albacore tuna canning

This is a guide for canning troll-caught albacore tuna using a raw-pack method in a pressure canner.  It has been reviewed by a veteran, my fellow Master Food Preserver and an excellent teacher, Dale Dow, who has opened her home and taught annual tuna classes to willing new MFP volunteers for many years.  I can’t replace Dale’s careful in-person instruction, but I’ve done tuna with her three years running, and tried to take notes on all the tips she provided this year so I can approximate her procedures.  All mistakes and lack of clarity are mine, of course.  Thank you for this and everything else I’ve learned from you, Dale!

Note: Interested in canning salmon instead of tuna?  More tips here.

Is albacore the best tuna?  In Oregon, we think so.  It’s one of only two tuna varieties that are certified green-light sustainable by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Also, since the tuna are caught very young, they don’t have any issues with mercury buildup.

And they make the best tuna you’ve ever had.  You haven’t TASTED tuna until you have a jar of homemade albacore.

Tuna is a low acid food, and must be canned in a pressure canner (the ones with a clamp down lid that has a gauge or a weighted top), not a waterbath canner (the ones that look like a big stockpot).  The process takes the better part of a day, and you’re much better off canning tuna outside on a sturdy camp stove, as it smells strongly and the smell lasts on your hands and other surfaces.  Trust me, you don’t want this smell in your kitchen.


I’m assuming you know how to use a pressure canner, have chosen top-quality and properly stored albacore tuna, and you have cleaned your canning jars, rings, and new lids.

If you are using a pressure canner for the first time or need a refresher, this publication from the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia is a good guide.

OSU Extension has a publication, developed by a consortium of three Pacific Northwest universities, called “Canning Seafood.”  It covers canning seafood in general, including fish and shellfish.  I’m using this document as a base for this annotated guide.  You can download a .pdf file (PNW 194) by following the links here.  Please refer to this document if you have questions about safety, storage, or spoilage.

Buying Tuna

Your local fish monger is a good place to bulk-order freshly caught Oregon albacore tuna, cleaned, bled, and prepared as long, single-piece loins.  We use Newman’s and Fisherman’s Market in Eugene.  There are also places along the coast where you can buy tuna off the boat.  Best to talk to someone with experience before undertaking this effort.

Edited to clarify: You’ll want to buy 1 lb. whole fish per one half-pint jar of filleted tuna.  There will be about 50% wastage during the filleting process, less if you have a very skilled knife-handler, more if you’re trying it at home yourself.  It will be cheaper to do it yourself, of course, but much more work.  If I want to fill my canner, for example, I  should buy just under 50 lbs. for 24 half-pint jars.

The Set Up

I strongly advise you not to stray far from these instructions.  You’ll be processing tuna for 100 minutes, and if you have to start over or if a jar breaks or otherwise fails to seal, you’ll be unhappy.

1.  Check your jars carefully for chips and cracks.  I usually use new jars for tuna to minimize risk.  After washing your jars, screw the rings on and keep them on as you are fitting tuna in the jars.  This will make it easier to wash the muck off the jar mouth before canning.

Make things easier on yourself: use widemouth jars!

2.  Besides the canning set-up, make sure you have for each person in your group:

  • Wide-mouthed half-pint jars.  You can use regular-mouth jelly jars, but a tuna loin is a bit fatter than a regular jar (see disaster above), and it requires more cutting.  You may also can in wide-mouthed pints, but half-pints are similar in weight to a standard can of tuna — think of how much tuna you’ll need per use.
  • A very sharp, non-serrated, chef’s or boning knife.
  • A non-porous cutting board, preferably one that can go in the dishwasher.
  • Food-safe disposable gloves (optional — note: your hands will smell afterward).
  • A large bowl to hold the tuna loins and a smaller bowl for viscera and scraps.
  • A cat to eat the scraps.
  • Distilled vinegar.
  • Canning salt (optional – I use 1/8 t. per jar)
  • Bottled lemon juice (added to canner)
  • Tuna loins (as pictured above).  A fishmonger can clean, scale, and cut the fish for you.  Plan on a bit less than one pound of raw tuna per half-pint jar.  Keep tuna on ice as you’re preparing it for the jars.
  • Disposable ice packs which will smell strongly of tuna once you are finished.
  • A Two-burner or otherwise powerful, sturdy camp stove for every two canners.  The turkey fryer one-burner stove units run too hot, and may damage a pressure canner.  Single-burner tabletop units are not strong enough.

