BROOKSVILLE — Home canning fruits and vegetables may not be the thing it was in days gone by, but the volunteers working at the Little Rock Cannery near Brooksville say the COVID-19 pandemic got more than a few folks interested in the ages-old process.
“When the shelves were bare at the start of the pandemic, all the sudden people started thinking it (canning) might be a good thing to resurrect,” said Michelle Hale, who leads canning classes at the cannery, owned by Hernando County and operated by an all-volunteer basis by the local Growers Association.
The Growers took over in August, after it looked like the cannery, which has been operating as a public resource to support local farmers and families interested in “putting up” their produce and meats since the late 1960s, might shut down. It’s housed in a masonry building constructed of natural rock in 1939. Over the years it has housed a school, an orphanage and library. It’s located at 15487 Citrus Way, Brooksville. Canning class schedules and booking can be done at www.hernandogrowers.org or by calling 352-270-3071.
Classes range in price but many start at $25. Participants take home a can of whatever they make. Classes are frequent, and among the most recent sessions included how to make tomato soup, canned tomatoes, pot-pie filling, mustard and beef stroganoff.
Canning dates back about 200 years to France, when French confectioner and brewer Nicola Appert discovered that food cooked and sealed air-tight in jars did not spoil. In pioneer America before refrigeration, canning at home was the only way to preserve food for long periods of time. Canning at home is still practiced today, and perhaps by “more people than you might realize,” said Angela Okrasinksi, president of the Growers Association and manager of the cannery’s country store, which sells locally produced arts, crafts, food items and more. She hand-crafts several varieties of soap sold in the store.
Hale said the cannery saw a surge in interest in learning canning as food stocks in area stores dwindled during pandemic panic buying in the spring. It’s slowed some now that store shelves are better stocked, but there remains a steady interest in the canning classes, she said, adding that classes attract participants from as far away as Sarasota and Orlando.
Mike Sundquist, marketing director for the Growers Association, mans the fresh produce stand.
In addition to classes, the cannery holds canning days for the public, which can speed up canning chores with its multiple, large pressure canners.
There are two canning methods, according to Hale, but hotter pressure canning is required for anything with meat in it like chicken soup or chili. Boiling water bath canning is sufficient for fruits and vegetables. Supplies like jars and lids are available at the cannery.
All kinds of food can be canned, said Hale, but among the most popular are tomatoes, green beans, collards, carrots and even holiday leftovers from Thanksgiving. This time of year, hunters bring venison for canning, she said.
The cannery not only supports the community of canners, but also local growers. Canners can bring their own foods but also may order ahead from local farmers through the cannery and have it waiting for them on a canning day.
Linda Moore traveled from Land O’ Lakes to learn how to make chicken pot pie filling. It was her second class at the cannery, and she wants to can at home.
“I want to be prepared (having a ready food supply on hand) and provide better eating for my family,” she said. “It’s fun and I’ve learned a lot.”
Lisa Bellemore came all the way from Brevard County on the east coast for the pot pie class. It was her second class at the cannery. She said she wanted to learn so she can preserve leftovers at home and make jams and jellies.
The concept of not letting food like leftovers go to waste is a part of what canning is all about, said Okrasinksi.
“We have a saying,” she said, her fellow volunteers joining her in a chorus of the Growers’ mantra: “Eat what you can and can what you can’t.”
Also part of the appeal of canning is “knowing what you’re eating,” said Hale, something difficult these days with so many processed foods with hard-to-pronounce additives on ingredients labels.
With canning “you know exactly what you’re eating, where it came from and who’s touched it,” Hale said, adding that canning fresh ingredients ensures maximum nutrition is preserved.
Hale said the rule of thumb is that home-canned food should be stored in a cool, dark place and eaten within 18 months. That’s more than enough time between harvest seasons to keep a family in food.
The plan is to expand the cannery by converting one room into a commercial-grade kitchen local food product producers can use to meet health requirements for production of food items for public sale.
The Growers Association is also hoping for a donation of equipment like a range, exhaust hood and other items needed to help make it happen.