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    Saving The Season | Summer 2015 Out Here Magazine

    Diane Wortman, right and Patsy Brass fill jars with ingredients for beef stew.

    LITTLE ROCK CANNERY NOURISHES A COMMUNITY AND ITS BONDS

    By Carol Davis

    Photography by Greg Latza

     

    With care and precision, Diane Wortman pours beef stock over the carrots, onions, and potatoes in the clear pint jars. Through the glass she sees the fresh vegetables from her garden float and bump against the meat from her sister-in-law’s grass-fed beef farm. The savory blend is awash in the rich stock Diane made from bones, vegetables, and herbs.

    She tightens the lids and places the jars in the pressure cooker. Just 90 minutes later, she has 20 pints of homemade beef stew.

    The small pints are handier for her husband to carry on business trips. At the end of a long day on the road, Mike pops one of the jars into a microwave and soon finds himself enjoying a taste of home.

    “It keeps him from eating fast food,” she says. “If you want to eat well on the road, you can do it.”

    While her ingredients are grown at home, Diane’s savory meals in a jar come together at the Little Rock Cannery, a rare community cooperative in Brooksville, Fla., where residents who want to preserve food for their families are allowed to use a commercial-sized kitchen.

    The community kitchen has six pressure cookers that can process 96 quarts at the same time, pea shellers, a heavy-duty food strainer, meat grinders, oversized pots, and a helpful staff well-schooled in preserving food safely.

    But the Little Rock Cannery is much more than a place to conveniently preserve fresh food.

    This rare community treasure makes it possible for people to eat more local food; eat healthier; preserve food at its freshest and most nutrient-filled; be self-reliant; stretch food dollars; and support local farmers.

    Tomato Sauce after being freshly picked, processed and canned.

    Good Company

    “Does anybody have peppercorns?” calls out a canner looking to add a little zest to her simmering pot.

    “I do!” comes the quick reply.

    Each canner brings his or her own recipe, ingredients, and jars; the cannery supplies the knives, chopping boards, pressure cookers, pots, and heavy commercial equipment; and the cannery operators and members provide the spirit of easy camaraderie and sharing that radiates from inside this community kitchen.

    “Can I have the ends of your carrots?” Louisa Amato asks Tom Casey, who is filling quart jars with the freshly trimmed root vegetables.

    Casey obliges and Louisa stuffs them into each of the 32 quart jars of food she’s canning for her dog who is allergic to beef and grains. Once a month, she visits the cannery to put up a month’s worth of dog food made from fresh meat and vegetable scraps.

    Today, she’s filling each jar with chicken, sweet potatoes, green beans, a vitamin pill, and Casey’s carrot scraps. Other months, she’ll create concoctions from venison, turnips, beets, or “whatever’s in season,” she says. “I give him a jar each day.”

    Louisa began canning her dog’s food three years ago, and since then, the terrible itching and scratching he endured has stopped.

    Patsy Brass also makes and cans dog food, but for different reasons than Louisa. She and her husband raise grass-fed beef and they have a large garden, and Patsy, like the other cannery members, wastes nothing.

    Beef scraps, broccoli leaves, vegetable scraps, and leftover venison from family deer hunts are cooked and canned for their dogs. And like Diane, her sister-in-law, she cooks and cans meats, stews, fruits, pie filling, and anything that’s in season for her family.

    “We come here an average of once every two weeks,” she says.

    “And,” Diane adds, “if our gardens are coming in or it’s hunting season, we’re here more often.”

    Retiree Tom Casey prefers the taste and nutrition of home-preserved food over that found in grocery stores.

    Welcoming Spirit

    The small rock building housing the cannery was built in 1941 as a schoolhouse, but would later house an orphanage, library, and finally, the cannery.

    Community canneries are a rarity now, but they once were scattered around the country, particularly after World War II when Victory Gardens were popular.

    But as most people filled their pantries with food from the grocery store rather than from their own gardens, the need for community canneries declined and they became scarce.

    Indeed, the Little Rock Cannery has struggled to stay open through the decades, but its future looks brighter than ever now that it is supported by the Hernando County (Fla.) Board of County Commission and the General Fund, with the county Recreation Department overseeing its daily operation.

    Recreation coordinator Harry Johnson hired experienced and enthusiastic canner Kathi Comandi to run the operation.

