Yes, We Can
What makes the City of Roses such a great place to “put up.”
STORY BY HEATHER ARNDT ANDERSON
IMAGES COURTESY OF PLUM TREE JAM AND BY NOLAN CALISCH
“We can pickle that!” has become a joke in Portland, but there’s truth to the jest. Ten millennia ago, the Northwest’s first inhabitants preserved foods much like humans did all over the world’s northern climes: berries were dried and tightly packed into baskets, fish were smoked and hung like tinsel from longhouse rafters, and an interesting delicacy was stored long-term in grass-lined pits in the ground. “Chinook olives,” as they came to be known by European settlers, were acorns pickled in human urine. At the end of the four- or five-month pickling process, the acorns were black and tender, the bitter tannins mellowed. Like any other pickle recipe, each family’s batch had its own unique piquancy.
As pioneers arrived in the Northwest the 1840s, many brought their tools and methods of preservation with them. There were salt barrels and glazed clay crocks filled lovingly with pickles and fruit preserves, kept for leaner times in dark, cool cellars and holes in the ground. When Portland was beginning its transformation from a muddy trading outpost to a destination for settlers and their families in the 1850s, a few potters set up shop in the area, including Chevalier Richardson, who made lead-glazed jam jars and butter churns until he succumbed to lead poisoning and wandered off the map, never to be seen or heard from again.
Kerr Sets the Standard
Then, on one fateful day in 1858, a man by the name of John Landis Mason filed a patent for his molded glass jars with screw-top zinc lids. Not only would they keep food safer longer (and with considerably less lead), but the process of canning would become nearly foolproof. The years that followed saw a surge in home canning, coinciding with the birth of domestic science, that discipline that aimed to apply the same scientific mindset to work inside the home as to work outside it.
Few changes to Mason’s design were developed, but in 1903, a wholesale grocer named Alexander Kerr set up his Hermetic Fruit Jar Company in Portland, selling a variety of home-canning supplies, including Kerr jars. Kerr’s innovation was the lid: the flat two-piece metal disk with rubber gasket and separate steel band that most home canners still use today. Fruit preserving was now “a pleasure, not a drudgery,” promised the advertisements, noting that the product would “pay for itself in the fruit it will save.” Within a few years, the USDA launched its first instructions for home canners.
While salmon canneries were primarily located near the source in Astoria, Portland focused on fruit canneries. In the late 1800s, Oregon was producing more fruit than it knew what to do with, and between 1900 and 1910, fruit production nearly quadrupled, while the prices soared by 268 percent. Because of its ideal position at the nexus of fruit production and shipping ports, Portland soon became a regional epicenter for fruit canneries.
By the turn of the 20th century, several fruit and vegetable canneries and packing plants were scattered around town. Roseland Preserving Company sat at the corner of Southeast 50th and Powell Boulevard, on what is now a Taco Bell parking lot. Mutual Fruit had a plant in the middle of produce row on Southeast 3rd and Morrison, where the streets are still half cobblestone, and old rail lines lurch zombily from the pavement. Oregon Packing Company sat where Grand Central Bowling is today on 8th and Belmont; it was the location of a 200-woman labor strike that lasted weeks during the summer of 1913 — the only cannery strike in the West.
By the time the U.S. entered World War I, Portland women had combined their forces in “Uncle Sam’s Kanning Kitchen,” a community workspace where dozens of women volunteered their many hands to make light work of canning to assist the U.S. Food Administration in conserving produce for the war. An astonishing 15,000 quarts of produce were put up and sent off to the battlefield, giving the boys on the front lines a taste of home.
One long-time Portland company was among the first cottage businesses built on home canning with Kerr’s jars. Steinfeld’s Pickle was founded in 1922 after the Steinfelds lost their poultry farm to avian illness. Drawing from Barbara Steinfeld’s past experience in a Canadian pickle plant, the Steinfelds began growing cucumbers and cabbage on a 4.5-acre site in St Johns. Sold door-to-door for 10 cents a pint and 15 cents a quart, Barbara’s pickles and sauerkraut were a smash. Soon the Steinfelds began selling their wares at the Yamhill Farmers Market, and they did well enough to support themselves throughout the Great Depression. The company was sold to multinational Dean Foods Company in 2000 and closed in 2008, nearly a century after the Steinfelds first arrived in Portland. Though the brand is long gone, many Portlanders remember Steinfeld’s kraut, sweet pickles, and garlicky homestyle dills.
Canning has recently experienced a facelift with bolder ingredients and flavors, but the techniques and tools are largely the same as those employed by our grandmothers’ generation. A rekindled interest in the tasks dismissed as facile by Gloria Steinem’s era of feminism brings people willingly, joyfully back to laborious food preparation methods, particularly in Portland. While no longer impelled by the necessity of putting up food for lean times, many of canning’s new adherents are drawn to preserving by deep concerns about consumer culture and the nutritional quality of home-prepared food compared to store-bought products.
Men are getting in on the action, too, with websites like Punk Domestics (founded by Sean Timberlake) still going strong after seven years. Books like Gary Allen’s “Can It! The Perils and Pleasures of Preserving Foods” (Reaktion Books, 2016), and glossy new gastro-lit magazine Cured, are a response to this new wave of canning, not just hitting the mainstream, but becoming cool.
Interestingly, canning seems to have skipped a generation, having been passed over by second-wave feminists eager to step away from their stoves. Today’s canners are more likely to have learned the skill from their grandmothers rather than their mothers. Ironically, it was first-wave feminists who first embraced domestic science at the turn of the 20th century. Expediting drudgery in the kitchen by using the latest science freed them up to pursue hobbies or join the suffragist movement. Today’s women don’t have to trade their careers in for canning; they can turn canning into new careers.
Canning Goes Entrepreneurial
Two Portland women combined their personal tastes with this recent resurgence in canning, crafting small businesses along the way.
Miranda Rake caught canning fever when her mother’s plum tree produced a bumper crop of fruit one summer. After heading off to the East Coast to pursue her master’s degree in food and culture, and after working a few magazine gigs, she returned in 2013 to a city hungry for seasonal, small-batch jams. Plum Tree Jam was born. Miranda works from a home kitchen and sells her rotating flavors of jams online, at stores around Portland, and every weekend at farmer’s markets. Partnering with Portland State University’s Business Outreach Program has taught her how to simplify and streamline her business, but her primary mission is a little bigger: shake up the entire food complex and affect the way we all interact with food systems.
Another small-batch canner, well known at the Portland Farmers Market, got her start from necessity: to satisfy her pregnancy cravings for spicy food. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Sarah Marshall was a social worker, teaching people how to cook and preserve food using free and low-cost ingredients. She owns and operates Marshall’s Haute Sauce with her husband, Dirk, canning sauces in the commercial kitchen in their Brentwood-Darlington home basement. The sauces come in a rotating array of adventurous flavors like habanero carrot curry and serrano ginger lemongrass.
Miranda’s sleek website and Sarah’s digital pH reader may not be what their forebears used, but their hulking steel canning pots and clanking wire racks are not far off. In a city that changes faster than the seasons, it’s a comfort that canning hasn’t really changed much at all.
Heather Arndt Anderson is a Portland-based food writer and culinary historian. She is the author of Chillies: A Global History, Portland: A Food Biography, and Breakfast: A History. voodooandsauce.com