inspired Mustafa to question the relationship people have with food and the body. She began to educate herself on the art of canning and preserving, as well as the negative health effects of processed foods.
“Back in Palestine, people don't really do that,” Mustafa said. “They don't really add all of these additional things. It's just like straight forward from the plant, into the jar, and then sealed and done with. That inspired me to rekindle that, and research and dive a little deeper, and really think about what we're doing to our bodies and what we're adding into our foods on an everyday basis.”
She continued, “Now that I'm an adult and a free thinker and very close to the Earth, I'm able to go back to my roots and explore certain things, which was how I ended up where I ended up.”
Over the years, Mustafa has found herself naturally progressing in the farming and agricultural profession. She started out as a hobby gardener passionate about connecting her children with the food they consume. Then she became a chicken keeper, beekeeper, urban farmer and more recently, a practitioner of food canning and preserving.
Since the onset of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, and with the ongoing rise of inflation, many Americans have taken up the hobby of gardening their own produce at home. According to a Fox Business report, Bakers Creek Heirloom Seed Co., the nation's No. 1 direct-to-consumer seed distributor, has seen double the amount of orders since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have yet to see a break since.
With the abundance of food that can be produced in home gardens, Mustafa said, gardening is on the rise as is canning and preserving in the fall months.
“It feels like a natural progression,” Mustafa said. “If you're gardening and you're getting really good at it, that means you're going to have an abundance of a crop. And you can only use so much in such a short amount of time, you can only share so much in such a short amount of time. So the natural next step is, ‘How can I preserve this? How can I make this fruit or vegetable shelf stable for the next year or two?’ And with the rising cost of food, it only makes sense to pick up a new skill, learn how to waterbath can and then have food that you have grown for the next year.”
Mustafa has seen so much of an interest in canning in Montclair, that she will be teaching an introduction to canning and food preservation class on Oct. 11 at the Montclair Public Library. Those interested can register online by Oct. 5.
For Mustafa, canning and preserving food is not only a way to benefit the body and have healthier foods for the cooler months, but it's also a way to connect with friends, family and other loved ones.
Every spring, Mustafa invites a group of her friends to her home to preserve large batches of sauerkraut. And because she has many connections to the farming community of Montclair, each friend has an opportunity to bring their abundance of produce to share as a group.
“Everyone comes together with their ingredients,” she said. “We’re chopping, we're laughing, we're drinking – it's just like a whole community event.”
She continued, “Doing it alone is definitely possible, but doing it with friends and family makes it a lot more special.”