    Cannery membership is $50 annually, and members can use it as frequently as they like from Tuesday through Saturday by appointment. Some use it once or twice a year; others use it monthly or weekly. There are slightly more than 100 active members.

    Members are asked to make appointments to ensure that they have enough room and equipment to comfortably prepare and preserve their produce. Someone planning to process 200 pounds of tomatoes, for example, is going to require all of the available equipment for a good part of the day, Kathi explains.

    But the Little Rock Cannery is an accommodating place, so if a member drops by with basketfuls of freshly picked vegetables, he or she likely won’t get turned away.

    That embracing spirit is what draws people, such as Tom Casey, to the cannery.

    After a life as a CEO/CFO in the banking industry and later as a chaplain, Casey, formerly of Connecticut, and his wife retired to Florida near his wife’s family. One night at dinner, when he complained about the quality of food from the grocery store, an in-law told him about the Little Rock Cannery.

    He was no stranger to food preservation because his mother had canned, yet he wasn’t sure what to expect when he first visited the cannery late last year.

    “I was so delighted at what I found,” he says, recalling how welcomed he felt.

    Casey was “like a kid in a candy store,” Kathi says. “The first week he was here, he picked 25 pounds of tomatoes and brought them here. He had never picked a tomato before in his life.”

    Kathi and others taught him safe food handling, how to prepare food for preserving, and how to process it. “I asked them a lot for their guidance and they were so helpful,” he says.

    Within just two months, Casey had preserved strawberry jellies and preserves, whole beets, broccoli, cabbage, and cabbage soup to eat in a healthy manner encouraged by his vegetarian daughter.

    “You get to take advantage of produce that’s coming in fresh,” he says, “and it feels so good to eat something fresh.”

    Casey and other food preservers get the benefit of controlling exactly what goes into their food, which is particularly effective for those experiencing health problems, says Kathi, a retired chief nursing officer.

    “We have diabetics here, and it is so important for them to make sure there is no sugar in their food, or for those with hypertension to have no salt,” she says.

    Whether one is lookin to save on the food budget, eat healthy, eat fresh, be self-reliant, support local farmers, or all of these, they're welcome to become a cannery member.

    Supporting Local Farmers

    Local farmers and produce handlers know they’ll find willing buyers through the cannery, so they frequently call the cannery if they have an overabundance of produce to offer at low prices. Kathi, in turn, texts cannery members to see if they want to buy part of the harvest.

    One local produce handler called, offering a special of 20 pounds of broccoli florets for $10, or just 50 cents a pound.

    “I texted everybody and had them get their order in,” Kathi says. “They all came in and we blanched it, put it in ice water, they brought their (plastic freezer) bags, filled them up and took them home to their freezers.”

    “We sold over 100 pounds of broccoli that day,” she says.

    Another time, a farmer had rows of tomatoes that were destined for the compost pile if they couldn’t be sold and offered 25 pounds for just $5. After notifying the members of this great deal, Kathi picked and bought 75 pounds to make and preserve marinara sauce.

    Farmers have been known to bring a truckload of corn to the cannery and sell from the back of the truck or offer deeply discounted flats of freshly picked strawberries.

    “The local connection of the cannery and the farmers is paramount,” Diane says. “If they didn’t have that connection, we would not be able to can near what we do now. It gives us access to much more affordable fruits and vegetables than we could find on our own.”

    Kathi finds personal satisfaction in buying produce from her neighbors.

    “It gives me a sense of community,” she says, “because I’ve supported a local farmer.”

    A skilled canner recognizes how eating fresh, nutritious, home-preserved food helps to keep health challenges under control.

    Looking Ahead

    The Little Rock Cannery’s members understand that they have a rare gem in their midst and they’re eager to share it with their Florida neighbors.

    Whether one is looking to save on the food budget, eat healthy, eat fresh, be self-reliant, get back to the basics, support local farmers, or all of these, they’re welcome to join the cannery’s membership.

    They’ll find willing instructors, neighborliness, lots of laughter, and a deep well of knowledge.

    “It’s a win-win for local farmers and for canning people who get the freshest of ingredients,” Kathi says. “Food goes from the farm into a jar.”

     

    Carol Davis is editor of Out Here.

    Summer 2015 Out Here Magazine Home Page