Preserving produce offers local flavors year-round

Provided Locally grow fruits and vegetables are great for canning, says Megan Westmeyer. The home canner and sustainable seafood coordinator for the South Carolina Aquarium will give a talk on canning at the Carolina Dirt Fair on April 29.

Put the word “local” in front of the word “produce,” and the food’s value rises several notches. Many do anything for the chance to savor the flavor of summer’s harvest during the offseason.

Tomatoes, peppers, green beans and other produce all are available for a limited season unless you know how to preserve them.

For Megan Westmeyer, canning food to preserve what’s in season for year-round consumption just comes naturally. She grew up in the small town of Amherst, Ohio, with parents who routinely canned the food they grew in their garden.

“It’s what my parents grew up doing with their parents, preserving what you grew so you would not have to buy it,” says Westmeyer, sustainable seafood coordinator for the South Carolina Aquarium.

“We did lots of canned tomatoes, pickled beets, dill pickles and pickled peppers and ... Hungarian wax peppers,” says Westmeyer, who will share her knowledge April 29 at the Carolina Dirt Fair at Mullet Hall on Johns Island, jointly sponsored by the Carolina Green Fair and Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission.

She began canning on her own while studying oceanography in graduate school at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She was inspired by a classmate with a pear tree in his yard and more than a few extra pears.

Armed with her own kitchen, basic canning knowledge and the ability to pick a good recipe, Westmeyer made pear jam. That was 10 years ago and she’s continued the practice of preserving food in season ever since.

While Westmeyer won’t be canning onsite during her Mullet Hall presentation at the fair, she will have examples of the foods she’s canned and show the simple tools needed for the job.

Suzie Webster, executive director of the Carolina Green Fair, says the mission of the fair is to bring information about sustainable food practices to the masses.

There is an interest and excitement around the local food movement, but a large number of people have not been touched by it, she says.

The idea of the Carolina Dirt Fair, Webster says, is to have a family-friendly event that will attract all kinds of people.

Supporting local farming is very important to Sara Clow, general manager of GrowFood Carolina, a nonprofit linking small farmers with local restaurants and grocers, she says. Those who attend the dirt fair will leave better equipped to make wise choices about where to shop for food and what to buy.

Studies show that eating locally produced food generally results in consuming more whole foods and fewer processed ones, Clow says. When you choose what to eat, you make one of the most important decisions of your day because you become what you eat, she says.

Not only does it benefit the local rural economy, but choosing foods that are not shipped long distances helps to cut the level of air pollutants released when fossil fuels are burned to power the vehicles hauling them, she says.

“I want to eat as much local food as I can,” Westmeyer says. “If I buy it when it’s in season, I eat local produce all year long. I like the fact that I am supporting the local farmer and not having my food travel long distances.”

Westmeyer visits farms and purchases seasonal produce in abundance and takes full advantage of u-picks.

She has never compared the cost of buying local and canning her food to shopping at a store for food imported or out of season here, but her sense is that she’s spends less money.

Locally, she buys strawberries for jam and sauce, blackberries for jam and peaches to eat when they are out of season.

In the fall, she buys apples from North Carolina for applesauce and apple butter. She cans tomatoes and makes tomato juice and tomato salsa. She pickles green beans, jalapenos, banana peppers and beets.

“My first few years in Charleston, I would run out of things,” she says. “But now I keep a canning journal and different recipes. I figure out how much I need the next year.

“I think there is a lot of interest in canning, but people are intimidated because they don’t have any idea how it works. They just need to know how easy it is. I have taught a lot of my friends how to make strawberry jam. They were surprised at how simple it was and have gone on to make it themselves.”

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.