Monthly Archives: May 2010

Johannes Itten

It is taken for granted today that the design of everyday objects is an art form, but in 1919 this was a radical notion. The Bauhaus succeeded in breaking down hierarchal notions of art disciplines, and believed that there was no difference between the artist and the craftsmen.

Textbook by Johannes Itten "Die Farbe," 1944.

Johannes Itten, “Die Farbe” (The Color), 1944.

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Champagne Stemware

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.” — Mark Twain

At 16, a late bloomer by some standards, two friends and I admitted we’d never really been drunk. Wanting a quick remedy, my friend had just the fix in his mother’s garage: “Her last boss gave her a case of some French Champagne when she left last year, I think it’s getting pretty old now anyway.” Drinking premier cru champagne from coffee mugs, we spent several hours perusing our favorite periodicals and commenting on the finer aspects of this new favorite beverage. The next morning, the pile of Playboys and empty ’85 Mumm Grand Cordon bottles attested to one simple truth: people should drink more Champagne.

Marilyn Monroe drinking a glass of champagne.

Marilyn Monroe holding a Coupe glass.

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Home Canning

Two woman canning in a kitchen in the 1920s. (Image courtesy of Shorpy)

Odessa Dow Laboratory for canning, 1923. (Image courtesy of Shorpy)

In the days before ripe Chilean tomatoes in the snowiest of winters, year-round beets, and the never-ending zucchini season, if you had a hankering for a summer vegetable in the middle of January, you had to wait six months. That is until 1810, when canning was invented and along with it, the possibility of anticipating your winter desires two seasons ahead.

Compared with the sourness of fermentation, the desiccated texture of drying, or the cloyingness of candying, canning altered the flavor and texture of preserved produce only slightly, a technological innovation that turn-of-the-19th-century society went mad for.

In basic terms, canning is the heating of food isolated in hermetically sealed containers. The heat deactivates plant enzymes and kills off harmful microbes. Along with a tight seal preventing re-contamination, food properly tucked into a canning jar can be stored at room temperature without spoiling.

1858 was a watershed year for home-canning. Prior to this date, home-canners had to use ‘wax sealers’, which featured glass tops and bottoms sealed together with wax. It sounds quaint, but in practice was time consuming and error prone. And discovering just before dinner that instead of a jar of fresh from the vine tomatoes, you had in fact been storing moldering mush, is a sad error indeed. When the young tinsmith John L. Mason invented the threaded lip and two-piece sealing lid, home-canning became far more foolproof.

Mason jars are made with thicker glass than single use commercial jars, allowing them to withstand the boiling temperatures of the canning process without cracking. The sealing compound on the lids creates a barrier impenetrable to microbes, and the screw band holds the lid in place. After boiling to create the seal, pressure form outside on the cooling lids makes a taut indentation. Press down on the lid, and if pops, the jar hasn’t sealed and you know to either give it another shot, or put the jar in the refrigerator and get to eating it quickly.

Hot on the heels of the success of mason jars, in 1882 Henry William Putnam filed a patent that combined the all-glass construction of ‘wax sealers’ with the gasket seal of mason jars. Called lightning jars, Putnam’s invention kept food from touching metal and had easy to open wire closures. Lightning jars were made for home canning up until the 1960s, and these more beautiful, decorative jars still use the wire clasp today and the aesthetic appeal of all-glass canning jars continue to maintain a strong following.

Canning is a satisfying activity. Making a pile of produce into a neat line of shiny, filled jars can make for a wholesome Sunday afternoon. All sorts of fruits and vegetables can be canned, from oranges and plums, to kale and beets. In the winter months, I prefer my canned tomatoes to the tasteless out-of-season varieties, and I don’t mind the constant task of preserving or jellying the beautiful yellow jewels of my over-active Meyer lemon tree.

Produce for canning is minimally processed. Lemon marmalade may need a few extra steps to develop pectin and candy the sugar, but tomatoes need only to be peeled and stuffed into jars. The majority of the work goes into sterilizing and processing the jars. In other words: boiling. You have to boil the glass and the lids before filling them, fish them out of hot boiling water (fix a magnet onto a stick to get the metal lids out, and get your tongs ready for the jars), then boil the filled jars again in a canner to create the all-important seal. Under-processing can result in spoiled food, and over-processing may overcook the vegetables. Pay attention to the recommended boiling times to get it right.

Of course the last thing you want to think about while you dream of canning is botulism, but it is important to be aware of its causes. Clostridium botulinum thrives in low-acid, airless conditions. Like most toxins, it is killed off by boiling. However, the spores are hardy and can survive prolonged boiling and proliferate into active bacteria as the cans cool down. Bulging caused by the pressure of gasses produced by the bacteria is a clear indicator, and those should be thrown out. Boiling the food again after opening will also kill the toxin. The high acid content of most tomatoes and citrus fruit inhibits the growth of the bacteria, but other vegetables with pH of 5 or 6 should be processed in a pressure canner for 30 to 90 minutes at 240°F to kill any possible spores.


FURTHER READING:

Jaime Gross. “‘Urban Homesteaders’ Are Farming in San Francisco”, The New York Times. April 23, 2010.
– Food in Jars — A Canning Blog

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Reclaimed Wood

Lumberjacks cutting through a giant Redwood tree. (Image courtesy of Bacon Babble)

Lumberjacks standing at the base of a Redwood tree. (Image courtesy of Bacon Babble)

When early American colonists begun penetrating the thick interior of the North American frontier, they discovered that the vast, untouched forests extended much deeper than previously imagined. About 1 billion acres of heavily wooded land stretched from the Atlantic to well past the Mississippi River and promised settlers a wealth of useful raw timber.

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Drinking Water

“Everything comes from water! And everything is kept alive by water!” – J.W. von Goethe, Faust II, 1833

Workers packaging Poland Water bottles.

Workers at the Poland Water factory bottling water.

Water is an everyday part of our lives that we often take for granted, we wash and cook with it without a second thought. Yet, potable water – water that is safe to drink – is a source of regional conflict as several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, are plagued by water shortages and drought – the UN estimates that 35 – 50 percent of urban dwellers in Africa and Asia struggle to access potable water.

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