'Putting Food By' at the Callaway Cannery
Blue Ridge Mountain cannery continues to serve area families and organizations.
Rodger Sowers pours liquid into filled jars after Brandy Sowers fills the jars with green beans.
Community canneries were founded during World War II as a way for mothers and wives to feed their families while men served in the armed forces. Many of those canneries still serve families in rural areas although reasons for use now range from ensuring better quality food and lowering food costs, raising funds for churches and community groups, to simply spending time with neighbors.
Farmers know better than anyone that you reap what you sow. They’re also a generous lot, and if you’re lucky enough to live near a farmer, you’re probably sharing in the harvest. In fact, “the only reason to lock your car doors in the summer,” goes the old joke from the South, “is to keep your neighbors from dumping bags of zucchini in the back seat.”
In lieu of eating the goods straightaway or placing them in neighbors’ unprotected cars, there are lots of ways to preserve the season’s bounty: canning, drying and freezing. It’s called “putting food by,” and, of the options, canning and pressure cooking might be the most intimidating. Fortunately, rural community canneries can provide help for those wishing to enjoy the fruits of their labors even in the dead of winter.
Coaching and shortcuts
The Callaway cannery of Virginia has been in operation since the 1940s. It’s an unapologetically utilitarian, cinderblock structure located behind the Callaway Elementary School, along the tree-lined Green’s Creek in a Blue Ridge Mountain valley filled with gardens and orchards. It’s a one-person operation, run by Franklin County native Doug Minnix, and supervised and supported by the Franklin County board of supervisors and school board. No article about the Callaway cannery would be complete without mentioning Grace Webb, who managed it for more than 50 years and still lives in the community.
The cannery boasts a hard-working kitchen with sizable sinks for washing vegetables, long stainless steel prep counters, kettles the size of kilns (each holds 96 quarts), two cold-water-bath containers, large paddles and plenty of informative, colorful posters. An oil boiler provides the steam that processes everything: vegetables, fruits, meats, stews, soups, juices, sauces, pickles and relishes, and all manner of butters, including apple, pear and pumpkin.
Cannery work is loud, physical and hot, as both the volume of conversation and the steam rise when 20 to 30 people crowd into the small space. While all are responsible for their own canning, everyone tends to pitch in and work together. It’s an unspoken rule that when you finish your vegetables, you help the next person. That way, it all gets done in a day. If you’re fortunate enough to can alongside some of the old timers, they’ll pass along advice, best practices and maybe even a shortcut learned through the years. If you’re really lucky, they might share a recipe or two.