Greetings from the Summer Kitchen
My Grandma Betty and Great-Grandma Marie were terrific cooks. During tough Depression years, these two formidable women founded and operated several small tea rooms in the Dayton, Ohio area. I enjoyed cooking in Grandma’s tiny kitchen, where good, fresh food was a staple. My favorite canned good was the spicy, pink applesauce from her grafted five-apple tree. We used old-fashioned red hot candies to flavor this sauce. Weekends at Grandma’s are a wondrous memory of apple smells, the sound of jar lids clicking, and the feel of warm steam rolling lazily around the room.
As an adult, I became a busy Information Technology consultant. For many years, I traveled constantly, eating in restaurants and nuking the rest of my meals in hotel microwaves. I never thought about canning again until I became a stay-at-home mom when my first child was born in 1994. To make new friends, I joined a play group of (highly experienced) mothers who taught me how to make Jessica’s baby food using a mini food processor. Mastering that, I though I’d go a step further and can some simple baby foods, so I purchased a few cases of peaches and began canning puree. My new girlfriends howled when they saw my mountain of peaches and jars. “Don’t you know she’ll be eating solid foods in only a few months?” they crowed. Well, of course not! This corporate idiot figured kids ate soft foods until kindergarten!
Hmmmm, what to do with all those peaches… I decided to make peach preserves for my husband, Pete. The yield from the peaches was a couple hundred half-pints. My dear, patient (and highly amused) Pete suggested that we get a booth at our Lebanon’s Applefest and sell the surplus jars. Whatever made us think we could sell peaches at an apple festival? No matter. They sold out in a few hours!
A Business is Born…
Well, that got me thinking. I’d been trying to keep my hand in the computer industry by freelance-writing technical manuals. However, I’d grossly underestimated the attention a baby would demand! But a canning business would be great. It was obvious that canning was something that I could start and stop as needed to care for my busy Jessica.
The spring after Applefest, I was invited to sell jam at a local farmer’s market. Pete and I started Mother’s Day weekend in 1996. I did pretty well at that market, and that year I canned 400 jars. My goal was to sell enough jars to help pay for a modest camping trip, and I met that goal. The Jam & Jelly lady had its first whiff of success, and we were hooked!
Building a Cannery…
In 2005, I had to make an important decision as my last child prepared to enter 1st grade. Should I return to a corporate environment with a real paycheck, or could I really grow this canning business? I was crazy nuts about canning (we’d grown to 3,000 jars annually in our home kitchen) and I loved serving samples of jam in our special “tasting tarts” to happy customers. It seemed more like a never-ending tea party than a job! And, I still treasured the ability to attend school functions during the day when most parents were glued to their desks. How could I leave this lifestyle?
Pete offered me the opportunity of a lifetime. He wanted to build for me a “Summer Kitchen” – a small-batch, commercial cannery in my own backyard! It took me a good 6 months to fully realize that we could actually do this – it was such an overwhelming concept. But for two years he measured, wired, and hammered until the job was done. Much thanks to our friends and family who helped build our dream cannery: Mike and Bill Staffan, Matt Roether, Jim Musser, Steve Collins, and Ron Wical!
Thus, only a few years after goofing baby food, there is a 1,000-square foot commercial kitchen just outside my back door, with a pallet of 10,000 ½-pint jars waiting to be filled with the best of summer’s bounty. My commute is probably the shortest in history, and I have a stainless steel, 4-door cooler, a custom-built canning stove, plenty of counter space, and generous inventory shelving. Most of our produce comes from many local farmers who graciously grow berries, peaches, apples, tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers for our small company.
All in the Family…
Best of all, I have a schedule that flexes around the children’s agendas. My children, ages 19, 17, and 14, work and play in the Summer Kitchen with me every day, and we have a lot of fun while cooking something special. Not just jam, but strong bonds that will serve us a lifetime. It’s giving them self-esteem, a strong work ethic, self-reliance, and a sense of commitment.
On a balmy summer evening, when the children are tucked into their cool sheets, look for Pete and I on the porch of the Summer Kitchen, lazily pitting cherries, sipping Strawberry Lemonade, and earnestly counting every blessing God has bestowed on us.