Meet and Eat

Getting to know the folks behind the food and drinks you love.

Meet & Eat: Delilah Snell, Certified Master Food Preserver in Southern California

"When you want to show someone that this isn't about politics or agendas, cook for them."

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Delilah Snell, master food preserver, holding her giant, Ball-brand canning jar. [Photograph: Project Small]

The 1970s may have seen the growth of the organic food industry and environmental policy, but Delilah Snell did not grow up in the kind of home that placed any importance on eating organic or caring for the environment. Her parents worked at one of the biggest oil companies in the country and even at the age of 34, Snell is still the black sheep of her family.

She's the cool hippie aunt who started an indie arts and crafts festival with her niece and owns The Road Less Traveled, a combination green homewares store and quasi-community center, offering workshops and classes on cheese-making, fermentation, preserving, and canning, all taught by Snell, a certified master food preserver and owner of a fledgling small-batch preserve business called Backyard in a Jar.

Snell works non-stop, sometimes spending 18-hour days on food-related ventures, many of which she chronicles on her blog Project Small, which also features schedules of her upcoming classes, tips on how to make delicious things like honeyed kumquats, and seasonal recipes featuring items she found in her CSA basket.

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Honeyed kumquats from Backyard in a Jar, based on a recipe from Linda Ziedrich's The Joy of Jam, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. [Photograph: Project Small]

From her home base in Santa Ana, California, Snell is teaching everyone—from hipster food enthusiasts to wealthy, Orange County stay-at-home moms—how to make the most of each season, while introducing them to new, unfamiliar flavors like kimchi and her famous basil jelly.

Snell recently took a break to speak to me about her background in community activism, the unnecessary politicizing of organic food, and her new Jam Van. Here's what she had to say:

How did you get involved with this? After being a community activist in my 20s, I helped start a few community gardens and farmers' markets. Most of life's most important moments for me have been centered around food; what was made, what was eaten...The community helps with my business. People bring me fruits and vegetables to make preserves with or they call me and let me know what fruits I can pick from their trees. In turn, I'll give them a batch of whatever I make.

How exactly did you get your master food preserver certification? And what does it entail? About two years ago. I found out about a master food preservation course being offered in San Bernardino, so I took the three-month course and from there, I just started experimenting with my own recipes. To remain a master food preserver you have to volunteer between 40 and 60 hours a year, so once a month I volunteer at a booth at the Hollywood Farmers' Market and give lectures, answer questions, and do demonstrations.

Learning about food preservation has helped me branch out. Now I'm working on infused liquors, cheese, olives, different kinds of salt. All kinds of stuff.

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Snell answering questions at the Hollywood farmers' market. [Photograph: Project Small]

Why do you think so many young people are becoming interested in food preservation right now? For a lot of reasons. The economy, as a form of entertainment, and as a creative outlet for people who aren't artistically-inclined. The local/DIY movement has really been growing in the past five years. We're seeing people in their 20s screen printing, woodworking, and crafting. The local food movement has become a part of that whole DIY scene.

I also think it's because Americans have become very distrustful of big business. Big business is dishonest, takes advantage of people, pollutes the water, and the products they produce are killing us. The local food movement is really about people taking their food into their own hands and fighting back.

How do you feel about the local/organic movement turning political? I feel like it's been turned into a "liberal" cause, but it shouldn't be. Making your own food used to be a part of mainstream culture and because of the economic turndown, people are going back to that. I think it's for the better.

I'm the weirdo in my family, but I've managed to win their support by giving them canning classes and serving them my preserves. When you want to show someone that this isn't about politics or agendas, cook for them.

I cooked for my whole family over the holidays; I served my infused vodka, I made food using stuff from my CSA basket and they all loved it. You have to come at people with what they like and what they're familiar with. For example, my mom loves shopping, so I took her shopping at the Hollywood farmers' market. The day stopped being about our differing opinions and beliefs and it started being about food.

No arguing, just, "Oh my god, did you taste that peach? That peach was amazing. Let's buy those peaches and make something out of them."

Many people argue that the average American family doesn't have the time or money to cook from scratch, buy local, shop at farmers' markets, etc. What's your opinion on that? It's true and it isn't. Look, you don't have to make everything from scratch and do it every single day, but why not try to do it once a week or once a month? Why not?

Why not bake your own bread or make your own jam? Why not take your kids to the farmers' market? Sure, a carton of blueberries may cost $3.75, but the stuff you're getting at the grocery store comes from who-knows-where and it's filled with pesticides. You have to try. Saying you don't have the money or don't have the time doesn't cut it anymore.

Let's talk about your products. Where do you make your preserves and what else are you working on lately? I spend every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday canning from a commercial kitchen. On February 12th myself, Evan Kleiman, and urban farmer Kazi Pitelka will be holding a citrus celebration at Altadena Urban Farm. We'll explore the orchard and afterwards, everyone will learn how to make a basic marmalade, citrus liqueur, and dry spice mixtures. Evan and I are also talking about teaching a cocktail class at the Urban Crafts Center in Santa Monica in March.

What are your most popular preserves and where can people find your Backyard in a Jar line? People seem to love my basil jelly and peach habanero preserves. Right now you can buy my preserves from my store in Santa Ana and at Patchwork, the arts and crafts festival I started with my niece. In a few weeks I'll have a website for the preserves and people will be able to place orders online.

This year I'm really going to get this business off the ground. There are quite a few Los Angeles restaurants who've expressed interest in serving my preserves as part of cheese platters, so I'll be doing that and getting the word out on the Jam Van.

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Backyard in a Jar's most popular preserve: Peach habanero. [Photograph: Project Small]

What is the Jam Van? My boyfriend and I recently restored a 1968 VW bus, so I'm going to use that as a mobile jam and pickle shop. I'm really excited about it. It's sort of a pop-up-shop and food truck all in one. There's an awning and a tasting area and people are really responding to it, so hopefully this year you'll be able to buy everything Backyard in a Jar offers from the Jam Van, including new flavors I'm working on, like lavender.

A lot of people are afraid to preserve food at home because of everything that could go wrong. What do you recommend for them? Taking a class is the best way to start. You'll learn about all of the safety precautions you should take, the science behind it all, and you'll usually walk away with a few recipes. I charge $75 for a class that usually lasts around three and a half hours, covering everything extensively and answering all of your questions.

I often teach classes out of my home. It's better than learning in an industrial kitchen because once you're on your own, you'll be canning in your home and not using professional equipment. At the end of the class, you take a crate of your own preserves home.

What people really need to know is that their preserves will taste a thousand times better than anything they're buying at the supermarket. Honestly, that stuff is crap. They're filled with chemicals and dyes to help them look normal and hide the fact that they were made with ingredients that weren't fresh.

Just stop being afraid and try it. I promise, you'll never go back.

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