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Putting a lid on the flavors of spring

The newly renovated canning center, one of only three in the state, extends its hours in May.

The newly refurbished Citrus County Food Preservation Kitchen offers help to Citrus County residents who want to savor the flavor of their home-grown vegetables and fruits all year.

With the area's vegetable gardens producing spring crops, the canning center is a busy place. Many people are bringing in bushels of string beans, loads of squash and baskets of cucumbers for canning. And the upcoming arrival of sweet corn has some canning enthusiasts absolutely giddy with joy.

Canning kitchen supervisor Lauri Gist was recently chosen to head the canning center after a yearlong renovation. Gist said the Lecanto canning center is one of only three in Florida. Only about 100 remain in the entire country, she said.

"It's part of our heritage," Gist said of canning. "It's been in America since Day One, and the process has stayed pretty much unchanged for about 200 years. It's a pretty good process."

Gist is the county's third supervisor in about 50 years. She replaced Pearl Maynard, who retired in 1998 after 24 years. Maynard inherited the post from her mother, the late Annie Langley, who held the job for 27 years.

Though it may sound complicated, canning is simple. The basic process involves placing raw or blanched vegetables or fruits in jars and adding a few simple ingredients like salt or vinegar. Cans are no longer used. The jars are placed in large pressure cookers to kill bacteria, and that's about all it takes. Foods preserved this way last about two years. The object is to kill bacteria and then seal the jar airtight.

The advantages, Gist said, are freshness and personal satisfaction. Canning allows growers to harvest their tomatoes in the morning, head over to the canning plant and have them preserved by midafternoon. Practically none of the fresh flavor is lost.

"When you buy fruits and berries at the store, you don't know how long they were in the ship from Chile, or the truck from California, or what type of soil they were grown in," Gist said. "Plus, it's just a great personal satisfaction to put up food this way to feed your family."

The canning kitchen is a self-help facility equipped for the preparation, preservation and heat processing of seasonally available fruits and vegetables, pickles and relishes, sauces and syrups, and jams and jellies. People bring in everything they need to prepare their recipe and of course, their own jars and lids. The canning center provides the rest of the equipment. It has pressure cookers, bean-shellers, funnels, strainers, knives and lots of counters and sinks.

Gist and other veteran canners will demonstrate and give advice to novices. Gist will also operate the pressure cookers for those unsure of how to work the steam-filled and pressurized pots.

Gist, 39, is pursuing a dual major in environmental and nutritional science at Central Florida Community College. She is also a personal chef for spiritual and health-related retreats.

"I was born in Utah and raised in the Rockies," she said. "We kept a two-year supply of every type of food we might need in the basement."

Canning is also an economical way of preserving fresh foods bought in bulk. Gist orders weekly shipments from area growers, who provide her with the just-harvested cucumbers, beans, tomatoes and blueberries. And, of course, the fabled sweet corn now in the final stages of ripening.

"I went to my grower, and we walked out in the field together," Gist said Saturday. "He took an ear of corn off the stalk, peeled it and ate some right there. He said it was still a couple of days away."

On Saturday, the kitchen hummed with about 20 people watching a canning demonstration and others bringing in some spring vegetables for canning.

Buddy and Marian Wood of Sugarmill Woods were bringing in some string beans and cucumbers.

Marian Wood teaches Family and Consumer Science at Citrus Springs Elementary. She wrote letters to the Citrus County Commission urging it to repair the facility. She plans on bringing her students in for a field trip.

"We really like this place; the equipment is just great," Buddy Wood said. "And the quality of canned food is so far above what you buy in the grocery store."

Another veteran canner is Ethel Walker of Beverly Hills. She is particularly proud of her chili sauce, a table condiment.

"I've been canning for 62 years," she said. "I come here because it's so easy to work here and I don't have to mess up my kitchen."

And yes, real men do can. Nasir Sheikh of Sugarmill Woods brought in a jar of his homemade curry sauce.

"It's got 14 different spices," he said. Though he now prepares the sauce to give to friends, Sheikh dreams of someday starting an Internet curry supply company.

"I'll call it "Curry in a Hurry' " he said. " Or maybe Curry Without Worry.' "

The Citrus County Food Preservation Kitchen, commonly referred to as the canning center, is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon during May and June. It is open on a seasonal, part-time basis the rest of the year. The canning center is on Southern Street off County Road 491 about a quarter-mile north of State Road 44.

Gist is planning some workshops on canning tomatoes in a few weeks. Around Christmas, she will focus on teaching people how to make jellies, jams and preserves. For information, call 746-4324.