Preserving A Family Tradition
April McGreger, owner of award-winning Farmer's Daughter Pickles & Preserves, says her jazzy jam recipes started with her mother, her grandmother and a stove.
The sunlight streaming through the big window in front of April McGreger's kitchen sink has a tint of early summer green from the trees surrounding her comfortable North Carolina country house. The walls are painted lemon-curd yellow and cool aqua. Ruby strawberries macerating in organic sugar fill a bucket. On the stove, in a wide slant-sided copper pot, more berries in bubbling syrup send out a seductive, summery swirl of intensifying sweet and tang.
McGreger is the owner and culinary force behind award-winning Farmer's Daughter Pickles & Preserves. A tall, strong woman of 37, her thick chestnut hair tucked under a scarlet bandana, she neatly plucks leaves and stems from the next batch of berries to be cooked. She squeezes lemons and sets jars on the counter in preparation. But when the mixture on the stove starts to foam, she drops everything to tend the pot, steadily skimming the froth.
"I started helping my grandmother when I was a kid, and I canned with my mother, who liked to put up sweets-fig preserves and pears. But I loved pickles and sour things, so when I was about 13, I started making pickles for myself. And I fell in love with pickling and also the creativity it afforded me."
Culinary inventiveness is a large part of why home canning has seen an upswing in recent years, particularly among young canners. That creativity is evident in many of McGreger's recent creations, such as her jazzy riffs on traditional themes like Kimchee Bloody Mary Mix, fermented Sweet Potato-Habanero Hot Sauce, Blueberry Lemon Verbena Preserves, Peach with Vanilla Bean and Bourbon Preserves, and Spiced Cherry Preserves, to name a few.
Related: Giardiniera Recipe
An added appeal for young people, says McGreger, is that canning itself is not as complicated as it looks. The makers of Ball canning jars reported a 31 percent increase in sales in 2012, a rise that's been going on for several years. And the company notes that over 60 percent of the 300,000-plus fans on its home-canning Facebook page are age 44 and under.
"There's definitely a passion for pickling and canning among my peers," McGreger says, but for her, that passion is also her vocation. McGreger sells her goods from two booths, one at the twice-weekly Durham Farmers' Market, the other on Saturdays in Carrboro. And when she's not busy making pickles and preserves, she's scouring local farms for freshly harvested fruits and vegetables. Being in regular contact with local farmers, she notes, is a key source of inspiration for her.
When Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farm in nearby Graham started growing and selling hot and fruity aji peppers at the Carrboro Farmers' Market, McGreger fell in love with their color, and came up with the idea of suspending the peppers in the surfeit of jelly she has each year from local apples. That 12-Pepper Jam is now one of her most popular items.
The vagaries of yield from year to year also spark ingenuity when it comes to preserving. "In June we go up to Levering Orchard at Ararat, above Mount Airy, to pick sour cherries. In the natural world, this is probably the most intense flavor you will ever taste," she says. But one year the rains caused a very short season, so instead of making the pure sour cherry preserve she'd put up from a bumper crop the year before, she made Mountain Cherry Preserves, a mix of the small crop of sour cherries and a more abundant sweet variety. "Turns out it's spectacular. First the flavor bites, then you get a full-on cherry, and then it just gets deeper and deeper."
Related: Intense Strawberry Preserves Recipe
The dependence on fruit and vegetable availability and the need to wing it in response means her plans can change daily. "While Moe, my son, and I have breakfast, I drink my coffee and make my plans," McGreger says. "On Friday I get a list from Eastern Carolina Organics, a local farm-to-table distributor, that says what will be available the following week." McGreger places her order and starts figuring out how she will use that week's harvest.
"In June, right after strawberries it's usually blueberries and I do them plain and with lemon verbena. In summer, my priority is fruit." But sometimes a crop doesn't yield as much as hoped and then? "It's peaches. Peaches have a longer season and are plentiful here, so I fill in with them if other fruit isn't available," she says.
One year, nestled in at her breakfast table, it was Collard Kraut, inspired by a too-small harvest of cabbage but a bumper year of the leafy greens. Mixing half of each and seasoning with cumin, smoked pepper and garlic, McGreger thought she'd created an original. She later found out from the older market farmers, though, that collard kraut has a long tradition in the region.
That story makes her grin. "For brand purposes, I want regional specialties," she says, "and I also want very much to keep the traditions alive." And certainly, the craft of canning is all about tradition. She notes, it's what writer, farmer and agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry called "the housewife's economy."
The housewife's economy is what April grew up with in Vardaman, Mississippi, where her mother, grandmother and aunts "put up" the bounty of their gardens. "In my own home, my dad would bring in a five-gallon bucket overflowing from the garden and say, ‘Can y'all do anything with this?' And the women would study for a moment and then smile and say, ‘Yes.' That's exactly what I'm doing here."
Ronni Lundy is the author of five cookbooks including Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken. She lives in western North Carolina.