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A canning craze: At 634 jars and counting, Bess Swedenburg gets a jump on Ole St. Nick


Well before the holidays come knocking, Bess Swedenburg will have her Christmas gifts ready to go, each made with love in her own kitchen.

Well before the holidays come knocking, Bess Swedenburg will have her Christmas gifts ready to go, each made with love in her own kitchen. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff


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Green and red tomatoes given to Bess Swedenburg by friends and neighbors will soon be put to good use.

Green and red tomatoes given to Bess Swedenburg by friends and neighbors will soon be put to good use.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff



Jan Swoope



Bess Swedenburg laughingly admits she has friends who think she's "crazy." At times, she may even wonder herself. But not long enough to stop the canning juggernaut going on in her Mayhew kitchen. Swedenburg is on track to hit the 700 mark very soon, and husband Billy is busy planning new storage cabinets for more jars of her peach, fig and pear preserves, canned tomatoes, salsa, chili sauce, tomato juice and green beans. For pears, pickled green tomatoes, okra and squash, watermelon rind pickles, large cucumber pickles, dilly veggies and a variety of jellies. She's also put up blackeyed purple hull peas, corn on the cob, cream style corn, peppers, eggplant, peaches and blueberries. 


"It's been a busy summer at our house!" Bess chuckles. It may be the understatement of the year.  


Swedenburg enjoys giving away these home-canned goodies to family and friends when the holidays roll around. "I get to do this in the summertime and then I don't have to worry about Christmas," she says. Supplies of festive gift sacks, boxes and trimmings were purchased on sale after Christmas 2013. Near the first of December, Bess and Billy's playroom will be covered with them, along with cases of the canned fruits (and vegetables) of her labor. 


In a way, these hundreds of jars represent a cooperative. About half of the home-grown produce comes to Swedenburg from neighbors and friends.  


"I love that they share with me," she remarks. "Whatever they give me is what I work with. I never turn anybody down, no matter what else I've got going on."  


There are the six 5-gallon buckets of green tomatoes from Nick Hairston, scuppernongs and muscadines offered by Vicky Bourland, 5-gallon buckets of red tomatoes from Bill and Windy Swedenburg, fruit from John Prince, watermelon and jalapeno peppers from Ray and Amy Kilpatrick, bell peppers from Margaret and Buford Sharp and peaches and corn from friends in Tennessee, to name some. 


Most of the rest is grown in the Swedenburg's own garden -- green beans, squash, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers. "One of my favorite recipes it to take the great big cucumbers that kind of hide under the leaves and get as big as a tennis shoe, and pickle the part between the peeling and the seeds; it makes a real sweet crisp pickle. My children love that." 




Write it down 


Swedenburg has been canning for years, but this is the first season she's kept a journal. The entry for Aug. 16 records a red letter event. Working with Hairston's green tomatoes, combining them with assorted vegetables, the canning whiz put up 36 quarts and 48 pints. It's the most she's ever canned in one day. 


"I was exhausted when it was over," she says, with mirth. "My husband told me I really did snore a lot that night." 


The entire undertaking requires commitment and a certain mind set -- and dishpans, lots of dishpans. Three refrigerators help a lot, too. It's work, yes, but deeply satisfying for Bess. 


"When you cook a meal, everybody eats it and it's gone. When you clean a house, a day later it needs cleaning again. But when you can something, it's a little more lasting," she says, mentioning a friend who once told her the very first thing she does with a home-canned gift is set it out and enjoy looking at it.  


Produce is still coming in and Swedenburg is still canning, not wanting any of the harvest to go to waste. Each jar is a colorful reminder of a season's bounty, a gift made with care and passed on with love.  


Oh, and ... Merry Christmas. 








8 cups sliced squash 


2 cups sliced onions 


3 bell peppers sliced 


3 cups sugar 


2 cups vinegar 


2 teaspoon mustard seed 


2 teaspoon celery seed 


1 teaspoon turmeric, optional 




  • Place squash and onions in layers, salt as if cooking. Let stand 1 hour then drain. Heat other ingredients. Place onions, squash and bell pepper in hot jars. Pour hot sugar/vinegar mixture over the squash, onions and bell pepper. Seal with hot lids. 


    (Source: Marguerite Swedenburg) 








    3 quarts (about 6 pounds) watermelon rind, unpared 


    3/4 cup canning salt 


    3 quarts water 


    2 quarts ice cubes 


    9 cups sugar 


    3 cups white vinegar 


    3 cups water 


    1 tablespoon whole cloves 


    6 cinnamon sticks broken 




  • Cut the rind away, save portion between green rind and pink watermelon (the white part). Cut into 1-inch squares. Cover with brine of salt and cold water, add ice. Let stand 3 hours or more. 


  • Drain, rinse with cold water. Cover with cold water and cook until it sticks tender (about 10 minutes). Drain. combine sugar, vinegar and water with spices tied in a thin cloth bag. Boil 5 minutes and pour over melon. Let stand overnight in refrigerator.  


  • Day 2: Heat watermelon in syrup to boiling and cook slowly for 1 hour. Place hot melon in hot jars, cover with boiling syrup. Seal with hot (boiling lids). 


    (Source: Mary Virginia Stover) 








    Banana peppers 


    Hot peppers 


    Baby carrots 


    Green tomatoes (quartered) 




    Onions sliced lengthwise 






  • Make brine of 8 cups white vinegar and 4 cups water. Heat to boiling. Heat jars in a 250 degree oven placed on a strong cookie sheet. Remove hot jars with a jar lifter, place on another cookie sheet. Add to 1 pint jar: 1 teaspoon canning salt, 1 teaspoon mustard seed, 1 teaspoon dill seed, 1 teaspoon minced garlic, and 1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper if you do not have fresh hot pepper. Then add raw vegetables, pour hot brine to cover the veggies. Seal with hot lids. 


    (Source: Bess Swedenburg, created from several different recipes.)


  • Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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