Sara Guinn is my kind of woman.
This is why: After a morning spent helping her put up pepper relish and getting a tour of her prolific vegetable garden, I asked to take off my shoes. My $20 Target shoes were soaked from walking through the wet grass in her backyard. Guinn didn’t bat an eye at my request. And so we finished our conversation, both standing barefoot in her kitchen.
I’ve been corresponding with Guinn since last summer. She sent an email last year asking for a pickle recipe for pepperoncini peppers. We wrote back and forth, and it soon became clear to me that I should be asking her questions. By early August last year, she had put up 275 jars of pepper relish. That’s not counting the numerous jars of pickles and roasted tomatoes lining her kitchen shelves. I am a child when it comes to canning experience in comparison to Guinn.
This summer I decided I would ask to be her kitchen assistant during a canning session to see what I could learn. That’s how I spent last Wednesday morning.
Guinn, 57, takes to heart the notion about older Southern women espoused by Shirley MacLaine’s character in “Steel Magnolias.” As Ouiser Boudreaux declared when asked why she grows tomatoes: “Because I’m an old Southern woman and we’re supposed to wear funny-looking hats and ugly clothes and grow vegetables in the dirt.”
Guinn, a special education teacher’s assistant at Cary High School, doesn’t wear hats but has a vast collection of overalls and Chuck Taylors. (In all, 34 pairs of the latter.) Her backyard vegetable garden is 8 feet wide and 80 feet. She grows okra, squash, a half-dozen herbs, six kinds of cucumbers, 18 varieties of peppers and 18 types of tomatoes. All started from seed and tracked on a spreadsheet. This Southern woman is technically savvy.
And like Ouiser, she does all this hard work even though she doesn’t like the taste of fresh tomatoes.
While her husband spends his summer days off sitting by their backyard pool, Guinn prefers to sweat over a canning pot in the kitchen – her Grandma Hargett’s canning pot, in fact, which only holds 4 quarts.
Her grandma taught her how to can using that very pot. Guinn grew up in Hamlet, a small town outside Rockingham. Grandma Hargett lived down the hill. When Guinn and the other grandchildren spent time with their grandmother, Guinn says it was “all hands on deck.” If Grandma Hargett was canning, the children were expected to help.
As I soon discovered in Guinn’s kitchen, she runs a meticulous canning operation. When I arrived, the canner was already on the stove and filled with simmering water. Guinn had trimmed and removed the seeds from dozens of banana peppers the night before. The jars were clean and waiting to be sterilized.
As Guinn continued cutting up peppers and onions, I used a kitchen gadget called a chop wizard to easily dice the peppers and onions. (The key to making pepper relish: You cannot chop the vegetables using a food processor or you will end up with an unappetizing sludge and not a relish.)
Canning is a patient art. There’s a lot of chopping, stirring and waiting for water to boil. In between tasks, Guinn and I talked about politics, religion, our children. As Guinn combined vinegar and sugar for the brine, she said, “I’m the last dinosaur in the family who does this. That’s what bothers me. Who’s going to do it?”
Guinn is very proud of her two adult sons. She boasts that both of them know how to cook and one is excellent at making cheesecakes. (Her advice on getting children involved in the kitchen: “As soon as you can push a chair up to the counter, you do.”) But neither son has taken on the canning mantle yet, and her grandson, not even 2 yet, is too young to help with the canning. Of course, she wants Grandma Hargett’s pepper relish to continue to be made by future generations.
When the young’uns are ready to learn how to can from Guinn, she has a lot to teach them. I certainly learned a lot just watching her for a short time.
Guinn has a confidence that comes from having spent many hours over a canning pot. She can judge by eye whether she’s made enough brine, whether the mix of peppers and onions is right. She has made these recipes so many times that she knows what to prep in advance and what can wait until the last minute.
I’m no slouch in the kitchen, especially when it comes to canning. I have just finished a cookbook on pickles and preserves, which UNC Press will publish next spring. But Guinn gave me a glimpse of what I hope is my future: an easy grace in the kitchen, earned jar by jar, one season at a time.
To see a printable version of this recipe, click on the link below:
CHOP peppers and onions and place in a large bowl. Set aside.
FILL a water bath canner with enough water to cover the jars by at least 1 inch of water. Bring to a boil. Have a small pot of simmering water also going on the stove for the canning lids and rings. (Guinn dunks each lid and ring before securing them on the filled jars. Others leave the rings and lids sitting in the simmering water until ready to use.)
PUT vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard seeds and celery seeds in a large nonreactive pot. Boil for 4 to 6 minutes. Add chopped peppers and onions, return to a boil, cut heat to low. Pack sterilized pint jars with pepper relish, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Use a chopstick or knife to release any air bubbles from the relish. Screw on a heated ring with a lid. Place in the water bath canner and process for about 10 minutes.
REMOVE jars to a set of baking racks or layers of kitchen towels. Let jars sit until cool and the lids “pop” to show they are sealed.
Yield: About 10 pints
Weigl: 919-829-4848, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @andreaweigl