LUMBERTON — Daniel Locklear vividly remembers his mother taking Mason jars filled with vegetables from the pantry to make home-grown dinners for the family each night.
Now the Pembroke resident is hoping to incorporate that technique into his own meals, and recently took a canning class at the O.P. Owens Agriculture Center.
“My mom canned about all of her life, and I was a farmer, so I spent most of my time in the field,” Locklear said. “I have a garden and I need to learn how to put it up.”
He was one of six people who took part in the workshop — a three-hour, hands-on introduction to the science of canning.
“A lot of people are eating more local foods and I think there’s been a revival of food preservation in the last few years across the state,” said Janice Fields, the extension family and consumer services agent at the Robeson County Center, who hosted the workshop. “We want to make sure that people do it safely.”
Participants are encouraged to take Food Preservation 101 before the hands-on class to learn the safety issues and see the process on paper.
Two themes that ran throughout the class were water temperature and acidity — aspects not be taken lightly. The pressure canner, once closed, heats to 240 degrees, which kills the bacteria that can be deadly.
“Ten to 25 percent of people who get botulism die from it and it can cause some very serious health problems,” Fields said. “That’s why we teach people to can their foods properly with methods that are tested to be safe.”
Once hands are washed and apron strings are tied, participants cut and peel the vegetables, all of which were locally grown. On the agenda that night was canning tomatoes and okra, and making salsa.
To start the canning process, the students dropped the 7 pounds of tomatoes into boiling water until the skins split, then dunked them in ice water to make peeling easier. Then they chopped them into quarters and mashed a few in the bottom of the pot, before adding in the rest. Okra was then mixed in, and it was boiled gently.
The jars, which had been waiting in hot water, were then filled with the vegetable combination. The participants had to be careful to make sure an inch of space was left at the top of the jars and that no air bubbles were stuck between vegetables.
“You want it to be an anaerobic environment,” Fields said. “You want as little oxygen in there as possible.”
After wiping the edges, the cap and ring are put on “fingertip tight,” Fields said.
Each can was then placed in the pressure canner with a water temperature of 180 degrees. This step, Fields said, often scares people. Participants told stories of family members or friends having a bad experience with a pressure canner, having it “blow up on them.”
Fields reassured the group that before anything like that happened, the safety valve would shoot out of the top. After closing the lid, a funnel shape of steam rose from the pan, a process called venting.
After 10 minutes, a 10-pound gauge was added to the center of the cover. Once it started wiggling, the waiting game began. After 30 minutes of it dancing, the stove was turned off and the pan cooled down naturally.
Jars need to cool on a padded surface for 12 to 24 hours after the process. Participants were able to come back the next day to pick up a jar of the concoctions.
While some of the participants were beginners, others, like Linda Clark of Pembroke, have been canning for years.
“I love salsa and I think with this recipe in particular I can control the sugars,” Clark said. “The store-bought stuff has too much sugars … I like knowing what I’m eating. Then I know what pesticides and herbicides I put on as well.”
Clark’s reasons for growing and preserving food resonated with many participants.
“Some people it’s the idea that they grow their own or they’re using what’s grown locally and it seems like it might be safer as far as pesticides,” Fields said. “They feel better about eating the food that they made by themselves. A lot of people do it also to save money. … If they have it in their garden or a friend gives them some free produce, it’s going to be definitely worth it to preserve that food.”
Yvonne Gross, a Hope Mills resident, hopes to turn her small garden of corn, tomatoes and squash into a multitude of meals she can enjoy months after the harvest.
“I just want to learn,” Gross said. “I never did when I was younger and I want to now. At least I know what’s going in there.”