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Eat Near: Sunshine Canning

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Sunshine Canning founder Lisa Fulk / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Sunshine Canning founder Lisa Fulk / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Like many new food ventures, Sunshine Canning began with disaster. In 2009, Lisa Fulk and her family went strawberry picking and ended up with way more than they could eat. Fulk had grown up canning with her grandmother — how hard could it be to can those leftover berries before they went bad? Plenty hard, as it turns out. "It was an absolute failure," laughs Fulk, seated at the dining room table in her northeast Bradenton home, just a short saunter from the Manatee River. "It was horrible. The jars didn't seal. It didn't gel, anything."

But Fulk didn't want to give up, so in 2011 she decided to enroll in a Cornell University Master Food Preserver course. The program is intended to train the trainers — to equip canny canners with the skills needed to convey their expertise to others. The course was intense, because it had to be. Canning and pickling isn't about just following a recipe or inventing a new dish. "It's a science," says Fulk. "You could kill somebody."

Some of Sunshine Canning's pickled options / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Some of Sunshine Canning's pickled options / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

How? Botulism, a paralyzing illness that comes from toxins that develop in low-acid, anaerobic environments — e.g. improperly canned foods.

That explains the post office box on Fulk's table. She's in the process of moving her cottage food operation from her home into a commercial kitchen, and the state wants to make sure she's not going to sell deadly pickles. To qualify, she has to ship samples of her goods to a private company that will test the jars' pH and water activity to make sure they're safe. Nestled down in the box are glass jars stuffed with pickles soaking in different vinegars, as well as jalapeño and red pepper jellies.

Running Sunshine Canning as a cottage food business means Fulk can't sell her goods online; she must be physically present at the point of sale. So she sells her wares at craft fairs and Tampa markets and shares her wisdom by offering classes on the art of preserving food.

Her classes draw everyone from "locavore hipster kids" to grandmothers who tell her she's doing it all wrong. She also sets up private canning parties for women looking for an excuse to go out with the girls and drink wine. In her lessons, Fulk discusses both hot water bath canning, in which the already-canned item is boiled, and pressure canning, which uses hot steam to make sure any potential botulism spores are DOA.

A variety of Sunshine Canning jams / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

A variety of Sunshine Canning jams / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

But as much of an expert as Fulk is, she still messes up, too. On the floor near the table rest dozens of jars. She's not happy with the consistency of the jam, which she demonstrates by tilting a jar. The surface should remain completely flat and stable, she says, while the sticky red substance in this jar slides toward the cap oh so slightly. I'd still eat it, but Fulk wants it to be perfect.

We crack open some of her greatest hits and I am overwhelmed. A sliced beet is enlivened with red wine and red wine vinegar, while cauliflower and carrots stay crunchy while swimming in cumin-laced pickle juice. To make balsamic strawberry jam, Fulk uses real — and really expansive — aged balsamic. The quality ingredients make a major difference. Spread over a cracker, the jam is sublime, as is a tomato balsamic, and a jar of bourbon peach.

Fulk sources all of her ingredients locally, except for Florida-unfriendly ingredients like peaches and pears. She works with goods from Hunsader Farms, O'Brien Family FarmsGeraldson Community Farm and others, and would like to expand her network of growers. As she moves into a commercial kitchen, she'll have room to perhaps turn Sunshine Canning into a genuine, full-on business. More space means more jars, more pots and pans and, hopefully, more disasters. The one with the strawberries turned out all right, after all.

For more information about Sunshine Canning or to contact Lisa Fulk, visit sunshinecanning.com.

This is the 44th entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at eatnearsrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.

Last modified: March 17, 2014
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