BROOKSVILLE — A few minutes in the steamer is all it takes to soften the skins on the ripe red tomatoes Shannon Peters and Ruby Burton have brought in. Now, the tedious task of stripping the skins from the juicy red fruit begins. The two women find a table in the meeting room inside the Hernando County Rock Cannery and go to work.
In all, it took about 30 minutes to ready the 40 pounds of tomatoes for canning. Peters and Burton found their bounty of "ugly tomatoes," blemished fruit that was deemed unfit for market, the day before at a U-pick farm in Wildwood. By day's end, they hoped to have several dozen jars of stewed tomatoes and tomato sauce, which they planned to take home to Inverness to share with members of their church.
"They may be ugly, but at $4 a box they look pretty good to me," Burton quipped as she ran her knife through a bad spot in one of the tomatoes.
Although canning and preserving fruit and vegetables may be seen by many as an arcane folk art, more and more Hernando County residents are discovering that it is a viable way of stretching their family finances while creating a healthy alternative to store-bought canned goods.
Flossie Raines, the cannery's supervisor for the past 15 years, says May was among the busiest months she's ever seen. Each day for the past several weeks has seen a flood of home canners flocking to the facility to make use of its well-appointed food-preparation kitchen.
Raines, whom many clients refer to as "Miss Flossie," is something of an expert when it comes to food preservation, a skill handed down by her grandmother and mother. She quickly became a regular at the cannery, at U.S. 98 and County Road 491 north of Brooksville, shortly after it opened in 1975.
Although she admits that the cannery is an attractive place for retirees looking to fill their days with some activity, tough times have made it a necessity for many younger families.
"People are having to adapt in order to make ends meet," Raines said. "This allows them to save some money, and it puts good, wholesome food in their pantries. It's something that anyone can learn how to do."
Brooksville residents and regular cannery clients John and Judy Thorton agree. They've canned vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. On a recent morning, they prepared several pounds of green beans and red potatoes they had harvested from a neighbor's garden. The only other ingredient that went into the jars was a teaspoon of plain salt.
"We'll end up with beans that are much better than we can ever find in a grocery store," John Thorton said as he lifted the first rack of quart jars into a pressure cooker. "It's very satisfying to be able to open up a jar of beans and know where they came from."
Housed in a rustic lime rock-covered structure that was originally a one-room schoolhouse in the 1930s, the cannery is one of only three public canneries in Florida. The kitchen provides nearly every modern-day convenience for the job, including large-volume pressure cookers, steamers, vegetable slicers, choppers and even a shelling machine for separating husks from black-eyed peas.
The Hernando County Parks and Recreation Department operates and maintains the cannery on an annual budget of about $57,000. Hernando residents pay a $10 annual fee to use the facility. Out-of-county residents may use the facility for $25 a year. Although clients do all of the work themselves, Raines gladly offers advice to newcomers on how to prepare foods for canning.
Raines says that with a little planning and forethought, clients can easily process more than 100 quarts of fruits and vegetables in one day.
"It's something of a labor of love," she said. "It's a lot of work, but the nice thing is that you have something you can share with your family and friends."
John Provance, director of the United Way of Sumter and Lake counties, visited the cannery recently to see if the facility might be useful in serving his agency's needy residents. He likened the operation to the Depression days when neighbors gathered together to preserve food they obtained cheaply from local farms.
"Whenever you had extra, you would offer it to someone who could use it," Provance said. "With the economy the way it is these days, a lot of people are struggling to put food on the table. A place like this would allow people to help themselves rather than rely on someone else to do it for them."
Raines believes that as the economy worsens, more people will seek relief by putting up their own food.
"It makes sense," Raines said. "In the end, it's the sweat equity that makes the food tastes better."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.