Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
Susan Rigby, co-owner of Opa Robby's Market.
Turning the corner into my grandmother’s store room was like walking into an old-world apothecary. Floor-to-ceiling shelves displayed jar after jar of green beans, squash, okra and stewed tomatoes; relishes and salsas; jams, jellies and preserves. These one-quart Mason jars were the cornerstone of our holiday meals, and it never once occurred to me until years later why we didn’t have that same room in our home.
My grandmother was one of a generation of Georgians who grew and canned their own food, a staple of Southern foodways. Once thought to be a dying skill, canning is just one more tradition that has been rediscovered in Athens.
“Oh, there’s a growing interest in canning,” observes Katie Hiers, who has taught more than 20 hands-on canning classes through the UGA Family and Consumer Sciences extension. This summer, she led several “make and take” classes with groups in and around Athens—peach salsa with students at the Career Academy, strawberry jam with the Master Gardeners and preserves at Jaemor Farms in Alto. (The next is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 30 at the Athens Community Council on Aging.)
As one of the only free resources available in the area, Hiers gets a lot of calls for advice on canning. Though only recently certified to teach on the subject, Hiers grew up helping her grandmother prep vegetables for canning. “I watched it being done,” she says. “I know the sound of a pressure-canner cooking.” Hiers describes that time as romantic, and many of her students approach canning with a similar nostalgia.
But beyond sentimental value, canning, when done right, offers multiple benefits. For one, canners can control what goes in the jar. Adjust the salt or sugar as you like. Hiers champions using locally grown produce in all of her classes. Fresher is always better for canning. Plus, buying local supports the local economy.
Hiers has noticed that more so than in other counties, younger Athenians are reaching out to her to get started with canning. “I don’t want to call it a fad. It’s not a fad. I think that younger persons are interested in knowing where their food comes from… and they want to know what’s going into the jar and being able to control that.” Canning, in essence, is the next progression beyond eating in season. Canning is how to eat locally out of season.
For those who don’t have access to a garden or canning equipment and still want to munch on locally canned goods, several Athens stores offer a range of products. Of course Phickles Pickles is a great source for pickled products, and Piedmont Provisions has you covered for jams and relishes.
Susan Rigby, co-owner of Opa Robby’s Market, has also been canning a variety of foods for years. Apart from her “tried and true standbys” like chow chow and apple butter, Rigby says some unique items pop up now and again, including lemon puckers, dandelion preserves and piña colada jam.
“We began offering canned items to help us use our inventory initially,” says Rigby, but the canned items quickly became popular. Rigby says her customers will often share how they use the products in their cooking at home. “One customer uses our pucker lemons on bagels with cream cheese and as an addition to her chicken recipes.”
Rigby was a self-taught canner, but she actually took a few UGA extension classes after opening Opa Robby’s. Hiers says even seasoned canners should consider using the extension as a resource. An improperly canned food can harbor food-borne illnesses like botulism, which can kill you. Food-safety education is Hiers’ No. 1 concern, and she’s to happy to field questions, check seals or whatever it takes to make sure your canned good is good to eat.
As summer draws to a close, so are her classes, but Hiers is ready to advise any time. “The resources have been here for years,” she says, referring to the many materials the FACS extension carries about canning, but she is excited that, perhaps unlike their parents, there is an upcoming generation of folks who want to access them.