Verna Soini of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, shares two of her blue-ribbon canning recipes from the country fair.
Verna Soini’s plump hands are stained red from the beets she’s peeling as she prepares her favorite relish. On the stove, jars are jostling gently in a hot-water bath. In another kettle, freshly packed jars of pickled green beans are on the boil.
Verna has been canning vegetables since she was in junior high school, when she helped her mother put the produce by for winter or for sale.
“Father had a milk route,” she explains, “and we used to sell a lot of vegetables on the route as well.”
In the far reaches of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Verna Soini lives at the end of a long dirt road, in the red farmhouse where her husband’s family raised several generations, along with cows and chickens and lots of vegetables. When her two children were in 4-H and started entering their animals in local fairs, Verna thought she might as well join them. She entered a jar of tomatoes and a jar of green beans at the Lunenburg Fair — and she won. “We were so excited,” she recalls. “We couldn’t believe it. We just couldn’t believe it!”
That was back in the late 1960s. Since then, Verna has come home with more blue ribbons than she can count. A few adorn the mirror in the dining room; the rest are packed away in boxes. She keeps her trophies in her bedroom upstairs. “You know, enough is enough,” she says. “You don’t want to get too caught up in it all!”
Still, when Verna enters her produce at the local fairs, she dominates the winner’s column. Judges are looking for color, clarity, and proper labeling. No problem for Verna: Once she’s chopped up those beautiful beets and added the horseradish and other ingredients, she fills the hot jars, one spoonful at a time, and the clear glass turns the rich red of a sultan’s carpet. “Red, red, red,” she says. “When my daughter and I used to do this, the whole kitchen would turn red.”
But for Verna, there’s more: “I just love it. I think it gets in your blood and you can’t stop.” She turns the burner off under the hot-water bath, and the canning kettle goes silent. With tongs, she takes the jars out, one at a time. As the afternoon passes, the lids seal. Tock. Tock. Tock. “I love that sound,” Verna says, with a smile like the sun.