Tales from the Master Food Preserver Program

This is the first article in a series of columns I’m writing for the Tri-City Weekly.  This was in the February 21 edition.  The next, all about pressure canning, will be published March 6.  I thought I’d post them here as well, with additional photographs, and maybe a swear word or two.

On Saturday, February 4, a group of sixteen people met at the Eureka Co-op Community Kitchen to participate in the first class session of the Master Food Preserver Volunteer Training Program (MFP) through the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE.)  My husband Mark and I were a part of this group.

The program is nine weeks long, and this is the first time it has been offered in Humboldt County.  Once we have graduated, we will all be working together as volunteers to conduct food safety and preservation public service activities such as demonstrations at Farmers Markets and classes at special events.   As Deborah Giraud , Farm Advisor for UCCE Humboldt/Del Norte, and one of the well-qualified instructors for the course told us, “The Master Food Preserver Program is modeled after the Train-the-Trainer Master Gardener Program, except it’s more intensive.  If you do something wrong in your garden, you don’t have the potential to kill someone.”   Nervous laughter filled the room.

Participants in MFP live in many of the different geographical areas of Humboldt, and their reasons for participating are varied.  One woman wants to take her knowledge to Mexico to teach her friends and family there how to preserve their harvests.  Another would like to work with the food bank to develop classes that would assist people with low incomes to make the most of their limited food.  There was a lot of talk of food safety, food security, individual and community sustainability, as well as passing on important skills to younger generations.  And we could all nod our heads in agreement with the woman who wants to be prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse.

The class on the 4th mainly revolved around food safety.  The guest speaker was a food industry specialist who gives ServSafe certification classes, and I learned a couple of surprising things.

1.  Baked potatoes can kill you.  Yes, the deceptively innocuous baked potato, if left in the temperature danger zone (40F to 140F) for longer than a couple of hours, is a prime breeding ground for botulism.

2.  Your grandmother can kill you.  Well, not really your grandmother, but her recipes.  There are certain foods that can only be preserved certain ways in order to destroy all of the pathogens that can make you sick.  Sure, your Grandma may have canned green beans in a boiling water bath for decades, and no one in your family has died.  This does not mean that her method is safe.  It means that you are all really lucky.  In preserving, we need to use scientifically approved recipes such as those you would find in the Ball Blue Book or at the National Center for Food Preservation website.

While I acknowledge that food safety is an extremely important topic, it was a very long lecture with a lot of information given.  At one point I found myself thinking about something entirely different, but there’s nothing like the phrase, “And the symptoms of poisoning from this fish are tingling of the throat and coughing up worms,” to get my mind right back where it’s supposed to be, as well as make me want to question every sushi restaurant in town about their suppliers.

Food safety at home is pretty straight-forward and simple:  Wash your hands – a lot, especially after using the bathroom, handling raw meat and touching your face or hair,  make sure your food is clean (washing vegetables in plain running water is just fine,) make sure your work space and utensils are clean, keep foods at the right temperature (hot foods hot; cold foods cold,) and avoid cross contamination (raw meat + raw veggies = a state of being you don’t want to experience.  Keep them separate as well as wash and sanitize cutting boards, knives, surfaces, etc. after preparing raw meat.)

There was an air of excitement as we entered the kitchen for our next class on Feb. 11 because it was the first time we were going to do some actual canning.  First was the lecture portion, all about the basics of canning naturally high acid foods.  Naturally high acid foods are those that have a Ph level of 4.6 or below and include most fruits and tomatoes.  Some fruits such as pineapple, figs and tomatoes are near the border of being too low in acidity, so these need to have acid added to them in the form of vinegar or lemon juice to ensure their safety.

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Canned tomatoes. The jar on the left has been prepared using the hot pack method. The jars on the right have been cold packed. While both are safe and delicious, the raw packed tomatoes tend to separate from the liquid in the jar.

For the lab portion of the class, we were broken up into four teams.  Some of us were canning raw packed food, where the food is placed into the jars without cooking it, and a hot liquid is poured over before canning it.  Others were canning hot packed food, where the food is first cooked before putting it into jars.  I was on the team making apple pie filling, and Mark was on the team canning raw pack pears.  Other teams were canning raw and hot packed tomatoes and hot packed pears.  Instant camaraderie is built when you are chopping and slicing and stirring with others, and we all enjoyed working and getting to know one another better.  Seventeen people is a lot to have running around one kitchen.  The instructors tried their best to keep things organized and focused, but eventually canning chaos naturally ensued.  Pots were pouring out steam, timers were going off, people were running around trying to find lids and rings and ladles.  We ran into each other.  We ran into tables.  We laughed.  We laughed some more.

At the end of the afternoon, as we stared at the glistening jars of delectables sitting in front of us, we were soggy and sticky and filled with accomplishment.  Next week’s class will be on jams and jellies.  I can’t wait.

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Freshly canned apple pie filling.

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One response to “Tales from the Master Food Preserver Program

  1. Pingback: Tales from the Master Food Preserver Program « Chocolate … | Free Gardening Ideas·

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