Twenty-one-year-old Sara Schlagel is a master in the kitchen. La Plata County Fair officials recognized her skills Thursday when they crowned her “Homemaker of the Year” for the second consecutive year. The title is awarded to the fair participant who earns the most total points in four classes – needlework, clothing, baking and food preservation.
Schlagel won 13 blue ribbons in food preservation, a skill that is not common in most modern family kitchens but is celebrated at the Schlagels’ Red Mesa home.
Sara’s mother, Sue Schlagel, says food preservation techniques once were handed down b y little old ladies who taught the younger generation why and how to “put up” the garden’s bounty. But what used to be common kitchen knowledge no longer is a standard culinary skill.
“If a young lady wants to can, she ought to find an old lady and ask, ‘Can I help you?’” Sue Schlagel said, noting the exception of her own mother, who did not can.
When Sue found herself on a central Minnesota farm with a husband and four children, she taught herself from the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, the bible of canning. Her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law were available to answer questions, she said, but that book was her first guide.
The Schlagels have been canning together for longer than either can remember.
“Sara was the littlest and just always at my elbow,” Sue Schlagel said, recalling that her youngest foraged for wild blackberries and picked strawberries from the garden to make jam.
From there, Sara learned to can green beans and tomatoes. The family preserved most of what they grew on their cattle farm, preferring home canned foods to commercially processed foods that often have additives.
“We don’t do preservatives,” Sue Schlagel said, a decision that came naturally when she considered the well-being of her children, all of whom were home-schooled.
Her son had attention deficit disorder, and Schlagel believes good nutrition and the absence of preservatives helped him to concentrate.
Because of Sara’s allergies to grass, corn and hay, five years ago the Schlagel family moved to Redmesa, where Sara tends to a 16-by-80-foot garden and now takes the lead when it comes to preserving her garden’s bounty.
For healthier, tastier and less-expensive eating, Sara Schlagel said it makes sense to can. In the last year, she’s put up at least 24 pints of tomatoes, 12 pints of green beans, 12 pints of apricots and 12 quarts of applesauce for the family.
“The grocery bill is lots cheaper, and home canned stuff doesn’t have all the preservatives in it,” she said.
The younger Schlagel said there were few surprises among the ribbons she received, but she was especially pleased that her wild fruit jelly – made from chokecherries she had picked at a friend’s home and in a public park near 32nd Street in Durango – was named the best wild fruit jelly. She plans to send a couple jars to her grandfather in Minnesota, a long-time chokecherry jelly fan.
Another multiple ribbon winner in food preservation, 15-year-old Durango High school sophomore Abby Boyd, credits her mother, Denise Boyd, and her friend, Gina Aspromonte, with teaching her to can.
Boyd’s corn relish and stewed tomatoes earned her the Junior Grand Champion and Junior Reserve Grand Champion honors.
She created her winning corn relish just three days before the fair in Aspromonte’s kitchen. Aspromonte had offered to give Boyd a canning tutorial if she would enter the fair’s Food Preservation Open Class in the Junior Division.
But Boyd doesn’t just preserve food for competition. She regularly cans a family favorite, Apple Pie in a Jar, every autumn, gifting family and friends with the festive treat at Christmas.
Boyd says she’s also learned from the food preservation judges, who occasionally write comments and suggestions on the back of the entry tags, which are especially helpful to beginners.
One of this year’s three judges, Margery Pruitt, of Farmington, said more teens seem to be showing interest in canning.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s hot, and you have to stay right with it,” Pruitt said, adding that canning makes economic sense only if you grow what you preserve.
She recalled the time she used “about a bushel of tomatoes to get two jars of ketchup.” Pruitt said despite the increased interest, the number of fair entries is still down from 15 years ago.
Aspromonte, a La Plata County Fair volunteer, said that in 2007, there were only 150 entries in the Food Preservation Open Class, but that number grew to 411 in 2010 and exceeded 300 this year. She said the “tough economy” might explain the slight drop from last year. Four years ago there were no entries in the Junior Division, but this year, three kids entered.
“It’s the whole ‘grow local, buy local’ movement,” Aspromonte said. “Parents are doing it, so kids are doing it, too.”