New Directions at Preserving Traditions

After three years and something over 50 workshops, I am stepping down from heading Preserving Traditions. The last two last workshops currently planned are July 23 (Intro to pickling) and  Aug 27 (Intro to Canning), both at the Chelsea Library from 7-8pm.

What’s next for PT? I’m glad you asked, because the answer is largely up to you! The Pittsfield Grange is very interested in seeing Preserving Traditions continue, and has expressed strong support for the project. But what form should it take? Should PT retain its focus on food, or expand to other traditions, such as handicrafts like spinning, weaving, sewing, carving, soapmaking, etc.? How should PT relate to groups such as the Grange’s Junior Makers program (where kids learn basics of woodworking, electronics, and carpentry) and the ReSkilling Festival (which teaches all sorts of “people-powered” crafts from canning to beekeeping to permaculture)? How often should events be held? Should we do more demos, or more work days? What kinds of online resources would be helpful?

And perhaps most importantly – who will keep the group going? I tended to take a “do all the organizing and most of the teaching” approach, but it need not continue on that way.  There will probably be room for a number of volunteers and time commitments ranging from a few hours on one day to jobs spread out over seasons.

If you would like to be part of the discussion, please contact Joan Hellmann c/o the Pittsfield Grange Facebook page, or via e-mail ( There will be a one-time strategy and planning meeting to brainstorm ideas for moving forward. Coming to the meeting doesn’t commit you to any further participation, though of course we’d love to have people volunteer to teach, organize, or otherwise support Preserving Traditions with time.

In the tradition of good food and good friends,



Maple Syrup Tasting!

Really fun Preserving Traditions event yesterday – maple syrup tasting! See all the details at the PT blog:

Betty Springfield: Thank her for your canning classes

Betty and Tom SpringfieldMy grandmother, Betty Springfield, didn’t teach me how to can (my mom did). And I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that when I was a kid, I preferred Vlassic pickles to her home-canned ones. (What can I say? Six-year olds think whatever they are familiar with is the One Right Way for things to taste.)

What Grandma did teach me, though, was that food mattered, and that growing your own food was a form of security and self-sufficiency.  Grandma grew up poor.  Dirt poor, you might say, on a hardscrabble farm in the hills of Tennessee.  I saw a picture once of a building I thought was maybe a corn crib – a small log cabin, essentially, smaller than my living room.  That was the house she’d spent the first eight or ten years of her life in, with her mother and two siblings.  Father, too, until he up and left one morning and never came back.  Her mother was often confined to bed, so Grandma started raising her younger siblings when she was about eight.  Eventually, they moved in with their grandparents, which was better – but still very tough.  Cash was always tight – but they always ate.  Cornmeal and sorghum – processed when the traveling mills came to down – and garden vegetables.  Hamburgers. (“Only my grandparents would let me eat a hamburger like a sandwich.  My mother made us use a knife and fork.”)  And, memorably, raw potatoes – snuck from the bin in the barn for a mid-afternoon snack when a growing girl, tired from schoolwork and farm chores, needed a bite of something – anything – to tide her over to dinner.

Fast forward forty years or so, to me sitting at Grandma’s big kitchen table, eating a carrot, while Grandma cooked dinner.  Grandpa always grew a huge garden, and Grandma put up all that produce.  I think she froze more than she canned, but grow-your-own was standard.  And I always got the first carrot of the year out of the garden, to eat with the greens still attached, like Bugs Bunny.  (At this late date, I realize I had no idea when carrots were in season, and no way of knowing how long the carrot row had been before I got my “first” carrot of the year!)  I’d eat my carrot, and watch grandma peel the vegetables into a container destined for “the mulch pile,” which Grandpa would turn and eventually spread on the garden to help it grow. No chemicals in this garden, thank you very much!

As Grandpa’s knees got worse, the garden shrank.  Grandma started buying produce at the grocery store, complaining bitterly that zucchini cost $X and came wrapped in plastic, two to a Styrofoam tray.  In her later years, she rejoiced that their food stamps were redeemable at the farmer’s market, and she could now get produce that was back up to her standards. Oh, and about those food stamps – did I mention that Grandpa started a very profitable business (look for a Delfield fridge next time you’re in a commercial kitchen or salad bar) and sold it for a very tidy sum before retiring, but due to health care and inflation, they absolutely required those food stamps for the last decade or two of their lives? So from poverty to prosperity and back, in one lifetime.  But they always lived like kings, in my eyes – Grandma’s long-practiced skills in the kitchen meant they ate well no matter what.

So this is a long way of saying, an intimate knowledge of food provenance and cooking was my “normal” growing up.  I read Laura Ingalls, and I looked at my grandma, and the only difference I saw was that Grandma could drive a car.  As I got older and understood more about Grandma’s difficult life, I realized that food was her security net: as long as there was a nutritious meal on the table, you could get through anything.

It’s that desire to keep people  fed that led to me founding Preserving Traditions in 2008.  I want to see Grandma’s level of food skills – preservation, cooking, and even production – to become normal again.  I want people to understand the fragility of our current food distribution system, and to have solid skills to fall back on should that become necessary.  And I think it will be necessary, very soon – if only because any of us could lose our jobs at any time, and gas prices could jump enough to double the price of many foodstuffs, and suddenly you realize your cheap, processed dinner is unaffordable, at best, and perhaps even entirely unavailable.

