“September is Canned Food Month!” announces a Sun article from 1958 that I recently unearthed from a pile of yellowed clippings then quickly buried again. It reminded me too much of my own failure to can last summer, as I’d vowed to do. A look in my cellar, where next to a pantry shelf stacked high with cat food and 5-pound bags of flour sits half a box of empty Ball canning jars, has the same guilt-producing effect.
To be fair, I have good excuses: It was hot last summer. It’s easy to make jam and applesauce in the microwave— and even easier to buy good quality canned tomatoes. And I also have strong memories— not all positive— of steamy, all-day canning sessions in my grandmother’s Dundalk basement when I was a child.
Late summer saw my sister and me sitting at my grandmother’s black and white enamel-top table, stringing and snapping green beans from a bushel crate and tossing them into a large green basin for my mother and grandmother to pack into jars and process in the silver pressure cooker.
In October, we helped to peel the dusky Winesap apples my grandmother cooked down to sauce on her ancient King stove. And sometime in between, my mother and grandmother tackled tomatoes, but because there were few child-friendly parts of tomato canning— all knives and boiling water— Kathleen and I were free to play outside while the adults toiled.
We got off far easier than my mother did when she was a little girl. During the 1940s, my grandmother canned everything, and the pantry under the cellar steps was testimony to her labor. There were peaches, strawberry jam and chili sauce, whole tomatoes that my grandfather ate in a dish with a spoon as his salad, and pungent chow-chow. Seckel pears, given to my grandfather by a co-worker, were a trial to peel, and lima beans, purchased from a farm on German Hill Road, took hours to shell. Blackberries had to be picked from brambly bushes that grew on the hill behind the houses on Holabird Avenue. “Because we had Concord grape vines in the backyard and because nobody wanted the grapes,” recalls my mother, “Grandma would can grape jam and grape juice, so they wouldn’t go to waste. That’s why I hate grape jelly today.”
And if that weren’t enough, each year my grandfather’s sister and mother would make a trip from Caroline County with a trunk full of strawberries. “They would usually stay for dinner,” says my mother. They didn’t stay for jam making.
As hot as it was, Grandma’s basement kitchen was a more comfortable place to work than any of Baltimore’s commercial canneries that lined the waterfront up through the 1950s and early ’60s.
Baltimore’s canning industry dates to 1832 when Thomas Kensett, who held a patent for a process to hermetically seal cans, opened a cannery to process oysters at the foot of Federal Hill. By the late 19th century, processing plants in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore flourished, and the 20th century saw company names that still resonate today.
Crosse and Blackwell in the 6800 block of Eastern Avenue boiled up marmalades and canned spicy date nut bread, and Southern Packing was known for its raspberry applesauce known as “appleberry.”
During World War II, plants even canned water for emergency use. But the majority of the canneries— W.H. Roberts and Co. on South Lakewood, who manufactured under the “Princess” label, or Langrell Brothers on Aliceanna, whose label was “Red Chief,” or Baltimore’s oldest vegetable cannery, Lord-Mott, in Fells Point— processed a season’s bounty beginning with spring peas and strawberries, through summer string beans and into late summer tomatoes. In 1958, Baltimore ranked second in the nation in canned tomato and tomato products, third in green beans and fifth in canned fish.
The canneries depended largely on the labor of the Polish women who lived in East Baltimore, a population, according to an article in Baltimore magazine, who “appear contented at their labors.” It’s hard to believe the workers looked that content given that, for example, tomato peelers worked more than 10 hours per day peeling by hand tomatoes that had been plunged into boiling water to loosen their skins. In the 1940s, they were paid 12 cents for each 16-quart bucket of tomatoes peeled, and most peelers produced four bucketfuls per hour. My father’s mother worked only sporadically in the canneries as a tomato peeler (though she was a bean picker, another job held by many Polish immigrants, during the summer), but many Poles found long- and short-term employment in the packing houses.
Evergreen resident Ben Kowarski came to Baltimore from Poland at age 13, and by 1966, at 18, was a self-described “long-haired motorcycle dude” when he took a summer job in “quality control” at the Lord-Mott Cannery. Kowarski’s 12-hour day began at 5 a.m. when he would sort through a dump truck of string beans from the Eastern Shore, checking for vermin and rot, before moving on to the production line to check the cans’ vacuum seals and the weight and quality of the beans. He used his language skills to talk to the Polish ladies who worked in the steam house, where “noise and steam was constant,” says Kowarski. “They worked ridiculously long days in very tough conditions.” When he moved on at the end of summer to attend UMBC, the women stayed.
If you grew up in East Baltimore, it was impossible to ignore the canneries, which became familiar features in the Baltimore streetscape. Adam Mazurek, a librarian who is part of the effort behind the forthcoming Henryk Sienkiewicz Polonia Library at Polish National Alliance Council 21 in Fells Point, remembers mounds of string beans piled on the sidewalk in front of Roberts Cannery on Binney Street in Canton, where his mother worked, and flat-bed trucks piled high with baskets of tomatoes. Altar boys from St. Casimir’s might be tempted to take a few for lunch or for ammunition, he recalls, or for “a summer version of snowball fights.”
Manning’s Hominy was the last cannery in Baltimore. By the time it was sold in 1995, the other packing houses had long disappeared, like so many of Baltimore’s historic industries. National Canned Food Month has migrated, too, from September when it could be taken as a call to action, to February, when it allows industrious kitchen types to take pride in their own resourcefulness, and the rest of us to be grateful for the peelers and pickers who bring jam to our pantries.
I think September is the better month, though. The real heat of summer is over, taking with it its lethargy, and the tomatoes are still plentiful. And I have just the recipe for easing my guilty self into canning: a savory tomato marmalade that bridges sweet and savory, summer and fall, old-fashioned techniques and new flavors.