Califonia Bountiful

Preserving a lost art

May/June 2017 California Bountiful magazine

A new generation turns to old-fashioned practice of putting up

Loading video player...

From left, Braeden Rappozo, Mili Moreno and Shelsey Ortiz trained last year as Junior Master Food Preservers through 4-H and are now helping teach their peers the art of home food preservation.

Braeden Rappozo's jams have won blue ribbons and his dried fruit, jerky and pickles have won the accolades of friends and family. Having logged dozens of hours of study in home food preservation to become a master, he now mentors peers wanting to learn the craft. All of this is pretty impressive, especially considering he's only in the fifth grade.

Braeden wasn't always such an expert. In fact, there was a time when he was shocked to learn that dill pickles start life as cucumbers.

"I thought it just came out like that!" he said with a laugh. "I thought you just grew pickles and pulled them out of the ground."

But thanks to the Junior Master Food Preserver Program offered through a collaboration between 4-H and the University of California Master Food Preserver Program of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, Braeden can now pickle, can, jam and dehydrate with the best of them.

Braeden's mother works for a produce company and keeps him in a steady supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, much of it grown in the region surrounding his hometown of Santa Maria. Braeden blends strawberries and blackberries for his award-winning mixed berry jam, pickles watermelon radishes for his snack at school and dehydrates grapes into candy-sweet treats to share with friends.

"I like making my own foods because they're either just as good or they're way better than in restaurants," Braeden said. "It's a long process. But once it's finished, it's all worth it."

UC Master Food Preserver and 4-H leader Mary Jackson teaches jam-making to 4-H members, clockwise from left, Audrey Johnson, Bethany Johnson, Carson Surheim and Braeden Rappozo. Participants such as Mili Moreno, right, learn all steps hands-on.

Interest in preserving heats up

Braeden is among the youngest members of a broad group of home-kitchen enthusiasts who are returning in droves to the formerly out-of-fashion art of putting up food. Hobbyists of all ages are forgoing the convenience of ready-made foods and opting for the satisfying practice of crafting their own pickles and jams, salsas and canned tomatoes, kimchee and kombucha.

Missy Gable is co-director of the UC Master Food Preserver Program, a mostly volunteer-staffed public service and outreach program offering workshops and advice on safe home food preservation. She said a resurgence of interest in food preserving spiked around 2008 and shows little sign of waning. The boom in interest has allowed a rapid expansion of the UC program, which was established in 1982. In 2010, the program was active in three counties in California. Today, it reaches 19.

The roots of the trend might be found in the Great Recession, Gable said. The same period also saw an increase in home vegetable gardens, leading to an abundance of seasonal produce that needed to be preserved. Both gardening and preserving are perceived to be thrifty measures, though the cost savings don't always pencil out, cautioned Gable. These days, interest remains strong, but the emphasis has shifted to reviving the vintage appeal of home-crafted foods, eating more locally grown foods and a desire to reduce our food's carbon footprint, Gable said.

Today's home food preservation, undertaken more often by choice than by necessity, doesn't look the same as when your grandmother did it, she said. Advancements in food science have taught us better practices and banished some questionable ones, such as using paraffin to seal jars. Recipes often explore a modern, multicultural palate, unusual flavor combinations and a greater diversity of fruits and vegetables.

Today's food preservers also might not look like your grandmother.

"It's been really interesting because we've seen a slightly different demographic who's doing home food preservation," Gable said. "Millennials are certainly a group that's preserving. In past peaks of interest, we haven't necessarily seen such a broad demographic."

Research commissioned in 2015 by the makers of the iconic Ball and Kerr mason jars found that nearly half of all millennials—people born between the 1980s and the early 2000s—were interested in canning. Though its history stretches back more than 130 years, the Ball brand has enjoyed its highest sales figures ever in recent years. The brand is courting the new wave of canners with attractive new jar shapes and electric gadgets designed to make canning faster and easier.

Karen Solomon is a food writer whose cookbook "Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It" was one of the first to capture the resurgence in interest in home food preserving. Photo reprinted with permission from "Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It" by Karen Solomon, copyright ©2009. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House Inc. Photography ©2009 by Jennifer Martiné.

Food as art and love

But it's exactly the return to a hands-on simplicity of making your own food that appeals most to preservers and kitchen tinkerers such as San Francisco resident Karen Solomon. 