I also want people to see that though that kind of self-reliance may be scary, and is definitely a lot of work, it’s also entirely achievable and incredibly satisfying.  When you first prepare a meal that you thought “only a trained chef could cook” or to create a jam or pickle or cheese that you thought “is so complicated, it’s only reasonable to buy from a professional” – well, your heart swells with pride, and you start to realize, “I’m not helpless.  This is no longer a mystery.”  And I see that as Grandma’s greatest legacy: the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, some part of your fate is in your own hands – and the food on your table is a tangible, vital, wonderful place to start.

Grandma died Sunday, October 9th.  I was able to get to Boston and hold her hand before she died, but because of the stroke, I’m not sure she knew I was there.  In previous years, I’d tried to explain to her how she inspired me to step up my own food skills, and to teach others, but I’m not sure she understood, even then.  You see, Grandma always thought she’d been a nobody – just a poor girl from the hills, not one of the “important” people, like a doctor or lawyer.  She thought she was a doormat, never really understanding that she inspired me (and many others) as a paragon of self-sufficiency, of doing the best you could with what you had.  And her best was very, very good.

Thank you, Grandma, for everything.  You meant more to me – and to hundreds of other people – than you ever realized.

Neighborhood Can-A-Thon

Cooks in the kitchen - 7How many cans can local canners can? Let’s find out Saturday, August 27th during the Neighborhood Can-A-Thon! In 2010, 12 canners at the Grange canned 79 pints of salsa…this year, let’s blow that record out of the water bath!

Sign up solo or with a team and bust out your ruffled apron or your battered Birks. You’ll work in one team member’s kitchen to can a bunch of tomatoes, salsa, pickles, or whatever else you like. Then join the rest of the canners (and any family or friends you care to bring) at the Pittsfield Grange for a local dinner that you don’t have to cook! We’ll enjoy a stress-free meal, share stories, swap samples, and mark up the Grand Can Tally Board to see just how many jars we will pack into our pantries this year.

Full details are at


Preserving Traditions Camp Survey

I am considering running a Preserving Traditions “train-the-trainers camp.” The goals of the camp would be for participants to:

  • Learn how to plan and lead effective workshops
  • Practice teaching and get feedback on your own facilitation skills
  • Explore a variety of technology tools for organizing and promoting workshops
  • Learn new food preservation and preparation skills
  • Build connections with others who plan to teach traditional foodways in their communities

I would very much value your input about such a workshop. Please click “next” to take a one-page survey to let me know what you think. I’d be happy to hear from folks in Ann Arbor and from out-of-town.


Click here to take survey

How to run a salsa work day

We (Preserving Traditions) made 79 pints of salsa a couple weeks ago at the Pittsfield Grange. How on earth do you organize such an event?

Like this.

A few notes:

  • The biggest pain is figuring out what each person should bring. Recipes mix units, such as “7 quarts diced tomatoes, two pounds of peppers, and six garlic cloves.” Nightmare! So on the linked page, I’ve done all the conversions so you can easily say, “Ok, I need ten cups of diced bell peppers. How many pounds of undiced peppers is that?”
  • I could run a lot more of these events if I didn’t have to figure all this out each time. AND SO COULD YOU. Please feel free to take these calculations and run your own events! Trust me, all the chopping is nothing compared to the math…
  • This event took over 50 people hours to run (not including planning), and there was a fair bit of standing around waiting for salsa to cook. That’s not a very efficient way to make a lot of salsa, but it’s good for fun and community-building. If you are interested in production efficiency, have fewer people make the same quantity of salsa. It’ll take the same amount of time, but with less standing around.
  • I think the ideal place to run one of these would be a school’s home ec kitchen. Lots of stoves and equipment!

Preserving Traditions article on Ethicurean

Jeniffer McMullen did a very nice article on Preserving Traditions over at The Ethicurean on Sunday. Check it out!

New PT workshop outlines

Ok…I need reviewers interested in Preserving Traditions to go to, scroll down about halfway, and let me know what you think of the workshop outlines. The idea is to lay out everything a would-be presenter needs to know to run a workshop on a particular topic (assuming they are able to do the skill in question, but just need some help turning that into a workshop).

I also hope that other people will take the template and start submitting their own workshops (Mary…how ’bout writing up your pierogi workshop?) for inclusion on the site.

Ah, and I think I need to run my own instance of WordPress’s blog on so I can set y’all up as authors without having to get your own WordPress login…so much to do…it’ll happen, albeit slowly…

Preserving Traditions topic survey

I’m drawing up the schedule for the Ann Arbor group’s year of workshops, and would like your input. Would you take five minutes to answer this survey about topics for this year? Thanks!

New Preserving Traditions web site is up!


Ok, it probably doesn’t look all that different to you (which is kinda the point), but I’ve finally gotten up and running and not just pointing at the WordPress blog. You’ll notice the calendar is a little more slick, and there’s a prominent link to our Flickr photo group. (Please contribute photos!) The “about” page also has details on our second location, in West Bloomfield, Michigan.


« Older entries

%d bloggers like this: