Canning classes help preserve summer bounty

Canning classes have long been offered at local farmers markets and as part of the menu at local cooking schools. Now Atlanta has its own shop devoted solely to the tools and techniques of food preservation. Last week, Preserving Place opened in the Westside Provisions District.

Owner Martha McMillin is no stranger to those interested in canning and preserving. She’s been gathering equipment and taking it to local farmers markets like Peachtree Road Farmers Market and Grant Park Farmers Market for the past year, demonstrating techniques and talking about food safety.

Every time she set up her demo, she would hear, “Oh, I want to learn. My grandmother canned but my mother didn’t.”

She says it was like listening to her business plan come to life.

Now, after months of planning, Preserving Place is filled with tools for everything from cheese making and dehydrating to pressure canning.

Customers can buy equipment and cookbooks and strike out on their own, or they can enroll in the almost daily classes to learn about canning, making baby food and even an introduction to fermented foods like sauerkraut.

Morgan Dooley of south Fulton came in during the first week for Canning 101, McMillin’s class on the basics. Dooley had been inspired to create food presents for her friends as a way of getting ahead of the holiday rush, but she had never canned in her life. She also was wondering about making preserves as favors for her upcoming wedding.

In the same Canning 101 class, Kristin Stockton of Chastain Park expressed a common concern. “I just got off the phone with my dad, and he said be sure to learn about how to prevent botulism.”

If she’s heard that concern once, McMillin’s heard it a hundred times, and she spends the first part of class talking about the science behind canning and why the pH of food determines how it should be canned. She even offers to have her students bring in family recipes so she can advise them on how to make sure the recipe and the canning process used are safe.

Assisting McMillin in class were Lucia Smeal of Alpharetta, a blue ribbon winner for her watermelon rind preserves among other things, and Dawn Nelson of the Westside, who’s been known to put up 300 jars of tomato juice in a season. They helped move things along by boiling jars, warming canning lids and rings and demonstrating techniques for safely dealing with all the boiling water that goes along with hot water bath canning.

One thing the students learned is that canning can’t be rushed. McMillin described the time spent peeling pears, stirring slowly thickening preserves and artfully arranging the contents for pickled okra as meditative.

Smeal agreed, saying the time she spends in her kitchen working on her prize-winning recipes provides an escape from a hectic work life. Smeal is an attorney and professor in the Masters of Taxation program at Georgia State University.

What pleases McMillin most is the community she sees building around what she calls the “local foodshed.”

McMillin is doing her part to nurture that foodshed by buying local ingredients for products such as peach-ginger preserves, lemon verbena simple syrup and tomato conserve. The pears and okra for her Canning 101 class came from the Sun Dog Farm in Blairsville and Burge Organic Farm in Mansfield.

“It’s very exciting to see people interested in enjoying really good food,” McMillin said. “I grew up on a farm in South Carolina and was raised to love and respect the land, so it’s also exciting to open this shop and be able to support that interest and our local farmers as well.”

Preserving Place, 1170 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-815-5267,!/PreservingPlace.

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