G-Sync: Fresh Food Diva

Restaurant Week Grand Rapids is celebrating its fourth year by focusing on fresh ingredients, so it may seem that over the next two weeks, everyone will be in a fresh food frenzy. However, some in the community are calmly laboring away to ensure that local fresh food is still available in the dead of winter. I'm talking about the art of canning and it is hot this summer thanks in part to one person: The Canning Diva.

It was just over a year ago that Diane Devereaux she decided to share her accumulated canning knowledge, but even after launching her business in July 2012, she was a bit timid for a diva. In January of this year, she would finally muster the moxie to step in the spotlight and she has proven very worthy of this stage.

January is an odd time to launch a new business devoted to canning, a skill commonly practiced during the high yield and warmer months, but it's worked out.

"I had started a Facebook page about five years earlier just as a place where I could post images of the food I was cooking or preparing," says Devereaux.

This action has been dubbed by many as 'food porn.' After shooting images of a meal, one posts the enticing images on the web for other's enjoyment.

"Up until this point, I had about 100 followers who were engaging with me around the topic of how I was integrating canning with my day-to-day cooking," Devereaux says.

When Flavor616 debuted earlier this year, things really began to accelerate for Devereaux. This new magazine devoted to all things food and beer with a heavy emphasis on the locally-sourced featured one of her meals.

To build her audience, her Facebook site has attempted to publish a different recipe each week. The Diva admits it is much harder to select just one when you consider the bounty coming into season at home gardens, area farmers markets, and roadside stands, so, she gives you more by upping her performance as she adds more each month.

On her newly released and colorful website, she offers instructional classes ranging from general 101 level canning techniques to group programs for neighbors, co-workers, or those just looking to find community around food.

At these lively sessions, Devereaux delivers her garden-to-jar philosophy with relaxed candor and fear-disarming wit.

"These sessions are meant to remove the apprehension in folks who want to find a way to extend the season," says Devereaux. "I am able to not only share how to preserve that freshness and nutritional value of our local food, but I can share the steps I took in planning what I would grow, can, and then eventually cook. I even teach them basic seed gathering, which completes the cycle."

While Devereaux offers up primarily the water bath method, she also removes the fear from pressure cooker canning, which opens up a host of meal options for singles, couples, and even families.

When I explained some of my Woody Allen-esque fears of a pressure cooker exploding in my kitchen, Devereaux laughs this off.

"Yes, pressure cookers are scary to most people. I have even had those fears where any minute now I would end up in an 'I Love Lucy' scene," says Devereaux. "But my mission is to impart safety through education. What I am teaching is math and science, but also the reassurance that it is harder than you think to grow botulism in a jar. You really can't mess it up if you follow the easy steps."

Yes, the benefit of all this could be that you are saving a few bucks and upping your taste bud dividends during a time of the year when tomatoes do not taste like tomatoes all that much, but Devereaux is also improving the economy of our region with these small acts. It adds up quickly when you do the math.

Nearly 15 to 20 people each week are being schooled in how to preserve the food of our region. When you add up the amount of food from local sources they are purchasing for later consumption, then our local farmers just got a bonus this summer as demand begins to rise.  

"People who experience my classes do go on and buy more local produce," says Devereaux.  She rattles off a long list of testimonials.

The Canning Diva is, in one small way, doing what miles of billboards could not do; she is teaching a community to care for itself by asking for more from those who supply food at our markets and food stands. She insists that if you are in charge of quality, demand it. She says to also get organic when possible.

Those who take the Canning Diva's class receive a textbook to assist them when they return to their kitchen. Devereaux also has a new cookbook in the works that will be released in Spring 2014.

She helps those at every level of experience, whether it is the family member looking to create fast, yet healthy meals that are delicious to kids, allowing them to bypass McDonald's.

Not only are more men taking her class, but also younger people. This new influx of folks is not driven by the traditional stereotype associated with canning that only those on a budget can, but is attracted to the community-building and creative aspects of this eye-catching and mouth-watering art.

Even for ambitious Type A people like me, Devereaux has something that caught my eye.

On Thursday nights after work in Lowell, she offers her assistance in the personal production canning. Simply bring all of your ingredients, lids, and cans and work in a spacious, commercial kitchen.   

She teaches classes all over West Michigan in places like Bekins Cooking, Uptown Kitchen, Rylee's Ace Hardware, Caledonia Resource Center, Thought Design, and even the new Downtown Market (starting in September).

"What chefs are doing on a daily basis in their restaurants, you can do at home," says Devereaux. "But when I teach you how to create this freshness, I do it in a way that enables you to put up 8 to 10 jars at a time."

Canning is really about purposefully delaying your gratification, but you'll be rewarded when you open and share this bounty of our region with others. It is the source of that big smile and that yummy sound that I still have yet to find the words to accurately describe.  

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

G-Sync Events has plenty in store this week. Also, this weekend is the return of the 2nd annual East Hills Big Bang Art Festival on the lawn of Mangiamo's in East Hills. Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen, also an artist, will be attending.