I start making jelly in May with strawberries from Donnie Connell’s farm on the west side of our county(Pike County, Georgia). From June through August, I juggle my own blueberries and wild blackberries around peaches from local orchards. Come September there’s nothing left to capture but the muscadine grapes on the falling-down arbor in my front yard. The sweet ones colored like amber and green glass are the first to ripen. Then the red, purple and shiny black varieties that still have the sharp taste of their wild cousins.
I love the clutter of the big canner, the special equipment for straining fruit and filling jars. The fragrance of harvest and abundance that fills the house when I’m crushing fruit. And then there’s the sight of jelly jars cooling in a kitchen window — when the evening sun hits them, it’s stained glass in the round.
On a deeper level, I enjoy the connection with generations of women before me, especially since I buy my jars at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. As I wash, fill and lower them into the simmering water bath, I like to think about the women who used these same jars, perhaps as far back as the 1950s or even WWII. They put them away so clean and carefully re-packed in their original boxes — the rings loosely threaded around the top so they wouldn’t get lost. Season after season, until their own seasons of work stopped coming round. Someday my seasons for making jelly will stop coming round, and my jars, once again, will return to the Salvation Army. That’s why I put them away clean, carefully repackaged with the rings threaded around the top so they won’t get lost.
Passing along food traditions, even something as mundane as a box of jelly jars, is one way we establish a culture. Our food traditions are site-specific, unique to local crops and the families that concocted recipes from them. These dishes are not just eaten around family tables. For generations they have nourished the whole community at church dinners, baby showers, fund raisers and funerals. They have been given as gifts, but in most places, they have never been legally sold.
That’s how it came to pass that some rural homemakers in Kentucky were busted for selling preserves at the 2002 Twilight Festival in Woodford County. It was closed down because all value-added products made from home kitchens were disallowed, even though a festival in a neighboring town was selling similar products while that county’s health department looked the other way. The fallout from the incident led to a change in Kentucky law so that now growers anywhere in Kentucky can process their fruits, vegetables and nuts in home kitchens for sale on-site or at farmers markets.
The law allows two levels of sales. A Homebased Processor can sell very low-risk foods such as jams, jellies, cakes and pies. The grower needs only to fill out a form and follow labeling requirements. No training is required and there are no kitchen inspections or fees involved. The second level, Homebased Micro-Processor allows a grower to sell pressure-canned vegetables and pickled products like salsa, relish and pickles. These are considered high-risk items due to the potential for botulism. Micro-Processor certification entails a day-long workshop, two short examinations, recipe approval, product label approval by the state Food Safety Branch, a $50 fee, and kitchen inspections every two years. The training to become a Homebased Micro-Processor was designed with funds from Southern SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education) project ES04-072 by Dr. Sandra Bastin, Food and Nutrition Extension Specialist at the University of Kentucky.
Carla McDowell and Belinda Fay were among the first farmers to take advantage of the SARE-funded training when they had an extraordinary tomato crop in 2003. They were in Bastin’s first class and started selling McDowell Farms Salsa at festivals across the state as well as directly from their farm. Customer demand forced them to expand into full commercial production. They have enjoyed milestones of success, such as appearances on television cooking shows and wide distribution of their growing product line.
In Georgia, where home processing is not yet allowed, Chris Curry was awarded a SARE Sustainable Community Innovations grant for a project called Something’s Cooking in the Kitchen. This grant will pay for rent at an existing certified kitchen for 10 food entrepreneurs to legally process their crops into products for sale. The farmers will have an opportunity to test the waters without having to invest in an inspected kitchen. The project funds are also paying for workshops on safety and labeling regulations. A marketing consultant who specializes in food products will provide one-on-one assistance with design and marketing.
To find similar SARE projects, go to the SARE project database and use search terms like: community kitchen, adding value, direct marketing, fruit preserves, recipes.
In the span of an afternoon, muscadines on the vine become jars of jelly cooling on the windowsill:
Photos Courtesy Gwen & Preston Roland