By Joe Rutherford/NEMS Daily Journal
VERONA – Camille Caples is set to begin her 70th season of canning, preserving and freezing fresh vegetables and fruit, a summer task that began when she was 10 helping her mother at home in the small Illinois town where she grew up.
For many years, the garden she tills and harvests with her husband, Bill Caples, has been in the yard beside their house on a pleasant, shaded residential street in Verona.
“You know, none of my friends do this any more. I am the only one, and I enjoy doing it and I enjoy eating what we make with it later on,” she said.
Caples, who retired as a counselor at Tupelo High School, is a former Junior Auxiliary Citizen of the Year, Tupelo’s highest civic honor.
“I was born in 1932, and we had a garden at our house in town and my grandfather had a garden out in the countryside from Kansas, the town where we lived,” Caples said. “I learned from my grandmother and mother.”
During World War II the gardens became “victory gardens,” Caples recalled.
Caples cautions that home canning and preserving is time and labor intensive, in addition to growing a garden, if homegrown produce is used.
Her first advice is straightforward: “Get a book that tells you how to do it safely so that the food won’t spoil once it is canned.”
She suggests getting materials from the Home Extension Service in Tupelo. The office on Cliff Gookin Boulevard has free printed material with instructions for safe canning, preserving and freezing. Lee County no longer has an extension homemaker.
“I started out using my mother’s old pressure cooker and used it for years,” Caples said. “It was the kind that had the wing-nut tighteners all around the top, and it did a beautiful job. But it was accidentally dropped on concrete, so I now have a Mirro pressure cooker, and I use the canning instructions that came with it.”
Caples’ morning picking of her garden on Thursday consisted of kale, zucchini, yellow crook-neck squash, onions, beets, rattlesnake green beans and broccoli.
The tomatoes that are her favorite for canning were still ripening on rows of vines in the garden, including new plants for a later crop put in the ground Thursday morning.
“You have to make sure what you want to can or preserve is ripe and clean. Then you have to peel it, slice, shred it, par boil it if necessary for freezing, and add the recommended seasonings like salt,” Caples said, adding, “I sterilize my jars and tops in boiling water before the vegetables go in the jars.”
She uses a cuff that fits over the mouth of the jars to more easily pour or add vegetables or fruits. Then follows the pressure cooking, which ensures the safety of what’s canned and seals the lids.
Caples said she cans tomatoes and sweet peppers, sometimes hangs garden potatoes in sacks under an open-air shed, and freezes squash. She makes blackberry jam and jelly, mescaline jelly – both from arbors in the yard and garden – and husband Bill makes apple butter from their own apple trees.
“I have never preserved or canned any kind of meat, but my mother and grandmother did,” she said.
The Capleses at one time made large batches of sauerkraut, which was a popular gift, but that has ceased because of high salt content and health concerns for themselves and friends.
Caples, a University of Illinois graduate, noted that her sister, who graduated from Purdue, started working after college as a home demonstration agent.
“I also want people to know how much we learned in 4-H clubs when I was a girl. We learned how to sew and cook, and it has been helpful to me all of my life,” Caples said.
Caples’ favorite cookbook is the Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, a thick volume first published in 1947, but she has many other volumes and copious files of recipes from across the years and from friends in many places.
Early Thursday she had prepared and Bill Caples had delivered a chocolate pie and a lemon pie to her son Dan Purnell’s office for his birthday celebration.
“I imagine his wife will make him eat kale tonight at supper,” she quipped.