Hidden Harvests with the League of Urban Canners

League of Urban CannersAll photos by Sasha Pedro.

Some things are hard to miss: the leaves changing to vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange, the impossibly long line at that one ramen restaurant in Porter Square, the traffic in Union Square at 4:15 p.m. Other things—like the hundreds of fruit trees tucked away throughout Somerville and Cambridge—are not so easy to notice.

Many people walking the cities’ streets aren’t aware of the food growing around them, according to Sam Katz-Christy, the founder of the League of Urban Canners. He knows because he was once one of them.

“Initially, you are just blind to it,” Katz-Christy says, recalling how once he began to notice the plethora of fruit trees growing in the area, he was shocked that he hadn’t seen them before. After watching so much fruit go to waste, he decided to gather a group of friends and do something about it.

“We have these ideas about food, about what it should look like or where it should come from; I think we need to break down the barriers of what we think of as food,” he says.

The League of Urban Canners (affectionately known as LURC among participants), aims to do just that. They find and harvest the often-overlooked fruits growing in the city—whether in a neighbor’s yard or a public park—and make them into delicious local jams, preserves, dried foods, and fermented snacks to enjoy throughout the whole year.

Since its start in 2012, the group has managed to find and record nearly 300 fruit trees in Somerville and Cambridge, at least 100 of which are harvested annually. The two cities, it turns out, offer a wide range of fruits for curious LURCers—including peaches, pears, crabapples, mulberries, sour cherries, Concord grapes, and a few lesser-known fruits such as juneberries, cornelion cherries, and quince.

You can often find LURCers gathered together with a ladder, a tarp, a few boxes, and sometimes bike helmets to protect their heads from falling fruit. Once they harvest, they share 10 percent of the resulting canned goods with the tree owners as a courtesy. 

LURC is a laid-back, decentralized group, operating from an email listserv where tree owners and experienced members announce harvesting opportunities and organize harvesting gatherings throughout the cities. Harvests depend on when fruit is ready to pick and are announced sporadically, sometimes with just a few days, or a few hours, of notice.

Afternoon Under the Arbor

LURCOne LURC harvest happened on a crisp September afternoon. The bittersweet, musty smell of fresh grape juice filled the air as the group gathered at the end of a driveway on (the aptly named) Concord Avenue in Somerville.

The driveway was splattered with crushed grapes as Danny, 3, and Alex, 5, of Somerville shuttled bunches of grapes from box to box beneath a tall grape arbor strung with twinkle lights. Their father, Andy Whynot, stood on a ladder, reaching up to snip clusters of grapes from the vine. Meanwhile their mother, Jeanne, stacked some white cardboard boxes in a corner, readying them to be filled with the bounty. 

Jeanne, who has been participating in LURC harvests for three years, says she wants her children to understand where food comes from. Since joining LURC, she’s managed to keep two energetic young boys fueled with enough PB&J sandwiches for the year without buying any jelly at the grocery store.

Sitting on lawn chairs by their back door, Maria and Humberto Rego watched as the grapes they planted in 1962 were harvested by the LURC members. They learned about LURC through their daughter, and are grateful to have extra hands helping them harvest their grapes.

“Me and him used to pick all the grapes,” Maria said, gesturing toward her husband, “but we’re getting old,” she added with a laugh. The Regos, like many tree owners, find that they cannot use all of the fruit their trees produce each year. “We have so many grapes, and I already made my jam,” Maria said.

On another ladder at the Rego property, Bethany Ericson, a local jewelry artist, reached up to pluck a few clusters of her own while her daughter, Lyra, emptied the grapes into a bigger box. “This is the first time I’ve done this,” she said.

When Maria asked if she’d had enough, Ericson reassured her. “I have way more than I need.”

Yes You Can

Canning and preserving has always been at the heart of what the League of Urban Canners does in the community. One apple or pear tree has the potential to produce well over 200 pounds of fruit per year, more than even a few families could consume, according to Jascha Smilack, who manages a few harvesting sites for LURC.

