“Help! We canned several jars of chili a few weeks ago, and now they’re popping! There’s chili all over the pantry. Can it be salvaged?”
The friends who sent me this email are experienced home canners. They didn’t want to lose all their hard work, but realized they had a problem — and a mess — on their hands. So why did they call me? Because I’m a Master Food Preserver.
Master Food Preservers are volunteer citizen scientists who expand the reach of their local county extension offices. Building on the success of the Master Gardener program, the Master Food Preserver program began in Washington State in the mid-1970s alongside the back-to-the-Earth movement and a renewed interest in preserving homegrown foods. For many, canning skills had been lost with the rise of packaged foodstuffs; extension offices were overwhelmed with hundreds of daily telephone calls from people seeking information. As a result, a curriculum was written and tested, training volunteers in two Washington counties to teach others how to preserve food in a safe and delicious manner.
Today the program has a presence in nearly every state and is growing once again, just in time to teach a new generation of homesteaders and urban gardeners this time-honored skill.
Anyone can become a Master Food Preserver. Whether you grew up in a homesteading environment where the family was busy all summer putting up the harvest, came to food preservation in a desperate attempt to tame a bountiful garden, or want control over your ingredients, all you’ll need is a love of food and the willingness to learn.
Different states call their program graduates by different titles — mostly Master Food Preservers, but also Food Safety Advisors or Family Food Educators. The programs cover food safety and food preservation: what to do with your frozen food after a power outage, whether or not you can safely use a steam canner, how to turn fresh berries into jam, advice on safely canning chicken, making your own salsa, and more. Each state alters the training format to fit local needs.
The Master Food Preserver program in Maine, for example, is almost completely hands-on, allowing participants to make products they may otherwise have eschewed. According to Food Preservation Specialist Kate McCurdy, the program starts in mid-June and follows the local harvest over the next three months. Her volunteer group, like those in other states, consists of both men and women, young and old, urban gardeners and those interested in reducing food waste. Students use local strawberries to make jam; learn how to can, pickle, and freeze green beans; and spend a lot of time in the lab in August, when harvest is in full swing. The biggest benefit of the program, according to McCurdy, is the volunteers who “speak authentically to food preservation” and share their information in a friendly manner. It also helps that the information comes from peers instead of scholars.
Other states run their programs in the winter or spring, preparing volunteers before the busy summer season. My local program runs each spring and is a combination of hands-on preparation and discussion-style lectures. Washington State University Associate Professor Lizann Powers-Hammond has been teaching this program for more than 20 years. “The biggest benefit is the diversity that volunteers bring. Their uniqueness helps expand the circle of influence,” she says. She sees an increasing number of participants who are interested in local foods and food sustainability. The focus of her program has changed over the years, as people have become more interested in making specialty products, such as fruit salsa and spicy jam, and less interested in putting up tomatoes or green beans.
A Master Food Preserver’s day can be filled with excitement. We teach people how to turn their zucchini overload into pickles, warn others against canning their family salsa recipe from the 1940s, and delight in the joy of a student’s first jar of applesauce. We act as mentors for aspiring home canners, friends with updated information for long-time food preservers, and may just save someone’s life with timely information about botulism and the need to pressure-can low-acid foods.
Volunteers might attend local farmers markets to give advice; contribute to a blog or website; serve as county and state fair judges; advise youth organizations such as the 4-H club; teach community education classes; offer guidance at pick-your-own fields or farmers stands; or speak to schools and community groups about food safety. They may also offer demonstrations or classes through their local extension office, and check pressure canner gauges to ensure safety. Some Master Food Preservers even use the program to inspire new business ventures, such as developing their own food preservation course, writing a cookbook, or starting a specialty food business.
While nearly every state has at least one Master Food Preserver program, there may not be one near you. Call your local extension office to explore your options; if there’s not a program in your area, request one. The office may start a program if there’s enough interest, or at least direct you to a nearby alternative to help you give back to your community.
As for my friends with a pantry full of escaping chili, sadly, it was a lesson learned. A popping jar means bacteria is growing and the food isn’t safe to eat. I advised that they wear rubber gloves, carefully empty the remaining contents of the jars into a garbage bag, and remove the spoiled food from the house. Yes, they lost several hours of work, but they avoided illness — and safely prepared a brand-new batch of chili to enjoy.
Renee Pottle writes about food preservation and gardening from her home in Kennewick, Washington. She’s the author of Creative Jams and Preserves and The Confident Canner.