Putting Up (With) Food

By Teresa Vanek

I have a great canning and freezing book that is a relic of a bygone era. It features Technicolor images of holiday hams and gelatin rings and sends forth encouragements like “Men like the taste of Sunday Swiss Steaks; their wives like to have the frozen steaks heating in a slow oven while they’re at church.”

It also insists, with an eye to that coveted blue ribbon at the county fair, that the foods you preserve should begin with the most perfectly fresh and unblemished produce. This is where the 1963 Farm Journal Freezing and Canning cookbook definitely departs from my reality.

When the summer veggies are at their peak I don’t have the time to process and preserve them. It’s as the season wanes that I scramble to preserve an assortment of dilapidated fruits and vegetables. After weeks of culling unsellable fruits and vegetables and throwing them to the chickens, I find myself scrounging in the blighted plum tomatoes for a few worth canning, stripping past-their-prime leaves from basil plants in full flower for a quick batch of pesto for the freezer. What’s a little surprising is that the foods I put up under these non-ideal circumstances are actually pretty satisfying when they come to the table in the heart of winter. There’s still a lot of flavor in farm-raised ingredients that would never be perfect enough to sell.

This is the crux of a conversation that we keep having around the farm this fall. Many Finger Lakes eaters may be aware that we are in the midst of one of the most exceptional fruit-growing seasons in recent memory. Berries of all kinds and especially tree-fruits are exploding with a bumper harvest. At Red Tail this explosion has taken on literal meaning in our apple orchard as overloaded branches splinter away from the trunk and drop their heavy burden on the ground. We’ve pulled quite a number of our apple trees back to their feet with the tractor as heavy rains and heavy fruit laid them low. We didn’t plant this orchard with an eye to commercial sales but this season we would love to share the best of this unsprayed crop with the public. Unfortunately the apple, more than any other fruit, has been burdened with very high aesthetic expectations. But we can’t help but feel that the cost of a perfect apple is unacceptably high.

On the one hand, conventional orchardists do battle with fungal blemishes and insect bites by using an array of chemical sprays; which are found to leave residues that a quick rinse under the kitchen tap cannot remove. The impact of spraying on non-target insects, honeybees included, is another cost for consumers to consider. I imagine that quite a few conventional fruit growers would be happy to minimize sprays and produce delicious, albeit imperfect, apples if their customers would support the change.

On the other side of the argument there are a few dedicated organic orchardists in the area producing very pretty fruit (apples included) that fetch a price that many consumers may consider out of reach. Some of the higher price of No.1 grade organic apples can be attributed to the many culls and discounted utility grade fruits that are demoted in order to fulfill customers’ expectations of what an apple should be.

This is why I sometimes find myself in an ornery mood, harvesting my first ever bumper crop of apples and trying to select the ones to send to market. I know that even my best apples would be graded as utility by professional orchard growers; but because I resent the whole idea of the perfect apple, I continually sabotage my own grading process and throw a few into the market bin that are a little lumpier than the rest, hoping that some customers are willing to look beyond the spots and knobs, sensing the delicious flavor hidden within.

Teresa Vanek is a native Ithacan who farms with her husband Brent Welch at Bright Raven Farm and Apiary (formerly Red Tail Farm) in Jacksonville.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of the magazine.

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