Yes, We Can!

What a cute workshop name. Sometimes, puns are fun. This workshop was about a quarter useful and a half useless (to me) and a quarter, “Well, that would have been much more interesting had I signed up for THAT lecture, but now I’m just frustrated I didn’t get the lecture I signed up for.”

The day before, my twitter exchange with Gardner involved me asking how “hands-on” the class was going to be, and if I should bother bringing my computer. I figured that a specific kind of “how to” would not allow any time for good note-taking and/or tweeting. He responded that the main goal would be “laying concepts for year-round local eating1.” So I figured going in that I could tweet to my heart’s content, but would still get some useful tips and tricks for preserving food.

Vikki Nowicki’s part of this panel lecture was fabulous. I will say right now that I’m glad to have paid for the workshops, if only because I learned of her existence & website (complete with blog) (“”: Of the four panelists, she was the only one who had any sort of audiovisual presentation AND she was the only one who stood up2.

Nowicki’s presentation slides were mostly photos of food, her garden in particular (which is AMAZING), various home-storage facilities (both “right” and “wrong” examples), and specific tips & tricks. It was really visually interesting, and she was great at taking questions.

From her presentation, I learned a TON of stuff:
# The things we see in movies & think of as root cellars? Not really. Much more likely to be wine cellars or other general storage.

# Root cellars are an utterly “American” thing. However, as my good friend pointed out, that probably means “North American”, not “USofAican”.

# Home-canned items do not belong in a moist- or damp-cold environment, as the seals will degrade.

# Moist-cold environments are good for beets, turnips and things like that.

# Damp-cold storage is good for things like potatoes, apples & asian pears

# Dry-cold environments are good for onions & garlic & such

# Dry-warm environments are the place for squash. Which is excellent, since that’s where I keep my squashes. Inside. With me. Well, in my pantry. I don’t actually carry a squash around with me at all times in my house. That’d be weirder than even I am.

# You can make a mini damp- or moist- environment by filling a cooler with sand & using it to store things as appropriate. I presume this means I could have a mini root cellar on my balcony in the winter months3.

# Garlic that’s starting to go off can be dried and ground into garlic powder.

# To save winter squash that’s starting to get squishy, cut off the bad part, then cook the rest, puree and freeze it for later use.

# Also, and I sort of knew this, but not totally: several kinds of produce need to be “cured” in some way before storage. This includes crops like onions, garlic and squash. (I knew this because Joan Gussow mentions, in “This Organic Life”: that sweet potatoes need to be cured to store a long time.

# Despite storage crops generally needing some form of curing, most farmers don’t do it themselves, so it’s important to know how to do it when buying these crops.

# The point above makes me wonder if I need to be buying a year’s worth of onions at a time, and where I would keep them.

All of this, and more. She recommended the book “Root Cellaring“: for anyone who wants to learn more, and pointed out there’s a PLETHORA of information on the web.

Unfortunately, everyone else in the panel seemed to take this theory of copious information elsewhere to heart. No one else had much to say about HOW TO preserve your food for year-round eating, which was, of course, what I had came for.

Joel Smith of Henry’s Farm was both the second speaker and the only other one to give any details in a “how to” type fashion. He basically said he’s a lazy guy and only freezes things. He recommends getting another freezer (done), a vacuum sealer (done) and learning how to properly freeze things (in progress).

He did emphasize that if you go this route, it’s all about making connections with the farmers that you buy from. He suggests buying some of this and that from various farms until you know what you like. Once you’ve got, “I like X” down, go back to that farm and buy a whole lot more of it. Then get down to it and start freezing. He had no recommendations on a vacuum sealer, as he just got the cheapest one he could find when he went looking for his. (I did the same thing, when Linens’N’Things was going out of business, and ended up with a Foodsaver brand sealer. I like it quite a bit.)

“Rob Gardener was nice enough, but basically just said that he hates canning, so his wife does it, and talked about places to get food from local sources year-round.”: He also talked about turning his attic into a root cellar, and said he didn’t figure extra freezers were terribly feasible for apartment dwellers. I disagree, but I imagine his theory is the more prevalent one.

Here’s why I disagree, in quick terms: your second freezer doesn’t have to be huge. When people think of second freezers, they tend to think of giant, deep chest freezers or fridge-sized uprights. While both of those are great, they aren’t the only sizes available. And, if you’re a single person or small family, they may simply be too big for you3. My parents, now that they are empty nesters, have certainly found this to be true. Even though they have the space for a full-size upright, they just don’t need it and are looking into smaller, more efficient freezers.

I don’t know the technical number of cubic feet of our freezer, as it was a used gift from my late great-grandmother, but it’s about 8 cubic feet on the inside (18” x 18” x 43”, internally). More important, for the apartment dweller, it’s about 2’ x 2’ x 4’ outside (26.5” x 28” x 47”, externally). This may not suit the studio dweller, but many apartment dwellers may have space for something this size. Ours lives in our kitchen/living room, and while it’s a little awkward (especially when I drop things behind it), it suits us quite well.

So, a thought for the apartment dwellers, or small families or single folks. Small freezers. They rule.

One final thought on Gardner: I do need to be fair and say that I think he was may have been more useful to a lot of people in the audience than to me. There were a few of people who seemed unsure how to go about local eating, especially in winter. There were also people who really needed to hear that many farmers markets take SNAP4 benefits, which he was able to affirm. So, maybe it was helpful, maybe not. I find it very hard to say.

Paul Virant of Vie was the panelist who left me both interested & frustrated. He spoke about how he sources everything locally, does a lot of preserving, potentially being sabatoged by someone, and the challenges of running a restaurant that runs largely on preserved foods. It was an interesting topic, but not terribly helpful on the “how to” portion of the workshop. His main “how to” tips were 1) to get a pH meter if you’re seriously interested in water-bath canning (keep the pH at or below 4.6) and 2) to store your home-canned goods with the rings off, so the lids are MORE likely to blow off in case of an internal issue. I presume the theory is that it’s messier, but a lot less likely to poison you. He didn’t actually say, though.

Overall, this was an “okay” workshop. Nowicki’s presentation was, by far, the most useful to me. However, I suspect people actually probably got a reasonable amount out of Smith’s talk too. I’m just not sure how much folks got out of Gardner or Virant. Both were, frankly, strong testimonials on, “Yes, it’s possible to eat locally year-round” (aka “Yes, we can”), but they were pretty poor at “how-to”. So they got the title down, but not the description.

“The title, but not the description,” was a running theme in this day. Thus, you’ll read such sentiments throughout the next few posts.

fn1. “Rob Gardner’s tweet about the canning workshop.”:!/LocalFamily/status/48878570671570944

fn2. The lack of standing up during these “panels” really made me insane. It’ll be part of one final, general overview recap later.

fn3. Though I have to admit, I wish I had a bigger one. That way I wouldn’t have to try to debate a meat CSA vs roughly a year of local produce. Still, my freezer is a great size for an apartment.

fn4. SNAP stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” and is the new federal term for food stamps. Each state has it’s own name for their administering of the program, so I find referring to it as “SNAP” is clearer.