Eli McCann: My parents planted in me a can-do spirit. And I have the pickles to prove it.

The stench of nostalgia rises with the steam from my kitchen every summer as I preserve the past — and lots of fruits and veggies that we may never get around to eating.

My great-grandmother’s basement was filled with dusty Ball brand jars of liquids in muted colors with floating vegetables or fruits suspended inside.

The year “1991″ was scribbled across the caps in black ink, signifying these delicacies from her backyard garden had been preserved several years ago before being relegated to her musty storage room in the Salt Lake City home my great-grandfather built with his bare hands in the late 1950s.

“We have a lot to learn from grandma,” my mother told me when I was a young boy as we stood in front of her jars.

“Self-sufficiency and frugality are very admirable attributes,” mom said a week later as I helped her scrub two boxes of pickling cucumbers in our kitchen sink. I would spend the rest of that afternoon stuffing my face in a large green pillow in our basement in an attempt to escape what I thought at the time was a rancid smell coming from a boiling pot of vinegar, mustard seed, pickling spice, garlic and fresh dill.

The prior week my parents had devoted an entire Saturday to simmering sauces they had made from the hundreds of Roma tomatoes I helped pluck from our backyard just next to the chicken coop, which terrified me because it attracted rats and because the chickens were mean. Our steam canner was practically sacred, a symbol on our family crest, making its debut every June and sitting atop our stove until at least mid-October.

“Kids,” my mom used to shout from the kitchen. “I need one of you to run to the storage room and bring me two quarts of crushed tomatoes and a bag of macaroni noodles.”

We would venture into the basement, as requested, pulling a cord to turn on the light in our own personal Costco. We would pass by dozens of jars of apricot jam, applesauce, sliced peaches and salsas, all of which had been inventoried during a family night when my parents told us that a modest effort to follow our church leaders to maintain some food storage was a priority.

‘I hate canning’

(Photo courtesy of Ball Canning) Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist has returned to his roots: Canning and storing fruits and vegetables.

I balked when they explained we would be making a family trip next Saturday to an apple orchard to collect a few buckets of Gala apples for that weekend’s project.

“I know you don’t love this,” my dad shouted over the sounds of our electric wheat grinder hard at work on the kitchen countertop. “But, in this family, we all pitch in.”

“I hope you’ll still do this when you’re grown up and have a family of your own,” my mom told me in 1999. I was a teenager by then and had just been tasked with chopping the ends off hundreds of strawberries.

“I really doubt this is ever going to be my thing,” I told her. “I hate canning.”

She sighed. “Well, that’s OK. I know this isn’t for everyone. I just hoped you would take to it eventually.”

By the time I moved out, I was convinced my canning days were behind me. And I was right.

For a while.

Then, around age 30, a dormant strand of my DNA kicked in. I didn’t even remember riding my bike to the farmers market, but suddenly there I was, lugging 50 pounds of produce through a crowd of people who looked just like my parents at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) A produce stand full of fruits at the Downtown Farmers Market in Salt Lake City in 2022. These markets can be a canners' go-to store.

It seemed like Ball jars started spontaneously appearing at my home in the days to come. I swear I don’t recall buying them. The canning life chose me like deity anointing a king.

Last fall, I walked into my house with a box of pickling cucumbers and a bag of fresh dill. My husband saw me and sighed. “Again?” It was more complaint than question.

“Self-sufficiency and frugality are very admirable attributes,” I responded, interrupting his insistence that we had enough pickles to last several more years — given that we had barely made a dent in the 20 quarts I had canned the previous September, and given that neither he nor our dogs even like pickles (and I merely tolerate them).

The pickle protest

(Chris Carlson | AP) A jar of pickles. Tribune guest columnist does his own canning of pickles.

When he first moved to Utah, I told him about the strong cultural pressure to store food and the related pioneer impulse to preserve a lot of this food from scratch. He loved the concept when he heard it.

“But I really don’t think we’ll survive long on tomato sauce and apple pie filling if the apocalypse happens,” he said as we stood in front of our packed basement shelves.

I shushed him.

He ultimately surrendered in his pickle protest as I started measuring white vinegar and dumping it into a large pot. Just when the concoction started to boil, I called my 69-year-old mother on speakerphone to ask her a question about how much dill she typically uses.

“I’m so glad you’re canning again,” she said. “We aren’t doing much this year. It’s hard to get through the supply without children at home.” Her voice sounded a bit sad at the end.

“I should probably pull back myself or even take a break altogether,” I explained. “We really have to force ourselves to eat everything I preserve each year. But it just wouldn’t feel right not to see the steam canner on the stove every summer and fall.”

I could almost hear her smiling through the phone. Just after we ended the call, my husband said, “I do love that you share this with your mom. It obviously makes her happy and proud, and she’s more than earned that.”

It probably was from the vinegar, but my eyes misted as I stirred the pot.

“I’m glad you’re coming around,” I told him.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw him cough and then stuff his face in a large green pillow.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.