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  • 20 Dec 2014

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Pickling revolution: Canning makes a comeback.

Learning to pickle and jar stretches the food supply.


by: STAFF PHOTO - Students prepare asparagus for pickling. Properly sterilizing and sealing the jars can be the trickiest part. As a child, Beth Rousseau remembers helping her parents pickle and preserve food to make it stretch further.

So the North Portland mom is doing the same with her 3 ½-year-old son Dylan, who helps tend their backyard vegetable garden in the St. Johns neighborhood. They grow a veritable bounty: snap peas, string beans, fava beans, zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, onions, kale and no fewer than five kinds of berries.

One Wednesday evening in June, the two joined seven of their North Portland neighbors at a shared kitchen space in St. Johns. Their mission: learning to pickle asparagus.

The class was the first in a series offered by the North Portland Preserve and Serve Library, a nonprofit formed five years ago in the St. Johns Swapnplay community space.

It's a relatively simple 10-minute process, but participants wanted more than just the recipe. They wanted expert advice in food preservation, an age-old practice that's come into vogue in Portland in recent years as a happy byproduct of the farm-to-food revolution.

"It is really like a movement, like everybody knitting again," Rousseau says. "I think people like this idea of knowing where their food comes from."

Homemade pickles and other seasonal pickled items are a staple on many local menus. Portland now is home to an annual picklefest and fermentation festival.

Add to that the fact that creating tasty homemade concoctions — everything from peach cinnamon jam and apple pie filling to salsa and mandarin oranges — is as satisfying as the snap of a crunchy dill pickle.

Dylan’s reaction to the tart, complex flavor of the pickled asparagus: "Yum!"

He loves anything he grows or makes himself, Rousseau says. She does too.

Sharing gear and skills

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: NICK FOCHTMAN - Portlanders are learning and sharing food preservation skills at this St. Johns kitchen. Swapnplay, a place for neighbors to trade clothes and toys and drop their kids off to play, shares space with the library in the basement of the Red Sea Church at 7535 N. Chicago St.

The library isn't a bunch of jam sitting on shelves. It's a small walk-in closet crammed with reusable kitchen supplies ready for checkout.

There are 100-place reusable serveware sets (plates, silverware, cups and napkins), which residents can check out for parties rather than buying disposable ones.

The library also stocks food preservation equipment that’s not part of every home kitchen: pressure-cooker canners, each with its own canning tool kit; a water bath canner; food dehydrators; steam juicers; an apple/potato peeler; and food mills.

Having the proper equipment on hand is often one of the biggest challenges to get into canning, enthusiasts say. The library lets anyone try it out for free.

Founders modeled the library after the North Portland Tool Library, with a "you break it, you replace or fix it" policy.

Equipment and supply rental is open to North Portland residents only, but the classes are open to all.

And anyone who takes a class, no matter where they live, is welcome to check items out of the Preserve and Serve Library.

Most of the place settings were donated by individuals or restaurants that went out of business, or bought at Goodwill.

So they're mismatched. But they’re free, and green.

“There were 40 of us at a baby shower, and between the (reusable) dishes and compost, there was just one bag of garbage,” says Andrea Marks, the library’s only paid staff member, who works with volunteers. “You can have an event and not have to throw away big bags of garbage, which for me is a big deal.”

Canning pointers

Marks teaches all of the library’s classes. A former elementary school teacher, she’s a sparkplug who rattles off directions and tips like a canning encyclopedia.

“Point the asparagus tips down in the jar if you want them to stay prettier,” she instructs the group at the season's first workshop. “Put the garlic clove in last; it fits better ... Tap the jar four or five times, then poke it with my implement of choice — the chopstick — to get the air bubbles out so it doesn’t explode.”

As they chop, blanch, mix spices, boil and fill their jars, the participants are giddy with their new skills — and the tasty jar of pickled asparagus they'll be taking home.

"I've just never done it," says Angela Clarkson, a North Portland resident. "I'm a hands-on kind of person. There's something about taking the class that makes me feel more confident."

Ally Renshaw, the volunteer Preserve and Serve librarian, hears that sentiment a lot. She started canning about five years ago, after moving to St. Johns with her 1-year-old daughter.

Renshaw had never canned before, but her neighbors invited her to a canning party, and she was hooked.

"A couple of times a year, we plan a day. We all do beans or applesauce. We do a massive canning and we can take 10 to 12 jars home," she says.

The reach extends beyond North Portland. Last summer, Southeast Portland neighbors opened Kitchen Share SE, a nonprofit modeled after the Preserve and Serve Library.

The goal is to build community by sharing traditions, skills, food and equipment. Their lending library includes equipment like dehydrators, canning equipment, ice-cream makers, juicers, mixers, bread makers, and more.

Kitchen Share occupies a small space at St. David Wales Episcopal Church, 2800 S.E. Harrison St.

Renshaw, who's most passionate about canning tomatoes (tomato sauces, whole tomatoes, salsa and more) thinks interest in the classes will keep getting hotter.

She is getting inquiries from other nonprofits and neighborhood groups wanting to partner up. And she'd love to grow the library's kitchen space and class sizes, now capped at 12 because of kitchen space limitations, if funding were available.

Most participants come to the classes, she says, and say “Why haven't I been doing it all this time?"