Brooksville’s Little Rock Cannery offers this advice: “Eat what you can. Can what you can’t! Save the season in a jar!” / Photos by Rona Gindin
When Kathi and Lee Comandi sit down for an Italian dinner in their Bushnell, Fla., home, they eat a sauce made with tomato seeds that have descended from those that Lee’s father carried over in his pocket from Calabria, Italy, in 1912. That and 35 cents were the new immigrant’s only possessions.
The robust red pasta-topper is always at the ready in the Comandi home, lined up in airtight glass jars that are displayed in oak cabinets in the family “sportsman’s room.” Better yet, the dinner staple is shelf-stable – just like Contadina or Bertolli – needing no refrigeration. The Comandis’ sauce, though, is free of additives such as preservatives and excessive salt or sugar. It’s also less expensive, since the couple grow the tomatoes themselves.
Yet convenience, flavor, nutrition, and history are secondary sources of joy when Kathi opens a jar to prepare a meal. Her primary point of pleasure comes from making the sauce. That’s because the fast-talking former police officer and nurse executive cooks and cans the family recipe in a communal cannery – a fully equipped space dedicated to home cooks looking to preserve foods for their families.
Indeed, in the quiet Hernando County city of Brooksville, residents – and others; this is open to everyone – gather to transform fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats into homemade pantry back-ups.
Using cannery has advantages
Folks can preserve the same ingredients in their home kitchens, which is why Florida supermarkets display jelly jars for sale every spring – when the berries best for preserves are in season. But canning items at the Little Rock Cannery, instead, offers several benefits. Most are technical: The facility has commercial-style equipment that makes the process faster. The spacious kitchen has six pressure pots plus 50- and 150-gallon steam-jacketed pots, as well as commercial-size sinks and stoves.
Little Rock Cannery also stocks essentially everything a home-canner would need except the actual jars: knives, aprons, even pea-shellers and a meat grinder, line the organized shelves. Whereas making a 30-pound batch of, say, salsa would take up to six hours in a residence, the process is cut to one-third of that at the cannery.
Not that cannery participants are in a hurry to leave. Prepping airtight jars of pickled beets, applesauce, sliced mushrooms, or chicken meat is only part of the experience. Like Comandi, most patrons find satisfaction doing the work beside like-minded cooks.
Chopping, bottling, and steaming while chatting has the kind of uplifting – nay, therapeutic – effect of a quilting bee. It’s simply nice to converse, to get acquainted and to share recipes, and to learn one another’s food histories, all while performing a manual labor of necessity or love. New Englanders, Southerners, and Midwesterners find themselves swapping recipes and sharing the family lore behind their ingredient choices.
Canning is communal
Much of the conversation takes place in Little Rock Cannery’s 638-square-foot kitchen, but not all of it – especially when the sterilizer emits its loud hissing noise. A large square table in the front room serves as the unofficial cannery headquarters. It’s here that folks grab a cup of the coffee that’s always on hand, take a seat, and get acquainted with the day’s other canners.
To encourage the aura of hominess, Kathi Comandi – who so enjoyed being a volunteer that she wound up as the cannery’s full-time manager – added wholesome decorative touches. Quaint garage-sale finds, like baskets and cookie tins, line some shelves, while examples of canned goods impart ideas from others.
Long before the building became home to a facility that urges neighbors to “Eat what you can. Can what you can’t! Save the season in a jar!”, the structure was supporting the Brooskville community in other ways. The stone residential-style building was constructed in 1941 (though some say the date was earlier) as a schoolhouse. In fact, it housed the Hammock Consolidated School for some years.
An orphanage moved in after that, and then a library. The cannery joined the library in 1974 and eventually took its place, although the sign outside still lists both.
Most surprising, perhaps, is the cannery’s ownership: This facility is owned by the Hernando County government and is run by the Parks and Recreation Department. Since the cannery competes for funding with other government entities – say, education – the facility has had its existence threatened now and again. The last time, in 2013, benefactors donated enough money to keep the kitchen humming for a year.
Officials value the cannery
Right now, county commissioners tend toward supporting the cannery, according to Comandi, who credits the health and financial benefits of canning as the officials’ justification. “For Hernando County to take on a $60,000 loss every year, just so people will eat more healthfully, that says a lot,” she says. “But people who can food here also support local farms and reduce their eco-footprint, since they’re not shipping fruits or vegetables into or out of town.”
Just as Midwesterners traditionally have stocked home-canned goods in cellars in case of bad winter storms, Floridians traditionally made their own for when hurricanes hit or produce was out of season – although, of course, few had cellars for storage.
“Canning was a way of life for the farming community in Florida, a way to save the products each family farmed,” explains Comandi, who grew up in New Jersey. “When you can your own food, the food is totally natural.”
The cannery is open to the public, even if they are not Hernando County residents. The cost is $10 for a one-time use or $50 for a yearlong membership. The cannery team also hosts classes for groups of up to 12, from the Girl Scouts to any community members wanting to learn the canning process.
To sign up, would-be canners simply call and make an appointment. “I make sure the appropriate number of pots are free, so if we get one person coming in with 30 pounds of green beans, and another with 40 pounds of chicken, we may not have pots available for another person looking to can zipper peas,” Comandi says.
Once they’re on the schedule, canners show up with jars, rings, and lids, plus the food. Some canners grow their own produce. Others buy it from area U-pick farms or farmers markets. Yet more order what they need through the cannery, which procures the fruits and vegetables through a wholesaler called Patrick’s Produce.
An exacting process
The process involves cutting, slicing, cubing, or pulverizing the ingredients, then filling sterilized jars in batches and processing those jars either with pressure or in a water bath. All told, it takes about a half-dozen hours to reap, say, one to several dozen jars of one recipe. Recipes must be followed strictly, for safety reasons. “The beets I make must be prepared using vinegar with a 5 percent acidity,” Comandi notes. “A lower acidity percentage will create a risk of bacteria.”
Hunters use the cannery, too. Christie Williams, for example, recently arrived with hunks of venison from a deer she’d shot during a hunting expedition. Williams, who also serves as the county’s recreation coordinator, transformed the raw flesh into 12 jars of ready-to-cook protein to put in her pantry. After blasting the jars with up to 10 pounds of pressure for 90 minutes, “The meat is totally cooked,” Williams explains. Those venison chunks in her sealed jars might later wind up in chili, soups, and stews.
Canning takes an initial investment in cans and lids, but that’s a one-time expense. All but the flat part of the lid can be used repeatedly. Those who grow their own foods, or who are careful to purchase them at the height of the season, when prices are lowest, can save a great deal of money versus buying commercially prepared foods.
In essence, Little Rock Cannery spans a bridge between Florida’s past and its current culinary trends. “We’re just good down-home decent country folks,” Kathi Comandi says, moments before touting the cannery as a perfect fit in today’s farm-to-table culinary movement. “Hernando County is jumping on the bandwagon.”
Rona Gindin is an Orlando-based freelance writer specializing in restaurants and travel. From her perch 12 miles north of Disney World, she covers food, attractions, and adventures for Zagat, Fodor’s, epicurious.com, and other national and local magazines and websites. Learn more at www.ronagindin.com.