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UIX: Canning Diva Diane Devereaux brings can-do attitude to changing how we eat

Diane Devereaux

When it comes to food, perhaps no innovation has transformed what, how, when, and even where we eat more than preservation. And in West Michigan, the "Canning Diva" is helping others understand that innovation in new ways.
One proven method of making food taste better has always been sharing it with others.

When it comes to making that food last, perhaps no innovation has transformed what, how, when, and even where we eat more than preservation. It plays no small role in keeping our local beer brewing businesses afloat in satisfying suds, jam jars packed with succulent sweetness, and pickles appropriately puckered.

Starting with just a little pressure and heat, canning has helped resourceful generations both survive and thrive for more than a century. Save for some updated equipment, the practice varies little from that when John Landis Mason created his namesake jar in 1958, borrowing a technique he gleaned from the journals of a chef during the Napoleonic Wars. Today, no doubt millions of glass jars are sold every year, perhaps even more rinsed out and reused, in countless cottage industry canning operations, massive food producing conglomerates, and by rustically-spirited individuals who understand the importance of making flavorful foods last.
 
Among such canvangelists, Diane Devereaux, otherwise known as the "Canning Diva" to her fans, is spreading skills and awareness of this classic process through modern media. Her book, "Canning Full Circle," is soon to ship out to her online fans, freshly inked at Holland Litho, and her YouTube channel is gathering new followers every day. Along with demonstrations and workshops, Devereaux, who has lived in the greater Grand Rapids area for more than a decade, keeps her hands and head full of new recipes to experiment with as her canning empire expands. Now a multi-channeled endeavor, Devereaux's first foray into canning took on a far simpler shape.
 
Photo by Jeff HageDevereaux was raised in Detroit, but moved to Northern Michigan a few years after her father passed away. It was there, on a hog farm with a 2-acre garden, that Devereaux first learned about canning and preservation.
 
"At 13 I learned how to can," she says. "As a teen, though, and a young teen, part of my job was picking and prepping it all. It was an all-hands-on-deck endeavor. A lot of summer days doing that."
 
Those summer days provided more than just busy work for Devereaux. She eventually started her own garden, following the same therapeutic and healthy pursuits on the farm as those before her. Devereaux is incredibly dedicated to whatever goal she sets before herself, but she's never seen herself as that removed from the rest of the world. In fact, it was that spirit that led to her previous career in disaster relief.
 
Saving The World
 
After graduating from Davenport University in 1999 with a degree in international business, Devereaux had found herself in various corporate positions until joining CSS Global as an emergency response manager a decade later. Devereaux says she probably spent 40 weeks in 2010 just traveling to areas in need, but the needs were great.

Devereaux was in Haiti for 3 months following the Jan. 12 earthquake and helped to build base camps to support both non-government organizations and the United Nations itself, so their rescue efforts would be the most effective. Over the Gulf of Mexico in Port Fourchon, La., Devereaux assisted with the BP oil spill cleanup; and then brought her talents much closer to home, in Marshall, where the Enbridge oil spill in August 2010 severely contaminated the Kalamazoo River. 
 
It was during these intense trials, she says, that the seeds of preservation as a passion were born.
 
"Going through all of that, and being away from my family, made me realize that I can still take all this knowledge from a health and food standpoint, a business standpoint, and a survival preparedness standpoint, and share this knowledge locally," she says. "I now have enough that I can share from home, and stay home. I love being in the kitchen. That's where my passion is at and I think it comes out when I'm teaching."
 
in 2012, back home in West Michigan, the Canning Diva was launched, combining Devereaux's passion for helping others with her love of being in the kitchen.
 
Diane Devereaux, photo by Jeff Hage. Sharing Skills
 
Canning is a skill, Devereaux says, that many have stepped away from in trade for convenience. Fast food and ready-made meals have taken the place of spring canning sessions in the kitchen. The questions of how and why canning is important aren't asked as much, and some even may even see those gleaming jars as little more than novelty.
 
"That's how a lot of people choose to look at it," she says. "'Oh, my grandma used to do this, or my mom did, but I never learned.' We have this bit of a generational gap. We became very convenience minded."
 
Educating others on the idea that canning is essentially the ultimate in convenience is Devereaux's new focus. Other than when she was in college, eating inexpensive ramen noodles with everyone else, the idea of living without a supply of homemade canned produce in the pantry seemed almost wasteful, she says.
 
"Now I'm bringing this back to those that always kind of knew what it was, but never learned, or never had the time," Devereaux says. "I think it's relevant today, given many Americans are either growing their own gardens or a part of a CSA."
 
Through partnerships with local retailers like D&W Fresh Market, Devereaux has been able to lead classes and demonstrations in the community. She's been asked on more than one occasion to lead a canning workshop with GRCC staff, to help them take up a new hobby. And at a senior center in Manistee, will be leading a class on preservation techniques funded by a community grant.
 
"I'll be teaching everyone how to make strawberry salsa and then doing a book signing," she says. 
 
Nourishing Ways of West Michigan, a group that meets to discuss the healthiest ways to maximize local food sources and sustainability, has also reached out to Devereaux for a presentation. 
 
The Canning Diva is becoming a household name, and she's showing West Michigan and beyond that this venerated practice is not only useful, it's healthier than many may think.
 
Nutritional Value
 
One of the most commonly asked questions Devereaux receives is likely the cause of our modern reliance on manufacturer's "best by" dates, and the lack of guidance they provide. 
 
"How long does it last?"
 
The answer is simple, Devereaux says. Use fresh, healthy ingredients and that's what you'll be left with for years. 
 
"I love debunking this misconception that after it hits the date you've written on the lid, you have to pitch it. That is just a huge fallacy," she says.
 
Photo by Jeff HageThe nutritional value of any canned goods is going to be at its peak during the first year, of course, after which it doesn't drop to zero and explode, it just reduces. Devereaux says the average lifespan of a properly canned food item is about 3 years. Starting with about 70 percent of the optimal nutritional value in the first year, a can of tomatoes may drop to about 60 to 55 percent in the second, and retain half its original nutritional value by the third year. 
 
if you can eat, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, and Doritos, you can definitely eat something that still has at least half of its original nutritional value," she says. "Everyone gets a kick out of that but it's the truth. We eat so much junk that has no nutritional value, I think we're OK knowing everything that we put in the jar."
 
The exception to the rule: anything pickled or fermented can actually improve in nutritional value over time as probiotics develop. 
 
Safety First
 
There are two methods used in canning foods, one using a bath of boiling water, and the other using a pressure cooker. Recipes with a high acidity or sweetness, like jams and jellies, fruits, or pickles, are an appropriate pick for the hot water bath method. Most anything else, especially meats, must be pressure sealed.
 
In demonstrations, Devereaux puts her students through "canning 101," covering all the basics of both methods, and why one might lead to an unsavory end if certain conditions are not met. 
 
"You can be told what to do to stay safe, but I think, as humans, we learn better when we understand why we are doing what we are doing," she says.
 
Lest a novice canner create an unplanned batch of salmonella, the explanation is made clear and concise. There are literally no safe methods to can poultry, meat, or seafood in a hot water bath. This warning can be found echoed across all reputable canning procedurals, all the way up to the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
 
Zenobia Taylor-Weiss, founder of Grand Rapids-based Cellar Door Preserves, explains that the safety standards regarding canning have actually been updated since the 19th Century.

"So what you learned from your Mother or Grandmother may no longer be what is recommended to ensure safety," she says.

Taylor-Weiss, who focuses her talents on fruit based preserves, says she enjoys working with hot water bath-friendly recipes, as they allow for a little more room to play, yet contain a high enough acid content to ward off botulism bacteria.

"Botulism is a very real danger when canning, but not if you are canning high acid foods," Taylor-Weiss. "For the most part all fruits have a high enough acid content that the botulism bacteria cannot grow. There are other ways for your canned goods to get contaminated, but it will be really obvious through smell or visible mold, obviously don't eat something that looks off, but you won't kill your family by canning strawberry jam, I promise."

Canning and food preservation are nothing new, but that doesn't mean there isn't still something for everyone to learn.

"If you are smart about it you can save money, especially if you are canning things you grow yourself or buying produce from farmers in bulk when the product is in season," Taylor-Weiss says. "Doing that not only benefits your wallet, but it supports local farmers, the local economy, and the environment."

New Recipes

Living in West Michigan, Canning Diva Devereaux is able to experiment more than just local produce in her canning. Our regional abundance of breweries, wineries, and distilleries has created a glut of new products that are quite perfect for preservation, not to mention, fun to work with.
 
Devereaux says working as the Canning Diva involves a constant evolution of recipes, enough of which have prompted her to start working on her next cookbook, "Canning With Spirits." 
 
"I'm fortunate to live in Beer City USA, so what I'm doing is creating and canning fun new recipes using beers, wines, and liquors made right here in our state, that will make a deliciopus meal in a jar," she says. "I'm working with mixologists to create pairings alongside them, so that you can enjoy and bring out the full  flavors of the food with either a beer, wine, or liquor." 
 
And canning comes through with the heathy approach to boozy preparations. You're not drinking alcohol anymore if you've reduced the alcohol down to its characteristic flavors, like in a beef burgundy, Devereaux says. 
 
The Canning Diva and Beer City USA are starting to brew up a beautiful friendship.
 
"Individuals now that are exposed and aware of this craft brew craze, and even making their own wine, are interested in more than just drinking alcohol," Devereaux says. "They want to find new ways to actually utilize it."
 
Canning Ahead
 
Devereaux's reach is expanding rapidly. Her iTunes channel is catching the attention of over 2 million listeners a year as part of the Survival Mom Radio Network, and she has plans to step out into her own self-supported program, working through her books. Podcast fans can expect to hear the Cannning Diva's first episode by the end of June, right in time for canning season.
 
On YouTube, Devereaux can be seen explaining and demonstrating a number of essential canning steps and tips in under 2 minutes each. And on canning diva.com, visitors can find "Canning Full Circle," several delicious recipes, and a number of other resources for home food preservers of any skill set.
 
Devereaux has a real life outside of canning, of course, with a family of her own and all the responsibilities that entails, but that's not to say it's mutually exclusive from the Canning Diva. She can provide and nourish her family and countless others just by sharing her knowledge. 
 
At the end of the day, the reward for Devereaux is the look of accomplishment each new student beams with after sealing their first jar 
 
"It's watching individuals faces light up, or get pictures after they've taken a couple classes and have canned on their own that excites me most," she says. "It's exciting to see the passion that I have for the craft carried on in others. They too start to get the passion, the canning bug, and they start to get their friends involved."
 
Devereaux says she takes great pleasure in watching the same excitement ignite in her canning pupils, over and over, and yet receives pictures of proudly displayed canned foods from people she instructed 4 years ago.
 
"It's no longer just me babbling on about my own passion," she says. "I'm seeing it light up in others."
 
To share a recipe with Devereaux, or find a few of hers, visit http://canningdiva.com/
 
Photography by Steph Harding
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
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