This is the set-up we used at a recent tuna canning party.  We put up 154 half-pints of 129 pounds of tuna.  You can see the range of canners — two brand new 23-quart Prestos on the camp stove to the left, and a range of sizes and brands elsewhere.  The canner closest to the camera on the right is a screw-down lid All-American, a heavier and more expensive canner that does not need a lid gasket.

3.  When you set up your camp stove, check the surface with a level to make sure it does not tilt and provides a stable, flat surface.

Adding Tuna to Jars

4.  Wash your jars and rings, and screw the rings on to the jars.

5.  Prepare your lids.  Older lids (unused boxes from years past, for example) may need to be boiled — read the instruction on the box.  New lids are generally not boiled, but again, check on the box.  They are usually prepared by bringing them up to 180 degrees in a pot of water.  This is less than boiling — you can see tiny bubbles form on the bottom of the pot.  Once up to 180, let sit at that temperature or slightly cooler for 5-10 minutes to soften the gum on the underside of the lids.  If your brand new box does not provide instructions, follow the 180-degree plan.

You’ll see that we marked the lids with our names and the date.  Names are important in a big canning party!

6.  I hope you have a garbage disposal and a double sink, which are ideal for this project.  Fill your non-disposal sink with hot soapy water.  Use your disposal sink to rinse tuna bits off things like knives and cutting boards and hands.

7.  Remove the small dark areas, larger veins, and other viscera, which make the product taste more fishy.  I remove the stringy white connective tissue as much as possible for aesthetic reasons, but it doesn’t need to be removed.

8.  Fill the tuna jars, as below, to no greater than one inch from the top of the jar.  You may be able to get one large piece of loin in with only a bit of excess tuna to fill the crevices, or you may use smaller pieces of tuna. It’s better to be slightly under one inch than over.

It’s important to fill all the crevices to the bottom of the jar, so pack the fish in tightly.  It will meld together during cooking to create one piece.  Try to keep the jars as clean as possible.  Our teacher uses only one hand for handling tuna, and keeps the other hand clean for handling the jars.

9.  At this point, you may decide to add 1/8 – 1/4 t. of canning salt.  Salt is only a flavoring agent in this particular process, not a safety issue.  Consider what you’ll be using the tuna for.  If sandwiches, you may want a little salt.  If casseroles, you won’t need it.

10.  Once your jars are all filled, remove the rings, rinse them in the disposal side of the sink, and then wash them in the hot, soapy water in the other sink.  Rinse them off and set aside.

11.  Pour some vinegar into a small bowl, and soak a paper towel in the vinegar.  Use the paper towel to carefully wipe off the jar mouth, especially the top that will have contact with the lid.  You want to remove any fish bits or oil, which will inhibit proper sealing.

12.  Remove your heated lids from the hot water with a magnetic wand, and place them on the clean jars.  Screw on the rings finger-tight (i.e., tighten them until they are just closed but not screwed on as hard as possible).

The Canning Process

Once you’ve filled and capped your jars, you’re ready to can.

13.  Prepare a sheet with the following information.  Identify the canner (in this case, Anne’s canner), then places to mark the time for Vent Start, Vent End, Pressure Start, and Pressure End.  We also marked down the number of jars in the canner so we could figure out the price per jar at the end of the session.

14.  Add four or five quarts of hot water (about 140 degrees — either use very hot tap water or heat the water in the canner) to each canner.  This is much more than usual, because you want to adjust for the longer processing time.  You might also add 1/2 cup of lemon juice to the water — this is supposed to help reduce tuna smell in the canner.

15.  Place the jars in the canner in layers, separated by canning racks.  If you use wide-mouth AND regular-mouth, be careful that the racks are balanced.

16.  Start the pressurizing process!  Refer to your canner’s user manual, or the Georgia pressure canner link under “Resources” for instructions.  Be sure that you are familiar with your local altitude — you will need a heavier weight if you are higher than 1,000 feet.

If you are at 1,000 feet or lower:  Vent 10 minutes, then place 10-lb. weight (or watch the dial until it reaches 11 lbs.) and wait until proper pressure is reached before timing for 100 minutes.  Use your little chart to mark down the times for starting and finishing the vent, then starting the timing at pressure (which could take anywhere from 2-10 minutes).

