Q&A With Melanie – Our Perfect Preservationist

Southport Grocery has been canning for a few years now. Growing more ‘hungry’ each year, trying to capture spring, summer, fall –  the harvest seasons packed into tiny jars. Recently, we got to the point where a full time preservationist was in order. Just so happened our sous chef knew the perfect candidate and we jumped at the chance to have her on. We’ll be packing our shelves this year with all kinds of yummy traditional items, lacto-fermenting veggies, and  creating new exciting canned goods straight from the mind of Melanie. We wanted to spend some time with Mel before she got too busy, introducing herself and letting our fans know who’ll be packing their jars this year.

First things first: canning. What got you into this sort of thing – any particular event, family member, etc. spark your interest? How long have you been doing this?

The first grape jelly I had as a child was made by my Great Grandmother Theresia, although everyone called her Fram. She immigrated to the US from Austria in the 1920’s and she never became truly Americanized. The jams she made were from fruit picked in the neighborhood and nothing was from a recipe. Everything she made was done by feel for the product at hand and through years of experience; it was always perfect.

Although later in her life she did try to write some of her recipes down for us, nothing turns out as wonderfully as when she was alive to make it. Many of my early childhood memories of her are related to food, in particular, sweets at Christmas. She was truly an inspirations; however, my real passion for preservation came from the chefs and pastry chefs I’ve worked for over the last 3.5 years. The first raspberry jam, the first pickled cherries; those events changed everything for me. The drive behind my culinary style is local and seasonal and I’ve based employment largely on working with chefs that adhere to those principles. I suppose I’ve been preserving for 3 years; however, I became fully immersed about 1.5 years ago.

What sort of things do you make at home? Do you do any canning for yourself? 
I cook a lot at home and try to do a lot of different stuff.  Last year I made oven dried tomatoes packed in oil, harissa, muscadine jelly, figs in rum syrup, pickled cherries, cherries in bourbon, made my first mustards, pickled green tomatoes and then all the other typical jams and pickle stuff.  This year I’m interested in the home dairy stuff.  I’d like to buy a mini fridge to age some different types of cheese, but for right now I’m specifically obsessing over cream cheese!

Before you worked at SPG you worked at Blackberry FarmsCan you tell me a little bit about your time at Blackberry Farms? Did you go there to can and what sort of things did you pick up while you were there?
In the summer of 2011 I moved to TN specifically to work at Blackberry Farm.  When I interviewed for the job at BBF I hoped to work in the Larder (where BBF’s cheese, charcuterie, and preserved items are made), but instead was hired as a line cook.  My optimism was rewarded within the first week I was there when the then current Preservationist Assistant gave her notice.  Since I had mentioned my desire repeatedly and to anyone who would listen during the initial interview, I was asked if I was still interested in the position. I interviewed with the (then) Preservationist and (current) Pastry Chef Maggie Davidson and was hired to start the following week.

Like many other kitchen changes, the learning curve was steep.  When I began the initial order from a national kitchenwares retailer was under way and required large volume production (7,000 + units of each items sold in stores and online) for items such as pickled okra, peanut butter, and pickled beets and strawberries.  Each item for the order was made day in and day out until the order was fulfilled. Enabling a lot of repetition of techniques and procedures, probably the best way to really learn a new skill.
From Chef Davidson I learned all about canning safety and procedures, techniques for volume production, as well as a number of standard principles for writing preserves/pickle recipes and other great kitchen techniques. As far as things I picked up living in the south: there are a number of staples that I will always make and enjoy.  Specifically, I fell in love with pickled green tomatoes, chow chow, and peach preserves.

What would you say your favorite thing is about working with food? Least favorite?

My personal favorite thing about working with food is the passion food producers (chefs, bakers, preservationists, farmers, cheese makers, butchers, bee keepers, etc) have for what they do. If it’s delicious, the person responsible for providing it to you made sure it was delicious. And then, they offered it to you to enjoy and share with your friends and family. Food is about sharing. The most rewarding thing a consumer or guest does is that little head nod they do to the person with whom they’re eating. The kitchen sees that and knows they’ve achieved their goal.

I’m sure there are least favorites, but those are related to disappointments that are unavoidable, such as missing family events due to our schedules.

What do you think makes a good jar of preserves? pickles?
A good preserve or pickle stands alone, but also improves whatever you put it on. From simple toast and jam to preserved lemons in a lamb tagine. Premium preserves are really popular right now, which I love, but I genuinely believe great preserves also be accessible to everyone.

Which season is your favorite?
Spring, as cliche as that might seem. Ramps, green garlic, rhubarb, strawberries, asparagus, artichokes, and everything else we can look forward to in the months to follow, makes spring my favorite season.

  1. Joyce - January 26, 2013

    Melanie sounds like a passionate young woman with great taste! Need more like her around.


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