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Corn, Cows and Underwear

Cylindrical immortality at the Hanover County Cannery.

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"What you put in this is strictly your imagination," says Van Goor as she stamps a lid on one can and taps the top with a finger.

What secrets has Van Goor, a small, spunky veteran of the canning scene, seen locked away in aluminum after two decades of service? Soups being prepared in the modern-day witch cauldrons of the steam-jacketed kettles. Many a school of tuna has been tucked in here as well, plus beef, venison and chitlins. Anything you can submerge in broth.

"It's the liquid which carries the heat," she says prophetically.

There was a group of women from Washington, D.C., with a variety of items they wanted to can. Van Goor can't remember what all they brought, but she won't soon forget the woman who brought a bucket of the Colonel's best. Despite the fact that the breading would float right up to the top, once upon a time in Hanover a fried chicken was canned.

The canning trade isn't without its strange fetish: the urge to seal away weird things in shiny, cylindrical vaults. In her office, Van Goor has three novelty cans with dusty labels reading "Roadkill," "Chicken Lips" and the obligatory "Whoop Ass." She has no idea what's inside the cans, but there's definitely something sloshing around in there.

The community cannery has a proud tradition, tracing its roots to the so-called victory gardens that gained popularity during World War II. These home gardens were dedicated to self-reliance, growing produce for the family and for troops overseas. And the only way those patriotic niblets could survive the treacherous voyage across the U-boat-infested Atlantic was with aluminum armor. So cities and counties across the country established canneries connected to local schools, which became canneries for the community after the war. As equipment and interest waned over time, most of the local canneries closed. The Hanover Cannery is the only local one left, built in 1980 to replace one that closed in 1978.

The cannery owes its survival in large part to Rose Jennings, who at almost 70 has been canning for more than half a century. With a 40-acre farm and a small garden she shares with her husband just down the road from the cannery, Jennings has produced as many as 900 cans a year.

Jennings has seen her share of canneries come and go: inside Hanover's Washington-Henry Elementary School in Ashland (torn down in one night, she says, to curb the backlash from the community), in Montpelier (closed because of outdated machinery), and in Caroline County. She was one of the people who went before the Hanover Board of Supervisors to ask the county to pitch in $150,000 to open the Hanover County Cannery, becoming in the process the chairman of the Cannery Advisory Committee ("only because nobody else will take it," she jokes).

She also claims to have invented cake-in-a-can.

"I've been cooking all my life, and I wanted something we can do in quantity," Jennings says. She and her foster mother tinkered with recipes when she was a child, and the result, years later, is a combination of applesauce, nuts, raisins and cinnamon. Her kids made a label for it: "Mama Rose's Homemade Applesauce."

"One of the great things about canning is you have complete control of the contents," she says. Jennings says she and her husband grow and can only produce that's been untouched by pesticides or chemicals. She says she's seen the benefits of canning firsthand.

"They say if you don't use it, you lose it," Jennings says. "And I think that's why we stay as active and healthy as we have. Because we can our own food."

Van Goor was hired to this horticultural outpost 23 years ago while taking a training course in food preservation. As for her gardening experience, she says, "I have the best weeds in Hanover County." The cannery provides the cans, the equipment and some very large fans for the hot work. From there, it's up to the customer and whatever help they bring along.

Van Goor and Jamie Seifer, the only staff at the cannery, help out as necessary, working machinery that steams and bubbles, giving the cannery the look of a vegetable slaughterhouse. And make no mistake, that's what's going on here. Green beans, corn, sweet potatoes, kale and of course Hanover's finest tomatoes: These are alternately skinned, dismembered, seeded, ground, boiled, shucked and sealed away. From the blanching tray to the exhaust tunnel to the free-standing vertical retorts (killing bacteria with heat — "We're talking speed," Van Goor says), the nickel tour reveals food-processing technology at its finest, courtesy of the Dixie Canner Co. in Atlanta, which makes the equipment.

The average stay is five hours; the minimum food requirement is one bushel. It'll run you 40 to 50 cents a can. Reservations are "highly recommended," Van Goor says, especially in late summer. People roll in and out through the season like the cans coming down the exhaust tunnel conveyor belt, hot and orderly and sometimes smelling pretty ripe.

Maybe it's the heat, maybe it's the shiny machines, but something about the Hanover County Cannery brings out the absurd in people. Proud parents can graduation gifts for their children. There's the can of dehydrated water (label reads: "Add a quart of water"). There was a young bon vivant who brought in a small bushel of lacy somethings, carefully sealed them in plastic bags and proceeded to can nothing less than French underwear.

Some come to play, others come to serve. An ecumenical group called Harvest for Hope, which fights hunger by collecting unsold produce, brought in 70 youths from five states to can corn. They went out into the Hanover fields and came back with 75 bags of ears, shucking corn under the July sun. Then they ran it through the corn cutter one cob at a time — 686 cans' worth.

Van Goor works to make food last as long as it can. She often works 60 hours a week and, after underwear and fried chicken, says she's prepared for anything. So when a poor fellow accidentally left his freezer open too long, Van Goor found herself charged with the task of overseeing the canning of half a cow. There's no pause in that kind of work, she says: "We stay open till the work is completed. Period."

And there's always knowledge to be unsealed. "Somebody told me hamburger tastes like Salisbury steak when it's canned," she says. S



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