Back to Basics: Highland Lakes gardeners epitomize can-do spirit

Karen Walker of Marble Falls has been canning produce since she was a girl

Karen Walker of Marble Falls has been canning her garden produce since she was a girl growing up in a small town near Houston. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

The bounty of spring gardens does not always end up as fresh food on a summer dining table. As Highland Lakes gardeners reap the fruits and vegetables of their labor, many pull out their pressure cookers, Mason jars, and paring knives. 

Gardening season has become canning season, a Depression-era necessity for preserving food that’s now seen as a way to stretch healthy diets all year long. 

“You want to enjoy your garden for a longer period of time,” said Colleen “Sissy” Rominski of Kingsland, who acts as canning assistant to husband Hank Rominski. 

Gardening since he was 7 years old, Hank has been canning for most of his life and considers it a natural extension of growing his own food. 

“You plant some stuff because it’s cool, and the next thing you know, you have 50 pounds of tomatoes,” he said. “I’m not averse to giving it away, but soon, the neighbors have too much, too. The next logical step is canning. It’s a matter of necessity.” 

Necessity — the mother of invention — is why it all started, of course. The process of canning was developed in 1809 in France as a way to hermetically seal and sterilize food for use by the military. Fifty years later, Louis Pasteur explained that heat killed microorganisms that caused food to spoil. Sealing it in a jar kept microorganisms out and the food safe to eat. 

Americans took the science of canning to the next level and, by the late 19th century, finalized the exact temperatures needed to properly sterilize different foods, including meats. Farmers and gardeners took up the practice, making it a common way of life just in time for the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II, when people were encouraged in public service announcements to “Can All You Can.”

For Karen Walker of Marble Falls, canning and necessity defined her life growing up in Crosby, just outside of Houston, helping her mother in the garden and kitchen. 

“When I really started doing my own canning, we lived on Lake LBJ and I had an acre garden,” Walker said. “I would can between 400 and 500 jars. That was our pantry.” 

When people believed the rollover from 1999 to the year 2000, known as the Y2K scare, would disrupt utility systems and food supply chains, Walker took up canning meat as well. 

“You can can anything,” she said, including stews and barbecue. Her favorite is pinto beans. “Fresh pinto beans are really good canned. I shell them out green. There’s nothing like a fresh pinto. No comparison to a dry one.”

Colleen and Hank Rominski of Kingsland
Colleen ‘Sissy’ and Hank Rominski not only can and pickle everything they grow in their home garden, they also braid onions and garlic for storage. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

All canners have a speciality. For Phil Ort (also a bread maker, see page 6), it’s his peach salsa. He, too, started canning at a young age. 

“My parents canned all the time,” he said. “My father was the youngest of 12 during the Depression. They didn’t waste anything. Now, it’s a lifestyle of ours, too. Any surplus you have, you preserve it.” 

Ort grows his own peaches and even mangos — despite the granite gravel soil and Texas heat — on a 3-acre patch in Granite Shoals. An innovator who researches every task before tackling it, he cultivates a thriving orchard of about 18 plum and peach trees, three beehives, figs, mangos, tomatoes, blackberries, blueberries, and more. From that, he produces jams, jellies, sauces, salsas, and honey. 

“I make wine, too,” he said. “Peach wine, strawberry, watermelon, plum, and mead because I have beehives.” 

What he didn’t learn from his parents and grandparents, he got from books, something that Walker and the Rominskis have in common. They all have a favorite canning book, and all recommend keeping one close at hand, whether a beginner or a pro. 

“Just read a book and dive in,” Walker suggested. “I use a canning book. Ball makes a really good one, but there are several out there.” 

Tools are not a problem either. Rominski converted a tamale steamer into a canning pot that he uses for hot water bath canning, more commonly known as “cold” canning because it reaches only 212 degrees. He rejuvenated a garage sale pressure cooker for hot canning, which reaches a temperature of 240 degrees.

Tomatoes, which are acidic, are cold canned. Hank respects the science of the process but can’t help adding a creative twist. 

“You can’t really can eggplant because it’s a low acid,” he said. “I mix it in the spaghetti sauce.” 

“It’s delicious,” chimed in Sissy.

Other tools include a funnel, a jar lifter, long tongs, a bubble popper/measurer, and, of course, lids and rings, which have to be replaced every few years.

While they all have different specialities, different favorites, and even a variety of reasons for learning to can in the first place, they all share a love for the food they produce. 

“It makes me feel good to look in my pantry and see all my canned jars,” Walker said. “You’ve got something good to feed your family for the year.” 

Said Ort: “You get to sit back and think, ‘I did this. I created this with God’s help. I did something that put delicious food on our table.’ It’s yours, you know there’s no preservatives inside there, you know what’s inside. That gives you a good feeling.”

For the Rominskis, who even grow all the spices they use and braid their onions and garlic for storage, it’s about more than just the food.

“It’s a healthy way of life,” Sissy said. “It’s your exercise, and it’s good mental health.” 

Hank agreed. 

“You go from the magic of seeds, you nurture those plants, you see those small, fragile seedlings through adulthood so you can harvest some sort of product you eat,” he said. “When you’re close to the earth, you are really aware that there is a shelf life to everything.” 

Except maybe canned goods, the non-acidic of which can last indefinitely if stored in a cool, clean, dry place. 

suzanne@thepicayune.com

Canners: Get ready for next year’s Burnet County Area Fair

Some people can to eat, others to compete. Hazel Risley, who doesn’t can at all, organizes the preserved foods division at the Burnet County Area Fair, which was canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Although this year’s produce will not be eligible for the 2021 fair on June 11-13, canners can get mentally prepared for next season’s judging now.

“Packing is one of the main things,” Risley said when asked what judges look for in the perfect canned good. “They look at the head space, the space between the lid and the product.” 

That area needs to be clean and clear, the gap not too big or too narrow. The product itself must not show any discoloration or cloudiness or have any little pieces that shouldn’t be there floating around in it. Produce should be cut in a uniform size. 

Jars have to be standard, such as Mason or Ball jars, though brand is not important. Lids and bands have to be new. Labels should name the contents, when the product was processed, and how it was processed (i.e. hot water bathing or pressure canning). While describing the necessities, label design should be nondescript in that its look does not tie to the identity of the canner or other products by the canner. 

“Don’t put any design into it,” Risley said. “We will mark it out with a black marker.” 

Labels go on top. 

“Do not wrap a label around the side of the jar,” she continued.

Although she doesn’t can herself, Risley comes from a long line of canners and knows her business. As she is not a judge, it’s her organizational skills on show at the fair rather than her canning snaps anyway. 

“It’s not hard to do,” she said, speaking from long ago experience. “Read your instructions and follow them.” 

Instructions for how to submit an entry to the 2021 Burnet County Area Fair can be found on the fair’s website at burnetcountyfair.com.

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