17.  These canners are at the venting stage.  Once you’ve hit pressure, can the tuna for 100 minutes, again carefully marking down the time.

If you are canning outside on camp stoves, be sure to watch for gusts of wind extinguishing the flame under the stove, or the propane canister running out of fuel.  If your pressure drops under the appropriate level, you’ll have to start the entire process over.

Also watch for too much pressure.  The jiggle of your weight (if you’re using one) should be an even, slow hula, not a frantic headbanging rock-n-roll.

18.  When the 100 minutes are up, remove from the heat and let the pressure drop naturally.

Do not pour cool water over the canner or try to rush the cool-down.  The cool-down period is part of the canning time, as determined by the experts.

19.  Once you have depressurized and cooled the canner as per the instructions, it is ready to be opened.  See your manual or the Georgia guide for tips on opening your canner, because you are at risk for steam burns if you open it too soon or in the wrong position.  Remove the tuna jars and let them cool completely.  The jars will still be boiling for quite some time after you remove them, so handle carefully.

Some of the lids may not have formed a seal in the canner, and this is normal.  If they haven’t formed a seal by the time they are cool, you can either refrigerate the jars, or, for longer storage, freeze the jars.  There’s no need to transfer the contents into another container, as canning jars are freezer safe.

Here are two jars of finished tuna. You can see that I didn’t completely pack in the tuna on the right, resulting in a less attractive product.  The juice inside the jar is from the tuna — no water was added.  You can also see a slightly darker color for parts of the tuna block.  This comes from different parts of the loin.

Cleaning Up

20.  After the jars are cool, you will want to remove the rings for storage. Test each lid to make sure it is firmly sealed, and store any jars that have not sealed in the refrigerator for consumption within a few days.

Wash the rings and jars carefully with hot, soapy water with some vinegar added.  Often, I end up throwing away the rings because I can’t get the tuna smell out of them.

21.  Cutting boards should be put in the dishwasher or sterilized with a bleach solution.  You might try Febreze on non-washable surfaces.  Good luck.

22.  Store the jars in a cool, dark place.  They will keep at least until next year, maybe longer.  Watch for color changes and lids that pop open.  If you suspect you’ve got a spoiled jar, don’t taste the contents before discarding.  See the “Canning Seafood” link under “Resources” for more information about spoilage.

23.  Be sure to clean your canner well after canning tuna.  See your instruction manual for the best way to do this.  For longer canner storage, fill the cavity with newspapers, which also help absorb smells.

Now sit back and enjoy your home-canned tuna.

my guest appearance on klcc’s food for thought

I had a wonderful time today with hosts Ryan and Boris on KLCC’s new food show, Food for Thought.  We talked about food preservation and the closure of OSU Extension’s Lane County office.  The real stars of the show were the Lane County Fair award-winning salsas made by my fellow Master Food Preserver Polly Wilson and her husband Dan!

You can hear an archived MP3 of the broadcast on the KLCC website.

roasted blackberry jam for étienne brûlé

Chester blackberries, a late variety usually associated with the East Coast, also grow well in Oregon.  No surprise there. But they’re worth investigating because of the beauty of this cultivar and the flavor.  I find marionberries a bit monochromatic, I’ll confess.  They all taste the same.  Evergreen and Himalayan “wild” blackberries, the ones that grow like pests in our gardens and alongside roadways, are often too tart for pleasurable eating.  But Chesters combine the tartness of the wild blackberry and the consistency of the bred berry.  They hold their shape well in preserves and don’t have the copious seeds of the Himalayan.  A good choice, therefore, for late blackberry pies and jam.

I made a French-style, long-cooked preserve from Chesters this year.  When you cook berries for a long time to set the jell, they take on a roasted, almost figgy flavor.   I find these jams a very nice transition into autumn.  I named my jam “Blackberry Brulé” not only because of the slight caramelization in the jam, but also after my ancestor, Étienne Brûlé, a French explorer and interpreter who had a hard time picking the right friends.

From Étienne, we learn that the company one keeps is crucial to success, and one should be wary of all cooks.  Now that eating local and food preservation have become a craze, there is the inevitable creation of a canon — a set of recipes and techniques that are associated with these movements.  One of the new no-nos seems to be jam with pectin.  Pectin has biocides in it, they cry! This is silly.  It’s a naturally derived substance from apples or citrus fruit.  Moreover, there are various types of pectin and each pectin creates a different product.  Some do have additives, and if  you must, avoid them, but you’d be better off avoiding that low-carb, preservative-laden wrap you ate last night.

