(This post originally appeared on my real food blog, Plays Well with Butter.)
One thing I loved to study back in grad school was symbolism. I was working toward an English M.A., and while most people don’t realize it, such a course of study involves a lot of theory in various topics such as sociology, communication, gender issues, politics, etc. This is because language crosses all those lines, and when you start to really delve into the written word, you delve into all sorts of topics such as who wrote the words, why they wrote them, when did they write them, what was the purpose, did the author realize how the words might be interpreted, etc etc etc. It really gets you thinking about the power of words and how that power is enacted all around us, most obviously in advertising. This then leads to discussions of symbolism, and how powerful symbols can convey as much as a bookful of words (“an image is worth a thousand words,” indeed). As I’ve mentioned recently on this blog, The Matrix is my all-time favorite movie, and one reason for that is that it is chock-full of potent symbolism. Gimme a good image to ponder over and wonder at, and I can happily discuss it for hours (and have, on many occasions, over good wine or good coffee).
Over the past couple of years, my interest in symbolism has had less to do with technology and cyberculture theory and more to do with the opposites of those: what do we do without as much technology and ideas about “small community” theory (to give it a totally arbitrary name). People made do for eons without the things we now think of as “necessary” for life, and there is a possibility we might one day need to do without them once more (whether from no more oil, or insanely expensive oil, or just not enough income, or no income at all…many possibilities). But even if you don’t think we’ll ever be without our current way of life, we are very definitely slowly losing food safety and control, and one way I plan to regain control of my food is by growing it and preserving it. Contaminated spinach? Not from my backyard, thankyouverymuch.
In order to keep my own food (and selectively-purchased bulk items), I need jars. Lots of jars. And what kind of jar do people use for such things? Mason jars, of course. And because I can’t help it—I suppose I was brainwashed trained too well in grad school—I start thinking more and more about the humble little Mason jar. And I start to see a very powerful symbol.
When you think of Mason jars, you might think of things like preserves and homemade salsa and homemade pickles. You might think of grandmothers. You might think of old-time farming or farm kitsch or blue-collar-ness. Maybe you think of “poor” people, since why would someone bother canning or storing things when they can just go buy ready-made stuff? And then there are plenty of jokes about rednecks drinking out of Mason jars.
But then if you think about why they often symbolize such things, you start to branch into food issues and sustainability. Mason jars mean food on the shelves long after a harvest. They mean control over what’s in your food. They mean at least a modicum of food independence. They mean an investment that guarantees a return: They’ll last your entire life and they have a million and one uses. They don’t cost much, so even if money is tight a person can acquire a few Mason jars (and even drink out of ’em, if so inclined). Mason jars symbolize bounty, security, frugality, and dare I say it, hope.
With Mason jars, I hope to preserve the tomato bounty I hope to have (or as a last resort, purchase from local farmers). I need them to hold all the preserves I hope to make using fruit from my neighbor’s trees. I need the jars to hold all the fermented veggies I want to make. I need them for storing things like dry beans, flour, salt. I need them to hold homemade cleaning products. To hold craft items. Every day, I think of a new use for a jar or two.
So why all this deep thought about a simple glass jar? Well, yesterday I was finally able to buy my first cases of Mason jars:
The experience touched a deeper nerve. I went to a local Ace Hardware, a small but locally owned store that has been in business for ages, according to my roommate, and since they’ve managed to survive despite the presence of a ubiquitous Home Depot just a couple of miles away, I plan to start giving Ace as much of my business from now on as possible. The store was full of so many great homemaking goodies, including stuff you just don’t see for sale that much any more anywhere, that I can’t wait to go back and rummage around (for example, they had a dusty stack of cotton-backed, vinyl-topped red check tablecloths, in the pattern you see here as my blog background; I can’t even remember the last time I saw one of those for sale, at least in my area. Notice I mentioned a dusty stack; I wonder how long they’ve had them in stock. No matter. *I* plan to take one home, very soon).
When I got to the isle with the canning jars, I was just giddy. Jars and rings and lids, oh my! I quickly nabbed a case of quart, pint, and 4 oz jars, the first two the wide-mouth variety. I happily took my stack of jars to the checkout counter and carefully set them up on it. An elderly gentleman checking out ahead of me glanced at them, realized what they were, and exclaimed, “I didn’t think anyone canned any more!” I smiled and said, “Oh, definitely!” What ensued was a brief discussion between us and the check out woman:
(Note: This is as close to what was said as I can remember, and I’m sure I left some bits out, but you can still get the gist of it.)
Checkout woman: “Ooooh yeah people still can, absolutely!”
Man: “My goodness, that reminds me of my grandmother! She’d spend days canning!”
Me: “Yeah, so did my great-grandmother, and my grandmother & mom both canned.”
Man: “Oh no, not my mother, no way. Just my grandmother. She lived on a farm.”
Checkout woman: “You don’t need a farm to can! No way. You can have a garden anywhere!”
Man (looking disappointed): “Not where I live. If one blade of grass is out of line…! Those homeowners associations will get you! They’re horrible!”
Me: “That is horrible! It’s not right. Stuff like that…it’s horrible that anyone ever goes hungry when there are so many useless yards around.”
Checkout woman: “I don’t have no use for a yard. Just gimme plants!”
Me: “They’re usually prettier than a yard, anyway!”
Checkout woman: “Yeah they are.”
Man: (Nodding in agreement, looking pleasantly surprised by the conversation)
I thought about that man and about the jars as I drove away from the store. I thought about how the jars had sparked memories for him, and about all the implications of an elderly man thinking “nobody canned anymore.” I like to think that the discovery that people still grow and can their own food, even in the suburbs/city (or especially in the suburbs/city), gives him some kind of hope for the future. I think this because the older I get, the more I get irritated and disgusted with so much of society, and the more I understand why older generations don’t think much of my generation. And when I see people a generation younger than me who are trying to do things differently, it gives me a glimmer of hope that it’s not all lost. So maybe, just maybe, the smile on that gentleman’s face meant that he had a moment of realizing that there are still people around who care about better ways of doing things, and that there are still glimmers of hope in unlikely places.
All from a stack of Mason jars.