‘Putting Food By’ at the Callaway Cannery

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Rodger Sowers pours liquid into filled jars after Brandy Sowers fills the jars with green beans.
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After blanching, green beans are placed in cold water to stop the cooking and then removed to place in jars.
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Doug Minnix fills cans.
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It takes a long arm to fill the kettle with cans – the kettles at the Callaway cannery hold 96 quarts of produce.
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Clarence Ney works the canner.

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.

Hours of operation are Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 a.m. until it’s done, July 5 through mid-December. Get there by the arrival deadline of 11 a.m. or you’ll have to come back another day. The idea is to complete as much prep work at home as possible to lessen time and work at the cannery. For example, apples should be cored and quartered at home; green beans should be cleaned and snapped at home. Some fruits and vegetables are blanched and peeled in preparation for freezing, and patrons often bring pre-soaked fruits, beans and peas for canning. With tomatoes and corn, washing is all that can be done in advance.

Community in a cannery

People use canneries for a variety of reasons. Community canneries were established during World War II to help women provide for their families. Almost every county in Virginia had a cannery. Some people can to save money at the grocery store. Others like the social gathering and sense of community. More and more lately, people can to improve and control the quality of their food.

Throughout the years, use of the Callaway cannery has ebbed and flowed but it always garnered enough need to support its mission. More than 100 families regularly use the cannery, including those from Roanoke, Fincastle and Natural Bridge. It’s a combination of old timers and young families new to the community, singles, church groups and community organizations. Ages range from preteens to the oldest supporter, who is 92. Some people bring in what they grow; others buy produce from local farmers, can it in Callaway and take it home.

“Everyone enjoys the social aspect of it and we tend to be a gathering place,” Doug Minnix says. “The Ruritan Club makes its famous Brunswick stew and sells it at the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival in Ferrum, Virginia. We have five churches that regularly use the cannery to make apple butter, and, each time, half the church is there. It’s always an all-day affair, and people pop in and out. Sometimes they’ll make two batches. People from the church groups almost always bring a picnic and have a ball.

“Making applesauce is so much easier at the cannery. And, tomato juice only takes a few minutes in the cannery but would take all day at home,” Minnix says. “In recent years, organic farmers from Floyd County have canned with us. We also can a lot of meat: sausage, tenderloin, beef, pork, chicken, turkey and venison.”  

The Callaway cannery is located approximately 27 miles from Roanoke, less than 15 miles from Boones Mill, Virginia. Call ahead for processing meats, vegetable soup and apple butter: (540) 484-1966.

Linda Shockley is a writer based in New York City with vivid memories of her childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the wonderful food “put by” that appeared on the family dinner table.

Published on Sep 1, 2007

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