Thursday, July 9, 2009
Heritage Homestead Preserving More Than Just Fruits and Vegetables
As my garden grows, so does the bounty and the dilemma of what to do with it all. So, I decide to tackle the art of canning and preserving, how hard can it be? Well, after reading several books on the subject, the realization hit me that if I made a mistake while attempting this I could cause illness or egads...botulism. Canning and preserving involves some basic science as does baking, and I am not the best baker.
My mom's family were not only excellent bakers but also extremely noted canners and preservers. My Choctaw Indian great-grandmother was known for her beautifully preserved crab apples and her canned fish. According to family lore, my great grandfather was quite a fisherman and would travel to places like Yellowstone and beyond to fish for rainbow trout and salmon. The family could not eat all of the fresh fish at once so my great grandmother would prepare it and cure it by canning it. It was a special treat for the family in Texas where catfish ruled the special occasion dinner table, salmon and trout were apparently, quite exotic.
My cowboy's ancestors all canned here where we live too. In fact, there is an old shed that still stands on one of his cousin's properties that still holds some of his great aunt's jars from way back. While exploring this old shed, we were still able to distinguish summer squash that had been canned over 20 years ago.
Until our fast food nation and mentality took over, canning and preserving if not taught by a family member at home, was taught in school or by a local county extension agent. During World War II when victory gardens were at their peak, community canning centers began popping up throughout the Country. Women would bring their garden fruits and vegetables and utilize the equipment at the center. It was a social event much like quilting or sewing clubs of the day. For canning at home, there would be a wood burning stove placed outside or on a porch since the boiling and steaming could go on for hours, depending on the amount of food to be processed.
After some internet research, I came across some homesteading courses that are offered in Texas only an hour away from our farm. Homesteading courses have gained popularity with the decline of the economy and the rise of healthy eating and the popularity of the slow food movement.
Heritage Homestead is a Christian based community located just outside of Waco in an area known as Chalk Bluff. The 510 acre working farm named "Brazos de Dios" along the banks of the Brazos river, is home to 30 families. The majority of the buildings and structures are salvaged log cabins, barns and mills brought piece by piece from around the United States and lovingly restored with historical accuracy but incorporated with hidden modern conveniences (AC, plumbing, electricity).
As soon as you drive through the community you are struck by simplicity, orderliness and the balance of modern and old fashioned rolled into one. Heritage Homestead is self sustaining and self contained, producing: natural pastured meat, organic vegetable gardening and orchard production, dairy barns, gristmill etc. They are also master metal forgers, furniture makers and builders.
Each and every building and surrounding gardens reflect their heritage. I arrived at the cooking center, which to my delight was partially housed in a beautifully restored two story 1800's log cabin from Missouri (with a modern commercial kitchen building hidden behind). I was greeted by a very nice woman in her 50's who was the lead instructor, accompanied by four other young women (one being her daughter)to assist with the class training. Two of the young women, Jessie & Rebekah would be doing the actual teaching on this day. They had been canning since childhood - this type of cooking method was as natural to them as popping in pre-fab food in a microwave to us.
The class size was just right, nine participants of all ages and all walks of life (from housewife to Austin restaurateur & caterer)surrounded the log cabin hearth as we listened intently to the instructors. From there we went through the antique doors and stepped into a very modern day large kitchen facility. Everyone took their place at the amazing butcher block work table that faced the stoves and ovens. As we learned the ins and outs of this lost art, and I can honestly say, it is a lost art - we bonded and assisted each other with the various steps. My mind immediately conjured up images of those old community canning centers and for a moment, I felt deeply connected to the past.
Our course began early in the morning and did not finish till late in the afternoon with a much needed lunch break at their on site deli and bakery. It is not often that you get to eat homemade bread, grass fed beef, handmade cheese, fresh squeezed lemonade and freshly made ice cream all in one meal all produced at one location.
By the end of the day, I had successfully canned or preserved the following: grass fed beef chuck, pinto beans, green beans, tomatoes, peaches, jalapenos, strawberry preserves and cabbage for sauerkraut. Now, I can safely say "of course I CAN"!
As stated earlier, there is a real science to canning, after learning the basics, you can add your own flare and touch to your canning recipes and arrangement of the food within the container. Learning from a professional (be it a homesteading course, family or friend) is essential for this particular craft. These skills are handed down through centuries and are honed to perfection by places such as Brazos de Dios and Heritage Homestead.
As time and money permits, I will be returning to the homesteading school to learn other essential craft and agrarian homesteading skills. Some of those courses include bread making, soft and hard cheese making, handcrafted soap making, organic gardening etc. There is a profound purpose and sense of accomplishment in rediscovering and mastering these skills. One of the best rewards possible is to taste the fruit of fulfillment and accomplishment and getting in touch with my own heritage.