"It feels empowering in a way," she said. "There's something very wholesome, something nutritious, something that's more down-to-earth and old-fashioned in a good way about crafting these ingredients that you use yourself."

Solomon is a veteran food writer, cookbook author and home cooking enthusiast whose 2009 "Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It" was one of the first in a new generation of cookbooks aimed at home food preservers. In both her own kitchen exploits and her cookbooks and cooking classes, Solomon often explores how to make items in a home kitchen that one would otherwise buy at a store.

"I approach food like an art form, in that it's a very creative form of expression," she said. "It's a wonderful, beautiful art form that you can actually consume to nourish yourself and nourish the people that you love."

Stocking her larder, freezer and refrigerator full of home-crafted ingredients such as pickles and sauces that add flavor and personality to weeknight meals is a key way she makes getting dinner on the table for her family a personal and satisfying affair. She'll sauté some home-preserved mustard greens with pork, or stir-fry meat or tofu with some pickled Shanghai cabbage and chilies.

"It's like the original Hamburger Helper," she said. "You just dump this jar of pickles on top of it and you have a very flavorful and ready-to-eat meal within just a few minutes."

Indian-inspired pickled apples in mustard with mint. Reprinted with permission from "Asian Pickles" by Karen Solomon, copyright ©2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House Inc. Photography ©2014 by Jennifer Martiné.

Capturing the season

Preserving is also a way to extend the pleasure of California's bounty for certain seasonally fleeting items. Solomon has a particular passion for Blenheim apricots grown in the rich agricultural region surrounding the Bay Area, and buys them in 25-pound boxes directly from farmers to turn into jams and fruit leather. She makes pilgrimages with her family to pick olallieberries in Pescadero for jams and visits a farm stand in Petaluma to choose peppers, summer squashes and tomatoes grown in volcanic ash.

"We are so fortunate in California to have so many fantastic ingredients to choose from and work with," Solomon said. "It's like being an artist and having access to all of the best possible ingredients or materials for the food craft that you love."

Her newest book, "Asian Pickles," presents a new world of flavors to home food preservers beyond the basic dill cucumber pickle, as well as an easy way for people to get hands-on with their food without a serious investment in special canning equipment or expert skills.

"You can make (refrigerator) pickles all day and never have to break out a canning pot or canning tongs," Solomon said. "Basically, if you can chop, you can make a pickle. So, I love kind of demystifying food preservation at its simplest state and really, really encouraging people that, yes, you can do this."

Whether it's Solomon's weekend pickling class full of urban professionals looking for a quick hand-crafting fix in the kitchen, or Braeden Rapozzo's 4-H club learning to properly pressure-can a strawberry jam, Gable said she's "tremendously excited" about what the renewed interest in preservation means for the future.

"I actually see food preservation as something that is not just a hip fad for right now. It really has staying power," she said. "My hope is that this interest within this new population of people coming to food preservation is something that then is a skill that they're going to carry with them for the rest of their lives."

Shannon Springmeyer 

Just can it

OK, enough excuses. Preserving your own foods can be a lot quicker and easier than you might think. Homemade deliciousness is just a mason jar away with Karen Solomon's tips for newbies.

Keep it safe. Take the risk of botulism and other foodborne illnesses seriously, but "don't let the concern about the process trump your love and interest in the food," Solomon said. It's easy enough to preserve with confidence if you use tested recipes and carefully follow the instructions of a reputable resource such as the UC Master Food Preserver Program or the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Get the basics. You don't need a lot of special equipment to get started. Begin water bath canning with: a big pot; mason jars, lids and rings; jar tongs; and a jar rack or silicone mat for the pot.

Take a shortcut. Here's a secret: You don't ever have to can a thing, Solomon said. Look for pickle and jam recipes designed to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer for a quick taste of preserving your own foods.

That's my jam. Strawberry jam is a favorite, but not the easiest for beginners. Fruits with higher pectin, such as blueberries, blackberries and apples, set more easily.

When in doubt, throw it out. "If you open something up that's been on your shelf for several months, and it just ain't right—it's grown mold or fuzzy stuff—please, by all means, toss it out," Solomon said.


"Wasabi" pickled carrots

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest