Grow it, save it, share it: Cultivating the Valley’s next generation of food knowledge

Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 15, 2019 by Dana Kuttler

Ah, February: the days are short, and the winds are mighty. It’s prime hunker-down time; in our house, a permanent stash of blankets lives on the couch, and it’s expected that we’ll wear socks or sweaters to bed.

In our family, the sacred rituals of the hunkering are many: movie nights under blanket forts, regular gatherings with the extended family-of-friends, a nightly half-hour of reading together. But perhaps my favorite part of winter is full-on relishing the bits of summer I’ve tucked away.

Winter is the time when I start really digging into my fall stores: the dilly beans, tomato sauce, and cucumber pickles I put away during times of seemingly endless (and often ridiculous) abundance. It’s a time of living-off-of, when there’s no shame in eating the dried cinnamon apples by the fistful.

Things I put by aren’t exactly the makings of a chef’s dream; you’d have to really love beans, broth, vinegar pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi and little else in order to live entirely off my Ball jars. But when I break out a quart of white beans, canned with chunks of salt pork and thyme, mix it with a half-pint of last Thanksgiving’s rich, peppery turkey stock and serve up a poor man’s cassoulet with a side of pickled green beans, I feel, as my grandmother put it, like the happiest man on the mountain — her phrase for a sense of pride and gratitude for what the land gives.

My plentiful pantry didn’t happen overnight. As the seasons get less and less predictable, I’ve been looking for ways to maintain that sense of richness through the less fruitful seasons. I’m lucky to have a garden with four raised beds that seem to produce at least a few things despite my interventions, and farmer friends who keep me knee-deep in the field leftovers. The guilt over letting too much go to rot drove me to the library and the internet, looking for ways to save things for the day when we were no longer sick to death of cucumbers.

There used to be other ways to go about this. Under President Lincoln, the U.S. developed the idea of the “ag school” – funding for universities specifically for the research and development of more efficient farming methods. At the time, it was considered a move to democratize education; to invest in the kind of research that would directly benefit the 50 percent of Americans who lived in rural areas. As the research surged through the late 1800s, the government developed “extensions” – outreach programs designed to bring the new knowledge to the commercial farmer, the subsistence farmer, and the home gardener.

Extensions are the foundation of what we today call “Family Consumer Science,” or what my mother’s generation called “Home Economics.” Extensions were staffed with experienced farmers and gardeners, as well as food preservation experts. They held classes and developed short, easy-to-read pamphlets about growing and preserving food. The 4-H youth program was developed to teach everything from jelly-making to basic animal husbandry and thrives today in many of the country’s rural pockets.

(Incidentally, the youth program was born out of a need to address the stubbornness of many older farmers, who weren’t interested in the ideas of “book farming,” and instead relying on intuition, tradition and superstition. The government realized the only way to get the program off the ground was to give the next generation the tools and let them run with it – and indeed, most of what caught on among the older generations did so because the kids were growing more and better corn than they could!)

During World War I, the methods developed by the agricultural schools and taught by the extensions helped avoid a major wheat shortage. During the Depression, the extensions expanded their programs to include good nutrition habits, surplus food canning, gardening, home poultry production, home nursing, furniture refinishing, and sewing, in programs aimed at families trying to survive the drought and accompanying famines. They developed education programs and certifications, like Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver, to ensure that people would continue to pass on techniques backed by good science. During World War II, U.S. food production increased for five straight years thanks to this work.

I didn’t have any clue this existed when I started learning to preserve food. I cobbled together an education via Youtube, friends with enviable pantry practices, and the Hilltowns-based Facebook group Women with Big Ball Jars. I keep few cookbooks, but Janet Green’s classic “Putting Food By” found its way into the sacred tub-side basket of reading material so that I could puzzle out the finer points of pressure canning from the bath.

I got my first pressure canner – a giant pot with a rubber gasket in its lid, which allows you to increase the temperature inside far above the point of boiling water, and thus preserve low-acid foods like broth and beans – from the Hadley flea market, unused and still in its box. My experienced friends told me I would have to get the dial at the top of the pot calibrated, to make sure I knew exactly how many psi (just like the air pressure in a tire) were in the pot.

As far as I can tell, there is only one place you can get a pressure canner dial calibrated: in the Master Food Preserver office of your local cooperative extension. I called up my local extension – University of Massachusetts Amherst – and the person at the other end of the phone very kindly did not laugh too loudly. They hadn’t had a Master Food Preserver on staff in years. The closest place to get my dial calibrated would be somewhere in Ohio. The closest place I could train for my own Master Food Preserver certification was Maine. And Maine only accepted state residents into its program.

Rather than ship my 32-quart pressure canner to Ohio to get my dial tested, I opted for another option; using a weighted gauge that would keep the pressure in my pot an even 10 psi, good for canning most things at this altitude.

As we experience more volatile weather patterns and changing growing seasons, we’re going to see some of our beloved local farms go under. We’ve already seen the effects of this past summer, when Amherst had nearly the wettest year on record.

For those of us with the means and inclination, we can support local farms by investing in CSAs – community supported agriculture shares, in which you pay a set amount of money up front for a weekly share of the harvest. We can help float them during the toughest seasons if we invest well up front. This year, our CSA was short on a lot of things, as the endless rain did its best to destroy the cucumbers, bell peppers, and eggplants, but we got great root vegetables in the early fall. Sharing the farmer’s gamble is one of the ways we can adapt.

But for those who don’t feel they have what it takes to eat a fraction of a farm each week, I’ll offer a different idea. We can build a new generation of Master Foodies; people who not only learn how to grow and put food by, but who make a point of sharing the bounty and knowledge with their neighbors and friends, in the spirit of the institutions that developed and brought that knowledge to past generations. (Not only do the extra hands make the work go faster, but it’s also good work for catching up and facilitating deep conversations.) We can have applesauce parties in the fall, kimchi parties in the spring, purchase equipment together (why do eight households need eight pressure canners?) and, of course, enjoy the food that comes from it.

Lincoln, I’m sure, would be proud.