Ericson is an experienced jam and jelly canner, though the grape harvest in September was the first time she gathered her fruit through LURC. She planned to make some jelly with the grapes and then pass along the rest to friends and family.

“It can be a little nerve-wracking at first,” Ericson says of canning, “but it’s really simple if you follow the instructions.”

Many people fear home canning because of possible threats of botulism, a rare but serious food poisoning from bacteria that can develop in improperly canned goods.

Afton Cyrus, who founded her own small-batch jam and jelly company, Jam Sessions, and now sells her jams at farmers markets throughout Somerville and Cambridge, understands the hesitancy of first-time canners. “It’s scary stuff, when you don’t know what you’re doing,” she says. “But once you read a little bit and find a trusted, reliable source for your recipe, it’s really quite simple and very safe.”

“Acidity is key,” she adds, noting that the surest way to prevent any bacteria from forming in your canned goods is to make sure you are canning high-acid foods.

Julia Hallman, an avid home-canner and the lead buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge, agrees. She often ensures her canned goods will be safe by adding a tablespoon of lemon juice to the mix.

There are also FDA-approved boiling times based on what, and how much, you are canning. The times can be found easily online, Hallman says, as well as on most Ball jar packages and in canning books.

Hallman adds that working in a clean space with clean equipment is very important. While some canners like Cyrus choose to sterilize their cans in a hot water bath before adding the jam, others, including Hallman, use the bottom rack of a dishwasher right before adding the jam to the jars.

However intimidating canning might seem, Hallman and Cyrus both mention the satisfaction and security in hearing the lids of the cans pop as they cool down, meaning that the air has escaped and the food inside is sealed and protected.

“It’s very easy to tell if everything is sealed properly,” Hallman says. “You just listen for the pop.”

LURC

Afton Cyrus.

Cyrus loves canning because it gives her an outlet for creativity. When canning, she says, you know exactly what is going into your food. She opts for a low-sugar pectin—a substance that gives jam its gelatinous consistency—called Pomona’s Pectin, which requires less sugar and lets the natural flavor of the fruit come through. Though not a member of LURC, Cyrus only includes locally grown produce in her jams and doesn’t want to mask the flavors.

Smilack also mentioned Pomona’s Pectin as his family’s choice of pectin. Other canners, like Hallman, prefer not to use pectin at all, resulting in a looser, more French-style jam. Schreiner often cans his fruit plain without any sweetening or pectin, he says, joking, “I could just eat fruit with a spoon.”

Canning also doesn’t have to be a huge event, Cyrus explains. For first-time canners overwhelmed by the prospect of being buried in jam, Cyrus recommends thinking about what you will really eat and trying a small batch first.

The same goes with recipes—start simple with a trusted recipe before getting too creative. Though Smilack and his family like making sour cherry and mulberry jam, they started out using simple recipes from well-known canning cookbooks.

Season’s Greetings

Winter is coming, and after the joys of the holidays, frost and ice will bring bitter cold days when luxuries like strawberries and apples will be but a faint memory.

“I think that now that people are realizing the benefits of eating locally, they are also realizing the dearth of things available in the wintertime,” Hallman says.

Katz-Christy doesn’t think this dearth is a bad thing. “Being in tune with the seasons is really important,” he says. “Learning to eat with the seasons gives you a greater appreciation of food.”

As the holidays approach, Cyrus suggests canning as a way to make thoughtful gifts for family and friends. “People like consumable gifts,” she says, adding that giving canned goods is a way to offer someone something they can enjoy later, after the glut of holiday eating is over, when winter comes in full force.

Smilack has used LURC as a way to stock up on gifts for the holidays. “A jar of homemade jam is special and economical,” he says, adding that with two children in two different schools and after school programs, his family’s list of holiday gift recipients has gotten quite long.

It’s not too late to get started on some holiday canning. While local apples are still in season, Cyrus suggests making apple butter or applesauce. Hallman also advises making butter or jam out of pears.

“The season is so short here,” Cyrus says. “Canning is a way to make it last. You open up a jar in the middle of winter and have a taste of summer.”

This story originally appeared in the Celebrating the Season issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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