Ernest Miller recalls early memories of his grandmother's house by the hiss of her pressure canner. For the family, it symbolized constant household productivity, resourcefulness, and delicious family meals.
Decades later, Miller is now the lead instructor of the Los Angeles County Master Food Preserver Program, a 12-week intensive class that was revitalized at the beginning of 2011 after the program's 14-year hiatus. On the evening focusing on food dehydration, he brought his grandmother's old dehydrator to use for demonstration. It was actually an example of what appliance not to use, but also an example of Miller's dedication to reviving a body of knowledge, while using current USDA recommendations for safe preserving of home goods.
By day, Miller is chef at the Farmer's Kitchen in Hollywood, a restaurant that also serves as a teaching and training kitchen for youth and low-income residents. He received his Master Preserver's certificate from San Bernardino County's extension program in 2009, and then went to L.A. County's Cooperative Extension office to lobby to restart its program. In 1997, the LA County program had just nine students; citing lack of interest, the University of California Cooperative Extension office canceled the program. Fourteen years later, in what is only the second class of this year, Miller received 118 applicants for 18 spots.
Miller leads many of the master preserver classes, but graduates of former classes are expected to return to teach the new crop. Steve Rudicel, a graduate of the inaugural class and owner of The Press restaurant in Claremont, told students in a recent lecture, "We're all in this together. We're getting [this program] going out of nothing, and it will take more than Ernie and two classes to make it work."
This collaborative effort is reflected everywhere in the course; graduates are also expected to perform thirty hours of community service and fifteen hours of continuing education annually after graduation. "We're here to learn techniques and send that information back out to our communities," Rudicel says. That aspect is what attracted him to the program as a food professional and community volunteer.
Many in the class attribute the surge in the course's popularity is due to the rise of the slow food movement, home gardening and local food movements, and the Great Recession, bringing with it a need for this information.
Ultimately, the skills learned in the preservation classes teach students to become more food resourceful, but Miller becomes animated when he offers his last reason for the rise in demand for this knowledge; the quest for better flavors in food. He suggests that society lost thousands of flavors from our palates and pantries due to massive consolidation of food producers after World War II. "We all know strawberry, grape and raspberry jam. So many other styles are lost, and this class provides the skills to bring them back."
Miller hopes to offer the class once per year. He envisions a national revival of the food preservation movement, citing Michelle Obama's movement to plant gardens in backyards. "I hope we get the same exposure for food preservation. I want to see tomatoes from the White House garden getting canned."