Haley Lancaster, a high school teacher in Vincennes, Ind., had always been intimidated by the idea of canning. She remembered her grandmother’s shelves lined with gleaming rows of giant jars full of beans and other vegetables, and the pressure cooker she used to fill them.
But with more time at home after the coronavirus shut down her school and all the other activities that kept her busy, Lancaster thought it suddenly seemed doable, maybe, in the way that we’re all trying things we never did before. Home schooling, DIY haircuts, TikTok dance challenges? Sure, we’re game.
[This reliable jam recipe will let you savor the best berries and stone fruit year-round]
She had already tried making sourdough bread, another home-cooking trend that flourished in the early days of the pandemic. And so she went online and learned, grabbed a few recipes — for water-bath canning, which doesn’t require a pressure canner like her grandmom used — and supplies at a local store. She made peach salsa that was a hit with friends and family.
“I felt like such an adult,” she says.
That led to a peach barbecue sauce (which was just okay, she admits), then pickled asparagus, dill cucumbers, and a batch of blackberry-sage jam, which earned a thumbs up from even her 5-year-old son, who likes it in his peanut butter sandwiches.
“It sounds so cliche, but the pandemic forced me to slow down my life,” she says. “I was always go-go-go with meetings and practices, and suddenly I had nowhere to go.”
Lancaster is just one of legions of canners these days stoking a new boom in the old-timey pursuit. Some are novices. Others are veterans, perhaps with a bit more time or produce on their hands these days. Canning websites and Facebook pages are hopping, and retailers around the country are reporting massive surges in sales of supplies.
[Here’s quarantine cooking advice from the original experts on thrifty meals: Home ec teachers]
And now, as late-summer harvests abound, the pandemic-fueled pastime is making it harder for people to find cans and lids, and there are reports of bare shelves on hardware and retail stores.
Glenda Ervin is the vice president of marketing for Lehman’s, the hardware company her father started in 1955 to supply the Amish community in Kidron, Ohio. Now there’s a new market for the kind of products it sells — such as gardening equipment, cast-iron pans, jigsaw puzzles and Mason jars — as people spending more time at home embrace lo-fi activities.
She says sales in the company’s canning category are up 600 percent over last year. Plenty of products, including those made by Ball, the country’s largest consumer manufacturer of canning jars and lids, are on back-order. In some cases, she says, they have what would ordinarily be a 10-year supply on order.
“Demand is through the roof,” Ervin says. She has seen spikes caused by traumatic national events before, like in the lead-up to Y2K, when people feared power-grid shutdowns and major disruptions, or after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “But I’ve never seen something this large and this long,” she says.
Canning suppliers and retailers began predicting a surge when they saw the shortages that seed companies were experiencing early in the pandemic. The crops sown in the spring by newly isolated gardeners are now quite literally bearing fruit.
Still, the volume has taken some by surprise. When orders started flying in in April, Lisa Reinhart, an employee of the Fillmore Container Company in Lancaster, Pa., which sells bulk jars and accessories for canning and candle-making, wondered if it was a fluke.
“At the beginning, we wondered if it was something having to do with a Google algorithm,” she says. After weeks of sustained sales, it became clear that it wasn’t.
Reinhart says the first products to sell out were canning “flats,” the disc-shaped part of the two-part lid used by most canners. For water-bath canning, filled jars are sealed with the two-part lid and submerged in hot water. While jars and the ring part of the lid can be reused, the flat has to be new each time.
[Canning basics: What you need to get started]
Fillmore sells sleeves of them, but she is sold out of the standard size and has only some in the wide-mouth style available. All the Ball flats are back-ordered. “Our purchaser is trying to find some pockets from other manufacturers,” she says. “Unless we can find more, it won’t be until late fall that will be able to replace them.”
Newell Brands, which makes Ball and Kerr jars and lids, did not respond to our emails.
Reinhart notes that the run on Mason jars, which her company sources not just from Ball but also from other makers of generic jars, is being fueled not just by canners looking to line their pantries with pickles, but by plenty of other pandemic crafters. “There are all these crafty ways of using Mason jars in the pandemic,” she says. “People fill them with candles, and lots of restaurants are doing cocktails to go in jars, and there are the DIY [disinfecting] wipes.”
There’s evidence that canning in the pandemic is more than just a hobby for some. Sales of the all-American Pressure Cooker, the sturdy stove-top gadget used by many more serious canners to preserve meats and poultry as well as low-acid vegetables that aren’t suitable for the hot-bath method, are off the charts. The Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry, where the cooker has been in production since the 1930s, sold 14,000 units last year. They’ve already doubled that figure this year and have 23,000 more on order, the company reports.
Joel Andrew, the company’s president of consumer products, says he doesn’t see interest waning. “It’s been very interesting to see how many people are getting into prepping and homesteading — there are a lot of TV shows and homestead blogs,” he says. “That’s translating to our sales.”
A spike in pressure-cooker canning seems significant, says Marisa McClellan, the author who runs the Food in Jars blog. “That tells me that people are feeling insecure,” she says. “They’re not just looking to make fun jams and pickles, they’re thinking ‘the apocalypse is nigh, so I need to put up poultry.’”
McClellan says interest in her blog and Facebook page, where canners of all experience levels trade tips and photos, is up. And she estimates she gets almost two dozen messages a day from panicky canners looking for a supplier when they find their local store shelves bare.
She sees a range of reasons behind canning’s status as the newest pandemic craze: unexpected bumper crops from home gardens, maybe, or people with a bounty of fruits and veggies after visiting pick-your-own farms or farm markets. But she says there’s more than pure practicality at work.
Even if you’re not producing quantities that a farmer (or an End of Days-fearing prepper) would approve, canning at least offers people a small sense of security and being in control of their food-supply chain. “Even if it’s a dash of jam in your cabinet, it gives you a bit of that pioneer spirit — like, ‘okay, I’m set for the winter.’”
That’s just the kind of psychological boost that Lancaster, the home canner in Indiana, is getting from surveying her modest stash of jars. She said there have been shortages of various foods in her local grocery stores, particularly early on in the pandemic.
“I’m not going to solve that, but if I can do one little thing, it feels good,” she says.
She plans on keeping up her newfound hobby even once things get back to normal (and she has enough lids on hand to do it). She’s gotten hooked, it seems, on canning’s reward-to-time investment ratio.
“I did the jam and pickles on the same night in the time that I would have sat and watched Netflix,” she says. “And what did I get? Three pints of blackberry jam and four pints of pickles — not bad for an evening’s work.”
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