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Articles & Essays



"Sunday Dinner: What happens when hipsters get ahold of Mason jars"

Published 11/01/15
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
I was involved in canning before canning was cool. Actually, when it was hot – very hot.

It was in my parents’ un-air-conditioned kitchen as my mother turned my vision of heavenly, sleeping-in summer mornings into sweaty, red-spattered hell.

When the backyard garden ejected barrages of tomatoes during high summer, they landed on the counters in mounds. At 8 a.m., my mother’s face already would be glazed with sweat as she dipped tomatoes into simmering water, where they emerged sans peels, looking like skinned knees. The acid reek alone, despite every window being open, was enough to snap me awake long before she would shout to get in there and get to work.

Worst of all: the cumulonimbus of steam from water boiling in the big canning pot, wherein sat Mason jars, their rings and lids, waiting to be filled with tomatoes, replaced in the pot and processed.

I would no more use one of those Mason jars as a drinking glass than I would employ a dented fender from a car accident as a spoon. In a restaurant, if I am handed my iced tea in a Mason jar, I want to ask, ‘What happened? Could you not afford to fill up at the gas station and get the giveaway this week?’ ”

I was raised to believe that jelly jars were meant for jelly, mayonnaise jars were meant for mayo and Mason jars were meant to contain the suffering of my summers.

Not everyone thinks the same way these days, judging from a talk I heard recently at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Miss.

Today, about one-third of sales of Mason jars are to craft markets, said Gabe Bullard, a former Neiman Fellow who now works with National Geographic. He gave a talk described as being on “the history and present hipness” of the jars.

He then showed an appalling selection of Mason jar co-opting including one with a handle, covered in leather, intended as a coffee mug. Another was a slide of a “Mason jar picture frame,” which consisted of dropping a photo inside a jar. Judging from the location of the shot, someone thought these “frames” would class up the tables at a wedding reception. They looked to me like the bride and groom were sending save-us messages from a deserted island.

I have seen Mason jars used as vases on restaurant tables and as the globes of chandeliers.

And they all still look like Mason jars.

The jars were invented by, yes, a Mr. Mason, in 1858 because people needed sturdy containers in which to preserve food before the existence of freezers or the need for fake firefly lamps.

“They’re reusable and cheap because they had to be,” Bullard said. “They don’t go away. They’re like the alligators of kitchenware.”

By the time of the Great Depression, preserving fruits and vegetables in jars was so popular that thousands of community canneries had sprung up across the country. The facilities, often established by counties or at high schools, would allow people to can produce in amounts much larger than they could at home, for a small fee. According to information from the North Carolina state archives, in 1934 there were 16 canning centers in Iredell County alone.

Canning continued to rise during World War II, as victory gardens contributed to the war effort. But by the end of the war, canning – and Mason jars – mostly dropped off the food world’s radar screen.

That’s why, when I got over my childhood trauma and began canning my own jams and pickles, people thought I was nuts – nobody under age 80 was doing that. I had to stalk old-time hardware stores for jars, since alligators were not native to Raleigh.

A few years ago, canning got hot again – but it had been seized by the hipsters Bullard mentioned. Now people want to know if I smoke my figs before turning them into jam or where to find fresh local turmeric root for pickles.

And the poor Mason jar has become a symbol.

“When Southern food blew up, the Mason jar moved to tony restaurants. It moved from meaning down on the farm to meaning straight from the farm,” Bullard said. “The jar is starting to become a cliche, especially since the patent expired so anyone can make something that looks like a Mason jar.

“It used to be history. Now it’s not saying anything.”

Put dried beans and little candles in the bottom? How about fake Christmas trees and water, like a country-fied snow globe?

These are just a couple of the ideas from the miasma of Pinterest, and they look like things a first-grader made in vacation bible school.

For me, Mason jars still say a lot, but they will never say anything remotely connected with a church unless it’s about fire, brimstone and hot tomatoes.

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