Think of pectin as a cooking tool, molecular gastronomy, if you will.  To be a cook, in my view, means you know how to manipulate your final product for the effect you want, whether Frenchman or jam.  This is a good thing.  It increases creativity and works against the canon-formation of any food movement.

Most often, I use Pomona pectin, which is activated by calcium, for low-sugar fruit spreads.  The ratio of sugar to fruit becomes 1:2 or less, instead of 2:2 or more, which is what you’d need for pectin-free French-style jam to jell.  Take your choice: a tiny bit of preservative in the tablespoon of pectin you’re using for your batch of jam, or double the sugar in each bite.  I’m not judging sugar-eaters here.  It’s just a different product.  Full sugar jam tastes much fruitier, believe it or not, on toast with butter, compared with a low-sugar fruit spread that tastes like fruit if you eat it with a spoon.  The butter seems to dull the flavor of the low-sugar spread.

So let me take a stand for pectin.  But you can also do it naturally.  Christine Ferber has a recipe for green apple pectin, and I’ve made my own for marmalade with orange skins and seeds.  Even easier, I cooked up some beautiful, pectin-rich quinces last fall and froze the unsweetened juice.  Since my Chester blackberries were bursting full of juice, I knew that I’d need a jelling boost or else I’d end up with a too-loose jam (for my purposes) if I was going to do it the french way.  So I defrosted about a cup of quince juice and added it; the set was beautiful.

Ferber’s recipe for wild blackberry jam, from which this recipe is derived, doesn’t use any pectin.  It will also result in a looser jam.  Using wild blackberries (instead of Chesters) will significantly reduce the juice amount and increase the seeds in the product.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that the overnight sugar bath will turn this jam into preserves, really, because the sugar infuses the cell walls of the whole berries and strengthens them.  If you stir carefully, the jam will remain a true preserve, with whole berries suspended in the solution.

I don’t stir carefully.  I like jam.

And I like this jam, roasty and dark.  It’s lovely served with fresh farmer cheese or chèvre on still-warm, freshly baked bread.

Blackberry Brulé Jam

Recipe adapted from Christine Ferber’s “Wild Blackberry Jam” in Mes Confitures

  • 2 1/4 pounds of wild or Chester blackberries
  • 3 3/4 cups sugar
  • juice from one small lemon
  • 1/2 cup of unsweetened quince juice (optional)

Combine the berries, sugar, and lemon juice in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring carefully to melt the sugar.  Pour mixture into a glass or ceramic bowl, and cover with a sheet of parchment paper.  Refrigerate overnight.

Pour the chilled mixture into a large stockpot, add the optional quince juice, and bring to a boil.  Allow it to boil until it starts to jell, stirring frequently to prevent scorching (especially as the liquid boils off).  The time is approximate, since every batch is different, and the quince juice will change the time.  But plan on boiling for 20-30 minutes for a roasted flavor.

Jam should be spooned into hot, sterilized canning jars with 1/8-1/4 inch of headspace only to deter mold, and fitted with properly prepared two-piece lids. (Refer to a canning basics guide if you don’t know what this means.)  Process for 5 minutes in a waterbath canner.

dining niblets: hot stuff edition

I love the predicted 20-degree drop in temperatures for tomorrow.  Until then, let’s talk hot stuff.

  • Inspired by a trip to the coast and gorgeous albacore tuna troll-caught just off the Newport coast, I documented the OSU Extension tuna canning class at the beginning of the week.  I hope to have a blog post up soon that provides notes and annotations for our tested recipe.  I’m under pressure (get it?) to finish an article for school right now.
  • Or, perhaps, you’ll hear me talk about canning tuna fish on the upcoming hot new radio show, Food For Thought on KLCC (89.7 FM), our NPR affiliate.  This week’s theme is preservation, and I’ve been invited to share my experiences.  Listen from noon – 1 p.m. on Sunday, August 29.  I’d love to hear your questions and comments via phone or email!
  • New restaurant alert, and this one is almost too good to be true.  Run, don’t walk, to Noodle & Thai, 553 Main St., Springfield.  I don’t even know where to begin.  They make their own noodles — that’s a great place to start:

