COLUMN: Food connection a rewarding task

Growing the odd vegetable or fruit on my balcony or in my backyard is something I’ve always done

I’m still waiting for my tomatoes to turn red.

They keep getting bigger, but they seem to stick to their vibrant green rather than the deep red that I’d like. I’m trying not to take it personally – I’m not the most attentive gardener and my tendency to let the soil dry out might be payback.

Let’s not discuss the peas.

Growing the odd vegetable or fruit on my balcony or in my backyard is something I’ve always done, but it’s been more recent that I started to pay more attention to what’s in my food.

It all started off with sugar. It’s in everything.

Grocery days used to see me standing in the dairy aisle trying to find a yogurt with a reasonable amount of sugar. Lower-fat options had just as many calories due to the sugar added.

I gave up eating cereal. I’m not much of a breakfast person, anyway.

Whole wheat breads and pastas left me without the usual spike in blood sugar or bloated feeling from refined wheat – you know that feeling when you’ve eaten too much pasta?  I do – I love pasta.

Slowly, as I paid more attention to the ingredients, I moved away from processed food and began making my own.

When I say slowly, I mean slowly. This is a years-long process, and I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg compared to others who live their lives eating only what they grow or harvest from nearby.

I trusted my skills in the kitchen and experimented with my favourite take-out meals. Often I succeeded, and other times I didn’t.

That’s a luxury I’m afforded from a steady income – if a meal goes south, I can throw it out. Others aren’t so lucky to have so much choice.

Nanaimo FoodShare offers classes and programs to teach people how to cook their own meals using fresh ingredients, taking the risk factor out to some extent.

It was because of covering FoodShare events and initiatives that I tried canning this year.

I headed out one morning into the blackberry patch behind my house – one that not many know about and I’m loathe to share – and picked about six cups of berries. I headed inside with my bounty to clean the wounds inflicted by the blackberry bush and toss my clothes in the washing machine.

Those berry vines really make you work for it. And the bees, spiders and snakes are not welcoming to other fruit harvesters.

But I got my berries, rinsed them and mashed them down to a pulp. I added them to the pot – one of two pots on my stove, the other full of water to sterilize the jars – plus the pectin and the sugar.

Right, sugar – seven cups. Seven.

The jam almost boiled over, which would have been more than a mess in my beautiful, brilliantly white kitchen, but I managed to pull it all off. The cooked jam went into jars, then processed again in the water.

When I use a new recipe, I always follow it to the letter and if successful, I then modify it to my own tastes. Next time I can anything, I’ll research low-sugar pectins or canning without sugar.

For now, though, I’m enjoying my jam. I hope the people who receive a jar for Christmas do, too.

The experience helped me connect with my food, underlining the fact that it’s not something that just comes from a store. Although it was rewarding, canning is a labour-intensive process, even if it is relatively simple.

I made eight jars of jam. I couldn’t imagine the work involved in preserving an entire winter’s worth of fruit and vegetables.

This process also helped me understand what led people away from homemade food – grabbing what was needed from the local grocer seemed easier in the short term than days in the kitchen process enough food for an entire family.

Perhaps next year, I’ll add whole fruit preserves to my jam making.

Creating all my own food is a far-off goal and I’m happy to make one or two changes a year to work toward it. It’s not an all-or-nothing choice – one or two changes will make a big difference for health.

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