A jar full of ideas

Published 10:15 pm Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lynn Barlow of Suffolk, Va. learned pickling from the recipe of her husband’s first wife, Margaret.

This enduring glass container holds possibilities

They’re so familiar to so many people in the South that it’s pretty safe to say that everyone has some, or knows someone who does. They are as essential to many southern kitchens as grits, lard, or Nana’s recipe for pan-fried cornbread.

Each one really comprises just three simple parts, yet each can accomplish some very complex things. Some use them as safes, holding a child’s life savings beneath the bed. Others see them as organizational tools, using them to separate nuts from bolts in the garage, or barrettes from rubber bands on the bedroom dresser. To still others, they are the keepers of prize-winning sweet pickles, figs or okra.

Yet for all it has meant to the American South, the Mason jar is the patented creation of a Yankee, one John Landis Mason, a tinsmith from Philadelphia.

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And even though he could scarcely have imagined it, Mason’s concept of a shoulder-seal jar with a zinc screw cap has become a staple of American homes.

The product originally was intended for storing food when climate prevented crop growth, but the Mason jar has become a cultural icon with a utility only limited by the imagination.

From the traditional to the artistic, Mason jars make the southern scene in so many ways.

‘Best sound in the world’

Lynn Barlow didn’t grow up knowing how to can pickles in Richmond. It wasn’t a skill passed down to her by her mother or grandmother. In fact, she never gave the idea of pickling much thought until her husband, Joe, began running low on his treasured stockpile of sweet cucumber pickles made by his first wife, Margaret.

Not wanting Joe to go wanting of one of his all-time favorites, Lynn Barlow found a copy of Margaret’s recipe and went to work replenishing Joe’s stash.

Of course, as she soon learned, the trickiest part about picking up someone else’s recipe and running with it is not so much what the recipe tells you, but what it doesn’t. There were some lessons to be learned about what equipment to use and just how the process of sealing one’s Mason jars properly actually works.

“My first batch was an awful witches’ brew that was orange and almost ruined my pans,” Barlow said. She had learned one of the crucial rules of pickling: Do not use aluminum pans.

Metals — especially aluminum — can react with the vinegar in the pickling solution, making for cloudy or odd-colored pickles. (But be advised that these pickles are not dangerous.)

Since that first failure, Barlow has become an expert at converting her husband’s long, green burpless cucumbers into fresh batches of sweet pickles that are crisp and never mushy. She credits the crispness of her pickles to one thing — keeping them cool until she’s ready to serve them.

And the retired public school librarian stocks Joe’s pickle shelves with a meticulous attention to detail befitting her former career.

“When I do a batch,” Barlow explained, “I put the date, just in case the batch is bad.”

But it would speak to the very genius of the Mason jar’s design that very few of Barlow’s pickles go bad. If used properly, Mason jars provide an airtight seal that keeps out bacteria and contaminants for as long as the seal remains unbroken.

To achieve that impenetrable seal, Barlow said, both the pickles and Mason jars have to be at just the right temperature during the canning process. Through patience and attention to detail, she said, she’s very seldom had a jar that didn’t seal.

“It’s the best sound in the world, hearing those metal lids pop. Then I know the jar has sealed.”

Mother of innovation

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the Mason jar, with all its versatility, is the mother of innovation. At least, that’s what Maye Bond might have thought when she saw a friend’s Christmas gift a few years ago.

Maye Bond holds two of “redneck wineglasses” outside her daughter’s business, the Print and Stitch in Driver, Va., where her creations are for sale daily.

It was a Mason jar, but with the stem of a wine glass. Taken with the notion of such an interesting juxtaposition of down-home southern charm and high-class dining utility, Bond responded as any craftsman would.

“I can make that,” she said.

And so Bond set out to create her interpretation of what is commonly referred to as the “redneck wineglass.”

With a combination of trial-and-error, a bit of art school training, and the vision to see the Mason jar as not just a storage device but a collector’s item, Bond began making “redneck wineglasses.”

Once she figured it out, Bond said, the process of turning a Mason jar into a wineglass was simple.

She gets the wineglass stems from craft and dollar stores and attaches them to Mason jars with an epoxy that binds the glass. The glass needs to bake for about 35 minutes to ensure the epoxy has set, and then the “redneck wineglass” is complete.

Using her daughter Kim Riddick’s shop, the Print and Stitch in Driver, Bond sells her wineglasses to anyone looking for a unique piece of Americana to display in their home or to those looking for a useful glass to take on location.

“People have told me they take the glasses to the beach, because they can use the lids to keep bugs and sand out of their drinks,” she said.

Bond also creates gift baskets using her Mason jar creations, and she customizes them for people, painting just about anything from names to designs on the sides of the glasses.

“They’re just fun and they’re conversation pieces,” she said.

Life in the American South would be hard to imagine without the creation of a tinsmith from Philadelphia. The Mason jar is more than a container for a cold glass of sweet tea or a place to flick cigarette ashes while out on the front porch. It is a part of the southern culture.

The subtle clanking of a case of Mason jars triggers memories of lazy summer days on the lake, using the jars to hold bait, the beginning of pickling season, or the call to a big ol’ southern family feast.

In some ways, the Mason jar’s rugged character can be seen as a symbol of the South, its heavy glass reflecting back to us our struggles, our survival through adversity and stereotyping, and our undying spirit to preserve the things held dear.