fresh rice noodle rolls

drunken noodles with fat slices of beef

homemade red curry over fresh thin rice noodles

And they make their own curry pastes.  Order ‘medium’ for very spicy.  The chef says he strives to shop organically and locally.  I haven’t had Thai food this good in a very, very long time.  And the prices are Springfield, not Eugene.  Right now, there’s a healthy lunch crowd, since the place is near City Hall, but they’ve only just opened for dinner.  The restaurant appears to be a remodeled diner with a semi-open kitchen, and its small storefront belies the larger, pleasantly redecorated space inside.

Since I’ve been gone for most of the summer, I’ve missed…not much in terms of produce.  Since everything’s so late, I am pleased to see all the mid-summer produce ready and willing to be put up.  Here are some of the hot finds I saw in markets this week:

  • Bodacious corn at Thistledown Farm on River Road.  I haven’t seen such a nice corn season since I’ve lived in Oregon. Boo on the California tomatoes at the farm, though. (But I understand. Not hot: too-early heirloom slicers at the farmer’s market.  Ick.  Mealy.)
  • A new blackberry variety called ‘Diamond Jim,’ or so they said (could be ‘Black Diamond’?) at Lone Pine Farm on River Road.
  • Crabapples and gorgeous Chester blackberries at Hentze Farm, a couple miles farther north on River Road.  I made pie and a long-cooked, French-style jam from the latter.  Hentze is one of my favorite farms in the area.  They have a small processing equipment facility (with machines purchased from the once-ubiquitous processing plants in our valley) so you can buy freshly cut corn and beans in bulk for canning.
  • Beans look great everywhere.  Plums and peppers are just beginning, they tell me.
  • Veteran and Suncrest peaches at River Bend Farm off Highway 58 southeast of Eugene.  Annette reports that Veterans are easy to can, being a true freestone, with skins that slip off easily.  Donna in the OSU Extension Master Food Preserver office likes to can Suncrests because of the flavor.  She says that the Elbertas also make great canning peaches, so look for them in the coming weeks.  The hottest preservation gig in town is Annette’s jam classes, by the way.  The next one is full, but you can still sign up (if you hurry) for the following:  Thursday, 9/14 from 6:30-8:30 pm, or Saturday, 9/18 from 2-4:00 pm. The classes are held at the farm, and cost $30.  For this low price, you’ll learn jam-making basics and receive 12 half-pints of assorted jams made in class.  More information through the link above.
  • Speaking of the Extension MFP office, the hotline will be leaving Lane County on Sept. 2, when the office closes.  For the rest of September, you can still use the statewide hotline, as we will be handling calls from the Douglas County Extension office.  But if you need to drop by the Lane County office with your food safety or gardening questions, do so before Sept. 2.
  • If you enjoy Marché’s monthly regional French dinners, you will be excited to hear about the regional Italian menus served by its sister restaurant, Osteria Sfizio.  The first monthly dinner will feature the foods of Puglia, and will be held on August 29.  Cost is $40.  Read more here.  Sfizio has an excellent bar menu and some enlightened options for supper, both small plates and large.  Personally, I can’t wait for the Fruili menu in November!
  • Again with the noodles!  Chef June at Café AriRang on Broadway is serving a summer special — spicy noodle and vegetable salad.  Perfect for these hot days.
  • Did you see the numbers for the canned food drive held at the Lane County Fair?  23,919 pounds of food within two hours.  Now that’s hot.  You rock, Eugene.
  • Oh, and one more thing.  Don’t forget to vote in Eugene Weekly’s annual Best of Eugene.  You need to register at this website first to help combat ballot-stuffing (don’t worry, they won’t spam you).  If you can support my blog for “best blog,” I’d appreciate it!  Vote for at least 10 categories for the ballot to count.

culinaria eugenius in london: facing heaven

My trip to London was all about Sichuan food.  Odd, I know, but I found not one but TWO Sichuan restaurants near the British Library, where I was locked to the desk for the week, and so I ate Sichuan no less than half a dozen times during the week.  Have you ever done that?  It’s incredibly self-indulgent to be able to try every single thing you wanted to try at a restaurant, knowing you’ll likely not be back to visit in a very long time, if ever.  So I did it.

