Tomato Nazis of the Internet
Hey again. Hope you had a great summer.
I did. Busy, but good.
One of the things I did this summer was can. By that I mean, putting food into them. I’ve done this in the past pretty seriously at times, but then for the past decade or so I was otherwise engaged pushing several children out of my uterus and gradually regaining my sanity afterwards. My youngest is 5 now and this has been the first real chance I’ve had to return to the hobby.
Most canning that people do is safe and straightforward. You put some crap into a glass Mason jar, slap a 2 piece rubber-lined metal lid on it, and stick the sealed container into boiling water for 10 minutes or so until it forms an airtight seal. Unfortunately, in addition to preserving food, this airtight seal creates a great environment for botulism to grow. Scary, right?? And what makes it even scarier is that botulism is invisible and odorless so you don’t even know you’ve eaten it until you get seriously ill. It really is silent but deadly.
While you hear horror stories involving the spectre of botulism lurking on your grandma’s shelves, any food with enough acid in it, either naturally occurring acid or acid added as an ingredient in your concoction – like vinegar or lemon juice – prevents botulism from developing. Fruit has acid that occurs in it naturally so jams and jellies are safe to can in boiling water, and things like pickles and salsa have vinegar or citrus added to them to raise the acidity of the product.
Acid doesn’t prevent every nasty beast that wants to grow in your canned stuff, but it does prevent botulism, and the other stuff is stinky and gross and announces its presence by being totally disgusting. It won’t kill you anyway, only botulism does that.
The stupid thing I did this summer was, despite having a fair amount of experience in canning already, I joined a canning group on Facebook. I thought I could get some recipes, or see some pictures of pretty jelly in jars, maybe. And I committed this atrocity immediately after canning a big beautiful batch of tomatoes.
Now, tomatoes are a weird gray area with canning. They’re technically fruits, and acidic, but they just don’t have quite enough acid to reliably prevent the growth of botulism. Rarely, very rarely, people have gotten botulism from homecanned tomatoes http://www.tomatocasual.com/2008/02/22/botulism-real-threat-in-canning-tomatoes/. So in order to prevent that possibility, you are supposed to add either lemon juice or citric acid to your tomatoes. Which I did. Then, you’re supposed to put the sealed tomatoes into boiling water (aka “waterbath”) for 45 minutes. I did that too. But I found out to my chagrin after roughly 10 minutes in the canning group that I had failed miserably and would surely kill my entire family and probably several passersby when the jars exploded into a funnel cloud of ketchupy botulism. All because I did not then, additionally, add a thin layer of boiling water on top of the tomatoes. My tomatoes were super juicy and so I just sort of gave them a hearty squoosh and screwed on the lids and put them in the water.
My canning book said this was ok. Crushed tomatoes in their own juice are waterbathed for 45 minutes. It was right there in black and white. But apparently in the 10 years between the last time I canned and now, they’ve revamped the guidelines and if you can tomatoes in their own juice without adding water, you now have to boil them in water for 85 minutes. That’s…kind of a long time. And I had kind of a lot of tomatoes. Seriously, with the propane I would have to purchase (I have a propane stove, country living) and then consume to waterbath my tomatoes for over an hour I could have driven to the store and bought a pallet of canned tomatoes or probably two.
But, of course, I would have absolutely done an 85 minute waterbath had I only known that my entire family would die if I didn’t. But I didn’t know and I had already done the tomatoes. These ladies suggested that I either rip off all the lids and redo the entire thing which wasn’t going to happen because by that point I had used up all my lids and all my patience, or that I immediately put them into the fridge because botulism can’t grow in fridges, apparently. As one of the women said “Tomatoes are daunting!!! DAUNTING!” And she was correct because by that point after spending hours of work and a fair bit of money on something that was apparently poison garbage, I certainly felt daunted.
Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and an actual canning expert came online to clarify that nah, as long as I had put the citric acid into my tomatoes, that would prevent botulism. It was revealed that the newly extended boiling time had never been about the botulism, the reason why the experts had extended that boiling time had been to prevent mold and fermentation, which on rare (RARE!) occasions hadn’t been completely eliminated by a 45 minute waterbath.
But I still left the jars of tomatoes in the fridge. That’s the weird thing.
Even after the explanation, even after I completely understood the reasoning behind the longer processing times, even though I knew that at the rate my family consumes tomatoes they would never last long enough to mold or ferment anyway, even though I knew because I used citric acid that my family couldn’t possibly get botulism from them, even though everyone used to process crushed tomatoes for only 45 minutes and many people still do, and even though I’d used the shorter times in the past without even a second thought about it, just the very thought that I’d done something wrong still made me so paranoid that I left them in the fridge. They’re there right now, taking up space we desperately need for beer.
Safety culture is a funny thing. It messes with your head even when you’re a fairly rational person, even when you’re pretty well informed about the risks of something. Something in us humans thinks “well, maybe just in case” even when it’s really not warranted.
The odds of anyone dying from botulism even with unsafe canning practices are slim. There are less than 200 cases a year in the US and most of them are not even food borne – about 70 cases a year come from home canned foods and it’s virtually always the very low acid foods such as asparagus or green beans, not tomatoes. More people get botulism from tattoos than from home canned foods. And besides, the odds that my tomatoes, with citric acid added and waterbathed for 45 minutes, contain botulism is practically nil. Rationally, I know that. I know that I am in way, way more danger driving to the store to buy tomatoes in a can than from eating my own tomatoes, but still, the tomatoes are still in the fridge. I feel silly about it but, well, maybe just in case.
All this has gotten me wondering about the kind of people who seem to take delight in scaring the bejeezus out of people. I mean, those women who just HAD to chime in even though they honestly did not even know what they were talking about. I mean, I understand seeing someone doing something actively harmful and wanting to give them a heads up. I’ve done that. But the level of overreaction out of these chicks was beyond the pale (daunting!!! DAUNTING!!!) and it made no sense really. I mean they were freaking convinced I was about to kill my whole family even though I’d done everything but pour a little boiling water in the top of my jars. Why did they care SO much about something that was very likely safe, that millions have done safely in the past?
People take big risks with their health every day. They smoke. Drink too much (guilty). Drive fast. Sunbathe (guilty again). Take drugs. Forget to take their vitamins or take too many vitamins. Sleep around (no comment). Eat too much of the wrong things. Any one of these things is by far more likely to kill a human person than improperly canned tomatoes (srsly, I added the citric acid!!!) But none of those women came after me for doing the big ticket items. They weren’t chastising strangers for smoking or drinking. They unleashed their outrage over something that in the grand scheme was very unlikely to kill anyone, and what’s worse, they didn’t even have their facts straight.
Makes me wonder how often that is the case. Busybodies who are safety warriors based on a fundamental misinterpretation of the facts, or gross exaggeration of the facts, or even just bad facts all together. And yet we listen to them, and keep the tomatoes in the fridge, because just in case, even while we do things that are actually, actively harmful. Why do we even listen?
Well, I’ve decided not to listen any more. Sometimes living life means you gotta be that guy in Vegas who looked up at a lunatic shooting into the crowd and without even spilling a drop of beer, flipped him off. That guy is my hero. I want to be like him. We all gonna die, it’s a fact, no one here gets out alive. Life is a terminal condition and at some point, you accept that and pick your poison. So if I want to commit a mass Jonestownesque suicide by feeding myself and my family botulism-laden tomatoes, screw you, Tomato Nazis.
Looks like pasta is back on the menu.