Preserving Parkdale

Originally published on Torontoist on April 28, 2011.

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It’s a Tuesday night in a Parkdale church basement. Sixteen people are sitting in a circle. An ice-breaking exercise reveals that most of those attending are in their 20s, purchase their food within a mile of home or work, and have never undertaken the activity they will learn about this night. In the kitchen behind them, prep work for the evening’s task is well underway. Apples, spices, and other ingredients for fruit butter and sauce sit on a table.

Welcome to a workshop on making preserves.

Groups like the West End Food Co-op are rekindling interest in an art that we usually associate with our parents or grandparents. “Canning and preserving give individuals tools to control and know more about what they are eating, choose whole healthy foods, purchase foods in their raw and/or whole (often more affordable) form, and contribute to people learning how to cook for themselves,” says WEFC operations co-ordinator Ayal Dinner. “It is also a perfect group or community activity—contributing to breaking down social isolation and building links for people with others in their community.” The workshop we observed last week at Parkdale Neighbourhood Church is one of a series WEFC plans to run this year, with sessions targeted to the public, partner organizations, and low-income local residents.

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Last year, WEFC and the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre collaborated on a community cannery in Parkdale. More than 100 people participated in the pilot project, which created more than jars of food. “We found that participants really enjoyed the time working in the kitchen together and there were definitely bonds made,” notes Dinner. Based on what they learned from last year’s program, WEFC has assembled a 120-page community canning toolkit for groups interested in producing their own preserves. The toolkit (available upon request from WEFC) provides stories about canning projects across North America and outlines how to budget, fundraise, run workshops, and source food for local canning operations. While most inquiries about the toolkit have come from community groups and health agencies across Canada, WEFC has heard from Australia and an “eco village” in Ireland.

In the kitchen, the participants gather around the ingredient table. Some don aprons as they prepare to slice apples provided by Two Century Farm, one of the regional growers from which WEFC has arranged to receive surplus product. Besides producers, WEFC has worked with groups like Not Far From the Tree to harvest fruit. Says Dinner: “For organizations working on issues related to food security, preserving, including canning, is a great tool for using resources that would otherwise go to waste, and providing another way to get good food to people in this community.”

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The cut apples are crushed in a press, then mixed with other ingredients in large pots on the stove. When the first batch of apple butter is ready, it goes into jars that were partially sterilized in the oven. Tips are given on how to avoid the risk of nasty surprises, such as botulism, from improper preparation. (Advice: stick to recipes and techniques provided by cookbooks and canning equipment manufacturers like Bernardin.) The smell of the fresh spread is homey, a scent that one hopes will be present when WEFC opens its community food store, which is being planned for east Parkdale later this year (they are currently scouting a location near Queen and Dufferin streets). Besides selling canned items, the store will have a kitchen for members and community groups to make their own preserves. Dinner hopes the store will solve the logistical problems WEFC has had with growers: “Transportation and storage are barriers, and once we have an operating store and kitchen it will be more worthwhile for producers to deliver to us. We will have the space and resources to increase how much we can purchase, what we can get, and who we can work with.”

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