Of course, I did sample some of the new British cuisine.  British food has undergone a SPECTACULAR renaissance.  This makes me have hope for Eugene.  I’ve been to the UK a handful of times in the past 15 years, and each time it gets better.  Still, I was dreading the week.  But the local food movement has swept London like The Great Fire of 1666, both originating in Pudding Lane.

Even train station dining has been infused with local goodness.  I bought my morning bread and delicious luncheon salad combos –minted pea and feta was the best — at Sourced Market at St. Pancras station.  Topped it off with a Scrumpy scotch egg (“Free-range SADDLEBACK pork, apple & sage – a timeless combination, Herefordshire in a handfull! …we dare you to resist!”) from the wildly successful Handmade Scotch Egg Company.  I took the dare and lost.

Best of all, London, still under the thrall of Fuchsia Dunlop’s wonderful Sichuan cookbook, Sichuan Cookery, has exploded with Sichuan restaurants.

The place at which I ate most often, Chilli Cool, is reviewed in the London Observer today.  Who says you need to turn to world-class urban centers to get your breaking cooking news, Eugeniuses?  (That’s a very flattering picture of the restaurant, by the way.  The window seat is mine!  I would look across the street at the pub serving jugs of Pimm’s.  The British Library is just a couple of blocks up the street, as the crow flies, in the middle of the photo.)  I’d recommend the place, as long as you don’t have your hopes up too high that you’ll be eating in a fancy place.  It’s small and humble.  The service is pointedly inattentive, and I found at least one “mistake” on the bill, but the prices are fantastic for London and food respectably good.

Without question, the best dish I had was a variation of the fried chicken with chiles dish I’ve blogged about before.  In fact, my blog may now feature the most pictures of this particular dish; that’s a claim to fame!  The Chilli Cool version verges from the Portland (and Dunlop) versions, as it adds cumin and a little sugar, both providing a slight graininess to the finished dish, and peanuts.   It’s an adaptation of a Mongol-influenced dish, lamb with cumin, that you’ll often see on other Chinese menus.  But with chiles.  They use real “facing heaven” chiles, too!

Facing heaven chiles (right) differ from our standard dried Chinese chiles (left) in just about every way.  The color is a deeper rust, and the flavor is deeper and slightly less spicy, too.  It tastes more like a gualillo than the bright, fruity iconic flavor of our dried Chinese chiles.

I’ve been looking for facing heaven chiles and real Sichuan broad bean paste for years now.  Greatly assisted by Kitchen Chick’s helpful guide to Sichuan ingredients, I have scoured Chinatowns in several cities to no avail.  My frustration seems widespread.  But finally, success!

Yes, that’s an authentic webcam shot of me in my hotel room, gloating dorkily.

I managed to find the chiles, as well as several varieties of Pixian spicy broad bean paste and other Sichuan ingredients, in a single supermarket in Chinatown, New Loon Moon on Gerrard Street, not to be confused with Loon Fung down the way.  I bought two of the last four packages available, so caveat emptor…move quickly or you might have to wait a while for the stock to be replenished.

As soon as I get my schedule under control and some canning done, I’ll start cooking again.  This has been a non-recipe food blog all summer.  This pains me, as you might imagine.  But when the cook can’t cook, the cook can’t develop recipes!  I hope to amend this very soon.

food for thought

My hands smell like tomato and red onions from my garden.  Yes, I’m home.  Feeling particularly happy, too.  I spent the morning working on the computer in my yard under the towering shelter of my elm tree.  One of the happiest places on earth (screw Disney — neither the World nor the Land have an elm tree).

No more long distance travel.

I like saying that.

I’m worn out and sick; the first thing that happened when I got home was a nosebleed, and it got more virusey until I felt like a stuffed, leaky balloon.  Spending two plus weeks on crowded public transportation will do that to ya.  But even with that, and even with the imminent departure (again) of Retrogrouch, I’m glad I went back to Europe, even with the suffering of travel, since I did quite a bit on my dissertation-turning-into-a-book and my second-book-in-gestation.

I can hardly complain — even though I don’t really get a vacation (despite what people believe — most academics work harder in the summer because they need to rush to do their research and writing on their unpaid time “off”).  It’s fascinating business, poking around in other people’s letters and perusing banned books in the name of science.  (Above: the science of Facebook procrastination.)

