Last Sunday, I started the day by catching up on email and blogs and stumbled through a link to a recent Slate article panning the art of canning. Deriding it as a "cultish hobby" loaded with "self-congratulation," author Sara Dickerman dismissed home food preservation (chiefly canning of gourmet preserves and chutneys with exotic ingredients) as nothing more than a trend of showmanship, one she oh-so-guiltily confessed that she herself indulged in on occasion. Passages like this, damning canning with very faint praise, made my blood boil like a hot-water bath:
There's nothing blameworthy about the pickling and preserving fervor, but let's be honest: It's not about producing serious food for the future, and it's not about shaking a fist at industrial food. ... Rather, it's about making and sharing delicious, idiosyncratic things that are also, not insignificantly, very pretty.
I cheered when I got to the comments and read the various smack-downs from my fellow "flyover state" residents who pointed out that some of us have been canning for years as a means to put up garden produce or excellent surplus from local sources -– and as a means to feed ourselves economically through the winter.
So instead of dumping a jar of homemade strawberry jam onto the keyboard (I would never waste such delicious CSA strawberries on a misguided author), I bundled up and headed north to Ann Arbor to visit friend and fellow blogger Emily Springfield (of Eat Close to Home) for one of her Preserving Traditions workshops.
Springfield, an instructional technology designer and teacher in her mid-thirties, has loved local foods all her life, beginning with helping her grandmother (whom she describes as "Laura Ingalls incarnate") and her mother with the yearly gardening and canning activities at home. She continues home gardening and food preservation partly from that early experience, but also out of her growing awareness that "we can't keep shipping our food 1500 miles to the table." And while she values the connections she has made in blogging about local foods issues, she quickly came to the conclusion that she needed to connect with people locally and to invest directly in her own community.
In her writing, Springfield talked about wanting to expand her knowledge of food preservation techniques, getting beyond the basics of jam-making and tomato-canning (neither of which held much appeal for her, since she doesn't eat much of either). She tackled yogurt-making first, sharing her experiences through her blog. The response startled her: many people expressed interest in learning similar things but didn't want to learn from a book or to risk poisoning themselves with poorly-canned goods. Springfield's love of teaching persuaded her that this was a need she could fill, and she set up Preserving Traditions as a series of monthly workshops, inviting her fellow southeast Michigan food bloggers and friends to join her.
She found a home for the workshops at the Pittsfield Union Grange Hall, down the road from the University of Michigan stadium in Ann Arbor. A fellow blogger connected her with the Grange, a national organization with many branches in farming and rural communities and with a mission of nurturing those communities through financial support and education. The Pittsfield Union Grange Hall, like so many other Grange halls around the country, had an infrequently-used kitchen and room for classes, and the Grange members welcomed Preserving Traditions as a way to connect to more people in the community.
Springfield became a member of the Grange, which allowed her to use the facility for free, and she in turn encouraged her workshop attendees to catch some of the Grange's community events, such as Apple Day. The arrangement benefits everyone: the Grange sponsors the Preserving Tradition events, Grange members attend for free, and the money collected at each event has gone back into the Grange in the form of new or upgraded equipment for the kitchen.
After following the progress of Preserving Traditions for the past year –- the inaugural event took place in February 2009 –- I knew I had to get to Ann Arbor for a workshop. I finally made the journey for this month's condiment workshop.
Springfield began the workshop by describing the common formula for condiments: combining sweet and sour tastes, often with salt, in order to highlight other flavors. She shared recipes (available on the Preserving Traditions blog) and gave a "theoretical" overview of making ketchup, mustard, and salad dressings. She also noted that this was fairly new territory to her: "I am not a master mustard maker!" she exclaimed, proceeding to share the story of her recent experience with a mustard that tasted "like gym socks." She added that the experience had taught her that condiments need time to age so that the flavors can blend.
The workshop attendees appreciated her frank humor and her excitement about this kitchen chemistry, and they peppered her with questions. What makes a mustard "Dijon-style"? (Answer: white wine.) Is it better to start ketchup from tomatoes or tomato paste? (Depends on how much time you have.) How do you adjust the flavor in mustard? (More vinegar will give the mustard more heat; more honey will sweeten it but reduce the flavor slightly.)
Once Springfield had reviewed the basics, she invited attendees to circle the table and sample the various condiments she had made. We dipped pretzels into four different mustards, carrots into three different salad dressings, and fries into a trio of ketchups. Questions and comments followed the tastings, and a few people made notes on their recipe sheets before reaching for empty jars, ingredients, and the chance to make their own.
Many of the Preserving Traditions workshops draw younger attendees hoping to learn new skills, but the crowd at this workshop leaned more toward the older, more experienced cooks. One enthusiastic woman, Carol, said that she had made ketchup before and that it was "so good" but required a tremendous effort, so she was glad to learn about starting ketchup from pureed tomatoes or tomato paste. Another woman, Lucy, listened to Carol's story and added, "I bet it is so much better than anything you can buy!" The youngest attendee, Ash, has experimented with various forms of food preservation with her housemates and laughed as she added that those housemates had demanded she take careful notes on the mustard-making process.
The people I spoke with at the workshop all expressed a cheerful sense of accomplishment at what they learned in this class. I heard a great deal of excited talk about upcoming workshops, including repeats of last year's popular strawberry jam and salsa classes. Participants spent time talking with one another before, during, and after the class, and Dennis (who will teach next month's workshop) shared homemade molasses cookies featuring homemade jam. To all of them, the Preserving Traditions events provide a chance to share the work, the bounty, and the camaraderie of people working together on something both fun and useful. It's a far cry from the showy competitiveness described by Dickerman.
This sense of community, where "neighbors teach neighbors," is exactly what Springfield dreamed about when she started Preserving Traditions. A couple of area branches have developed as well as a hopeful group in Nashville, Tennessee. Springfield said that her ultimate dream would be to have "twenty branches" in every state where people could learn food preservation skills and come together as a community to share knowledge, work, and good fun. She knows that to sustain the organization, she can't schedule too many workshops or create too much work for herself –- the workshops are generally scheduled for Sundays and are run on a volunteer basis. But Springfield hopes to spend some time this year "training the trainers" and encouraging the spread of Preserving Traditions in other areas.
Why people choose to learn these skills doesn't matter to Springfield. She has found that food preservation appeals to "a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons," and the key that brings everyone together is a desire to learn the why and how behind the various techniques. Springfield herself stresses that the point of Preserving Traditions is to "demystify" cooking and food preservation and to debunk the prevailing attitude of "learned helplessness" she finds in many cooking shows, cookbooks, and even the works of some food writers. Instead, she hopes that the workshops will reassure people that they do have the skills needed to feed themselves good, local, seasonal food in a safe and economical fashion -– and enjoy it.
As commenters on the Slate article pointed out, these good old-fashioned skills never really died out, though the locavore movement and the economic crisis have played their part in encouraging more people to revive these traditions -– at home, with their neighbors, in the community. And whether the impulse to preserve is driven by economic necessity, frugality, or hedonism, it's heartening to hear more people take up the Preserving Traditions cry, "Yes. We Can!"
Honey French Dressing
Makes 3/4 cup of dressing
In researching salad dressings for this month's workshop, Springfield discovered that the earliest American version of "French" salad dressing was a simple vinaigrette with paprika added. This is her variation on that theme.
1/4 c honey
1/4 c vinegar
1/4 c oil
1/4 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp salt
Mix all ingredients together in a jar or blender. Keeps well in the refrigerator.