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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Just An Old Fruit Jar

We need food to survive. Throughout history, food – and a readily available supply of it – have been essential to the survival of civilizations.

The preservation of food for future consumption also has been essential for survival. Until the 19th century, preservation methods included using salt, smoke, sugar, and dehydration.

Then along came baker, brewer and chef Francois Nicholas Appert, who in 1810 determined that foods could be preserved and stored in air-tight glass containers for later consumption. Appert experimented with heating foods sealed in glass containers he designed. Something about the process of applying heat to the sealed foods kept them from spoiling. Appert had made a significant discovery. At that time the study of chemistry was in its infancy and the concepts of bacteria and pasteurization had yet to be pinpointed.

That same year Englishman Peter Durand discovered and patented the concept of preserving food in metal cans. Fruit, vegetables and meat could now be safely preserved and stored. These two discoveries changed the preservation of food, leading to the birth of a new industry.

Tin cans were patented in the United States in 1810, but were not used widespread until the 1830s. Various methods of sealing the containers were employed, including the use of wax, cork, and animal skin. Then in 1858 John Landis Mason designed and patented a zinc screw-on top to go with his pale blue-green, round-shouldered glass jars. Its introduction revolutionized food preservation in America. Many others have produced and distributed glass canning jars through the years, but none has become as famous as the Ball Corporation’s Mason jars.

Today Mason jars remain a favorite with people who preserve their own foods for later consumption. Economic conditions in the United States have led many, including those who’ve never set foot in a rural, agricultural environment, to grow and preserve their own foodstuffs. Now, as generations ago, many use Mason jars and the warm-water bath method perfected by Appert to safely preserve their food.

Mason jars were a familiar sight to those of us who grew up on farms or who visited relatives living on farms. Both of my grandmothers were Depression-era farm homemakers. They owned dozens of Mason jars. Each year they planted huge vegetable gardens and had cherry, apple, pear, and peach trees in their orchards. A peak into either grandma’s pantry or cellar house in the fall revealed neat rows of filled Mason jars, standing like soldiers in multi-colored uniforms. The jars of peaches always looked so fresh and sweet that they made my mouth water. The many jars of pickles, which included bread and butter pickles, pickled chow-chow relish, and dill pickles, filled an entire shelf.

But today Mason jars aren’t just used for storing produce. In recent years I’ve seen them used for other purposes, including as containers for seven-layer Mexican dip. A friend gifted me with a Mason jar filled with measured layers of the dry ingredients needed to make a batch of Cowboy Cookies. She layered brown and white sugar; oats; chocolate chips; and flour, baking soda and baking powder in a pale blue jar topped with a piece of bandana fabric and tied with twine. It was a fun, visually interesting gift.

A wedding rehearsal dinner I attended took place in a tent and had a country theme. Beverages were served in small Mason jars and the table centerpieces featured Mason jars with glowing pillar candles.

My brother recently found another use for old Mason jars. He drilled holes into the zinc tops of extra large jars, inserted small electric bulbs through the holes, and hung them as light fixtures on the porch of a rustic family log cabin. They look amazing and cast a warm glow at night.

Collectors of old Mason jars can still buy and sell reasonably priced examples. Shape, glass color and identifying marks are used to determine age and rarity. The most common color of Mason jars is the company’s trademark aqua blue. Colored jars were considered better for storing preserved food as they block some light and help foods retain flavor.

Mason jars remain popular. Ball Corporation makes more than 500,000 glass jars each day. I have several of Grandma’s old Mason jars at my house. One is filled with tiny glass fish and colored marbles and sits near a kitchen window. I like the way it looks when the sun shines through it. My practical-minded grandma would probably question my using an old canning jar as a decorative object, but to me it is beautiful and reminds me of two women who were important parts of my childhood.

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