When I was a student, I had to get a special letter from my advisor that confirmed why I needed to use the British Library.  Now, I just sailed in and said I was a professor and I got my card renewed.  How cool is that. (I tried to take this line of argument even farther, noting to a colleague that I looked rumpled enough for professorial street cred so they didn’t even search my bag upon entry.  Alas, my street cred was yanked when they asked me to open up as we entered the library together.  Curses!  Maybe with tenure.)

The British Library Rare Books Reading Room is a fascinating place (it’s somewhere on the second floor of the building on the far left; the library is next to the Victorian behemoth St. Pancras station), populated with the oddest creatures.  There are magicians with leather-bound hand-printed books written from the bowels of English, and impeccably dressed young women studying new books impressively or flirtatiously, depending, and Mark Twain.  Yes, he’s there…with an Afro twice as large as life.  There are the very old men in patched tweed you’d expect with tracts and treatises, and frumpy middle-aged women preoccupied with giant, sea-monstered maps.  There’s a blond woman whose French letters spill over into your desk area.  You move her, distastefully.  And there’s an American Indian woman — that is, a woman of Indian descent who cries out with an American accent: “how am I supposed to read this?  This is nonsense!” in the microfilm room.  You look up, your eyes bloodshot.  You don’t know.  She’s right.

In the library, time stops for everyone but the library clerks.  The copy room monitor announces that the copy room will be closing in ten minutes, then literally watches the second hand sweep on his watch, declaring every two minutes that it will be closing in 8, 6, 4, 2… 0 hours, Greenwich Mean Time.  The librarians retrieve and reshelve books for the endless stream of fumbling patrons, so they get as eager as horses ready to return to the paddock when it’s close to closing time.  You have to beg for a book back because you forgot to note a page…even though the library won’t be closing for another 30 minutes.  They know time stops for us.  And they won’t let us forget it.

Before London, as you know if you read this blog, I was in Switzerland, discussing Joycean food.  Studying James Joyce is one of the best things about being an academic for me.  You’ll hear some haters, especially specialists of other areas of modern literature, hate on Joyce and the so-called “Joyce Industry.” If you listen to them, you will uncover a group of elitist robotic groupies churning out mountains of worshipful articles and books on our hero, James Joyce.

If you don’t listen to these miserable people, however, you might tune in to the laughing and wit and drinking and fascinating stories.  The Joyceans are a great mix of specialists — you will never see so many non-academics at another academic conference.  That alone says everything one needs to know.  The group never fails to be convivial, with nightly ad hoc dinners and bar outings.   And older and younger people mix in informal and productive ways, kind of a rarity in academia.  When we’re all together, we forget about all the daily humiliations and deprivations of being an academic and focus on the one reason we remain: literature enriches us.

We had a wonderful time talking about literary food at the Zurich James Joyce Foundation.  Inspired by a line in Ulysses about a Chinese hundred-year egg, a participant from Taiwan found some in an Asian market and prepared them with tofu.  We had a lovely workshop dinner at a restaurant on Lake Zurich, across a long wood bridge through an estuary from the village of Rapperswil.  And we dined on Indian food at our goodbye dinner.  Still, we found some time for Swiss specialties, not the least of which was the Voderer Sternen grilled sausage lunch.  How can one go wrong with a grilled sausage, hunk of bread, and plastic cup of mustard?

One of the nicest aspects of the Zurich workshop was our communal lunches at the Foundation.  Everyone shared the responsibility for buying, preparation, and clean up.  We dined like kings on cold cuts, cheese, bread, salad and sweets.  The espresso machine got a workout, as we caffeinated ourselves between sessions on topics like cocoa, meat, and biscuits.  My talk was on literary references to produce in Joyce’s works, and what exactly it meant to be buying things like peaches and pears and pineapples in turn-of-the-century Dublin.

One famous hater once said that to stop studying Ulysses was like a fall from grace.   Those words were meant as loaded, surely, but I read them as a simple convert.  I know the grace, gracefulness, graciousness of a Joycean gathering.  And for all of them, I am grateful.  There are many really terrible things about being an academic, but I feel very fortunate that I get to experience the very best of it, too.

So now, back in Eugene, I have about a month of hard work to finish several projects and spiff up my portfolio for the year’s round of various applications.  But I promise not to be too annoyed when yet another person asks me if I enjoyed my time off this summer!