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Article updated: 8/23/2012 5:38 AM

Batavia market lures 'primo pickler' for canning demo

By Burt Constable

Queen bees in organic hives don't generate the kind of buzz Marisa McClellan is bringing to Saturday's farmers market in downtown Batavia.

"This is the biggest thing that has happened to the farmers market," says Jennifer Downing, owner and cooking instructor with Nourish, a Batavia business that teaches people to cook with an emphasis on local and sustainable food. "This is great. It's just exciting to see so many other people excited."

From 8 a.m. until 11 a.m. on South Water Street between Wilson and First streets, McClellan -- a nationally known primo pickler, canning countess, preserves princess, blogger and author of the "Food In Jars" cookbook -- will demonstrate the techniques she uses to preserve her honey-lemon apple jam. Then she's off to a book signing from 12:30 p.m. until 2:30 p.m. at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle before returning for a 5 p.m. reception (tickets available at nourishcooking.com) at Nourish. From there, McClellan will spend Sunday in Oak Park and Chicago, before closing her visit on Monday with a trip to Lake Forest and a 7 p.m. talk at Cook Memorial Library in Libertyville.

Canning is hot.

"It just kind of took over my life," says McClellan, 33, a writer with a master's degree from Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia who started her foodinjars.com blog in February of 2009 and now boasts 26,000 followers on Facebook and a half-million online visitors each month. In addition to writing her blog and cookbook, McClellan travels the nation giving canning presentations.

Born in Hollywood, Calif., and spending most of her childhood in Portland, Ore., McClellan grew up canning with her mom, Leana.

"It's not like we lived on a farm. We lived in suburbia," McClellan says. "It just so happened we had trees: apple and plum trees, and blackberry bushes."

A graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., McClellan says she "starting canning on my own" during grad school after she and a friend went a little overboard during a blueberry-picking outing.

"I came home with 13 pounds of blueberries. 'Oh, my gosh, 13 pounds of blueberries. What do you do with that?'" she remembers thinking, before realizing that she knew how to turn all those berries into jam.

Now, through her blog and personal appearances, McClellan spreads her expertise to a growing crowd that craves healthier eating, a return to natural foods and the promise of saving money.

"It's the economy. People want to spend less on food," McClellan says, explaining how a thrifty shopper can sock away surplus fruits and veggies in season on the cheap and preserve them to eat during the winter, when grocery prices rise. "It's like the stock market. You buy low and sell high."

In a world where so much is beyond an individual's control, people like the idea of picking, preserving and canning their own food, McClellan says.

"I hear from a lot of new parents with young kids," she says. People worry about all the chemicals and treatments used to preserve processed food. Buying produce at a local farmers market and preserving it yourself makes canning relevant again.

"It gives your food history and context that most food doesn't have these days."

Some suburbanites are intimidated because they think canning involves complicated pressure-cookers that could explode, shooting red-hot tomatoes and shrapnel throughout the kitchen. Others figure they'll mess up something and create a pickle that spreads nothing but botulism. But McClellan says lots of canning doesn't even require a pressure cooker, and that anyone who can follow a modern cookbook recipe is able to avoid any food illnesses.

"If you can make a big pot of pasta, you can can," McClellan says.

She also notes that you don't have to live in the sticks and have a chicken coop in your backyard to be a good canner. McClellan runs her canning operation out of the kitchen in the 20th-floor co-op apartment she shares with her husband, Scoot McNulty, a technology guru and writer. The pair used to host an online cooking show titled "Fork You."

Saying she likes "the heft and the feel" of glass, McClellan uses her jars for everything from storing chicken broth to holding her favorite beverage. She's not a fan of preserving potatoes, which she says store well on their own and get mushy when canned, but she's canned almost everything else.

"I really love making plum jam. I do pickles, tomatoes, preserve fruits, the whole shebang," McClellan says. "I like to make stuff that lasts longer than a meal."

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