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A muscadine treat, made in Hernando County, Florida

Flossie Raines pours mashed peaches into a pot at the Hernando County Little Rock Cannery north of Brooksville in June. The mashed peaches would be made into a jam. 

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Flossie Raines pours mashed peaches into a pot at the Hernando County Little Rock Cannery north of Brooksville in June. The mashed peaches would be made into a jam. 

I've got a lot of my Christmas presents taken care of already, and on the label, right next to the reindeer and snowflakes, I plan to write: "Product of Hernando County, FL.''

I can make that claim, first of all, because of Sonny Vergara's muscadine vineyard in Spring Lake. Most fruits and vegetables wilt in Florida summers. But muscadines are native to the Southeast and well adapted to our recent wet, very hot weather. The current crop, Vergara said, is outstanding.

I could see that Wednesday, when I pulled into his driveway off White Road. Each vine was loaded with grapes, either white (bronze-colored) or black (like plums), tucked under leaves that sparkled with rain from an evening storm.

With muscadines this ripe and tightly bunched, I didn't pick them so much as nudge them with my fingertips and watch them drop into a plastic bucket.

This is all Vergara asks now that it's U-pick time — call (352) 279-0729 for information — that customers hold their buckets under the vines; otherwise pounds and pounds of grapes will fall to the ground as waste.

In 10 minutes I filled two 1-gallon pails, the first with a white variety called Fry, the second with the aptly named Black Beauty. Seven pounds at $2.75 each, for a total bill of $19.25. Not dirt cheap, but not bad, either, considering that, after a snack on the drive home, I had enough to make 21 8-ounce jars of jelly.

Which brings us to the Little Rock Cannery in northern Hernando — (352) 540-4306 — which easily generates more controversy per dollar in its budget, about $59,000 this year, than any other county operation.

To some it's a "microcosm of government waste,'' as another local paper called it.

To others it's an outpost of history — a working tribute to the county's agricultural tradition, housed in a former school built as part of the Depression-era Works Project Administration.

And it's a facility that helps families break the processed food habit, one of the main reasons the poorest people in this country are also the least healthy.

And it's a beacon of education that teaches children cooking and sanitation skills, and that food doesn't come in Styrofoam clamshells.

If the cannery isn't as essential as roads or schools, it is very cool, and I'm glad an anonymous benefactor wrote a $55,124 check to keep it going during the coming fiscal year. (Despite persistent rumors, activist Janey Baldwin insists it was not her.)

I was also glad to hear from cannery supervisor Flossie Raines that the county is considering moving oversight of the cannery to the county tourism bureau, which should make it easier to fund in the future.

And I'm glad to see the cannery has been getting more recognition lately. The number of canners who have paid their $10 annual fee — it could and should be $25 soon, Raines said — is on pace to break last year's record. They have come from every county in west-central Florida. And at a nighttime market in Brooksville last month, Raines said, she got nothing but encouraging words and thumbs-up as she walked down Main Street.

"I felt like Miss America,'' she said.

Except that she works in a non-air-conditioned kitchen among steaming sterilizing equipment and a blazing gas range.

Hot as it was outside when I arrived Thursday morning — and it was miserable — it was much hotter inside.

Luckily, putting up jelly is about as simple as canning gets: boil the muscadines, let them simmer 10 minutes, strain out the juice, add sugar and pectin, bring to a boil again and pour the jelly into jars.

Along with my oldest son, who accompanied me out of profound end-of-summer boredom — which says something about the availability of public places in Hernando that allow people to gather for enjoyable, wholesome activities, and therefore, maybe, something about the long-term need for the cannery — I was done by noon.

A blend of the two grape varieties, the jelly came out lavender-colored and delicious — according to my son, who spooned down a half a jar of syrup, the jelly-making equivalent of raw cookie dough — and local in both its main ingredient and means of production.

A Christmas present for neighbors, cousins and co-workers, at least the pleasant ones, all ready by the kind of summer day fit only for a muscadine.

A muscadine treat, made in Hernando County, Florida 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 1:16pm]
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