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Interest in Food Preservation Blossoms

A new interest in food preservation, spurred by foodies and the “great recession”, has translated to canning classes at the Lee County Cooperative Extension  in Ft. Myers.  

Celia Hill, who has a degree in Home Economic Education, is an experienced canner and teaches the hands-on classes.  She begins by explaining the basics.   

Students learn there are two canning methods for preserving fruits, vegetables and meat.   

One method requires the product to be heated to 240 degrees to kill pathogens and then sealed in sterilized jars. The food retains its taste.   The other method uses a vinegar or brine solution. The acidic solution also kills pathogens and flavors the food. Spices can be added for zest.

Hill uses carrots when she teaches because they’re affordable, available year-round and can be preserved using either method. 

She places a huge emphasis on sterility and cleanliness - failure to strictly adhere to rules, she said, can lead to fatal botulism.

Pretty hazardous isn’t it?” asked Hill. “So we want to be sure that we handle everything properly, do the procedure properly so we don’t do this to ourselves and our family.”

In the early 19th century the need to supply Napoleon’s troops spurred the development of heating food to keep it. A merchant observed that boiling food and then sealing it in clean jars preserved it without spoilage. About fifty years later Louis Pasteur discovered why when he looked at milk under a microscope before and after boiling, thus pasteurization. 

Joan Black, who attended a recent class, said she’s looking forward to eating food she’s preserved in her own kitchen, but was a little overwhelmed by the process. 

“This has been quite an experience for me,” said Black. “I didn’t realize there were so many things to know, so in-depth. I’m concerned about how long it needs to boil.”

Seated at a table in front of a mound of carrots she’s cutting into uniform half inch pieces, Nancy Harrigel said in addition to knowing exactly what she’s getting, she’s maintaining a family tradition. 

My mom did a lot of canning. There were five of us in our family and we ate from the garden. We lived off the garden,” she said. “I like the process.  If I had time and the inclination I’d be making my own bread and doing a lot of those things that I used to do.”

Both Harrigel and Black live in condominiums but have garden plots in a nearby park. 

Celia Hill, who’s been bustling around tending to pickling brine, heating jars, and checking pressure gauges and seals, said the individuals who come to her canning classes are motivated by a range of interests. 

Many of them are interested in food preservation for any kind of disaster so we think of [a] hurricane, but there are people who are looking for survival kind of things, and people who are worried about solar flares taking out the power grid,” she said. “Having canned fruits and vegetables and protein is a way for them to do that without having to worry about having to cook”.

Hill said it’s recommended that canned food be eaten within one year, although chances are they will last longer as long as the seal is good.  They should be stored in a cool, dry place. 

Nancy Harrigel and Joan Black said they’re looking forward planting their garden plots this fall then getting to work preserving their bounty.

Celia Hill teaches more classes on July 17th and again August 2nd at the Lee County Cooperative Extension Service near Terry Park in Ft. Myers.

Valerie Alker hosts All Things Considered. She has been a Reporter/Producer and program host at WGCU since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Southwest Florida and has also produced documentaries for WGCU-TV’s former monthly environmental documentary programs In Focus on the Environment and Earth Edition. Valerie also helps supervise WGCU news interns and contributes to NPR programs.