UNITY, Maine — Sandy Oliver’s house has winter squash stashed under the bed, apples hanging in the basement and parsnips slumbering in the garden.
In other words, her Islesboro home could be a textbook for Food Storage 101, and that’s just what the cooking columnist and food historian intended.
“The goal of all this is to stay the heck out of stores,” she told a jam-packed classroom at Saturday’s Rural Living Day at Unity College. “If you go into stores, you spend money. I rely a lot on my cellar, and stay out of stores. It’s how I’m economical.”
The workshop, in its 16th year, was sponsored by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Beginning gardening and food preservation sessions were particularly popular, one event organizer said.
Part of the reason may be the bad economy and the national trend toward belt-tightening.
Oliver, who writes a Saturday cooking column for the Bangor Daily News and recently was quoted in The New York Times as a whoopie pie expert, said that she and her husband grew 1,300 pounds of vegetables last summer — which she valued at $3,200.
“We weighed every damn leaf of mesclun,” Oliver said with a grin.
In lesser refrigerators, that much produce easily could have turned into unidentifiable slime at the back of the crisper drawer. But that’s not Oliver’s way, and it’s clear from the enthusiastic response she received from the 45 or so people at her workshop that it’s not theirs, either.
“It’s empowering to be able to produce your own food and know its origins,” said Alysa Remsburg, who teaches ecology and conservation biology at the college.
After Remsburg took Oliver’s workshop last year, she started to teach a class on how to preserve fermented food, such as sauerkraut and the spicy Korean relish kimchi.
“I’m just excited about the techniques,” she said.
So is Oliver, whose presentation combined a showman’s flair with years of know-how, throwing in a taste of her homemade tarragon pickles for good measure.
The most important tool for preserving food at home isn’t a pressure canner or a dehydrator, she said, it’s flexibility.
“Think flexibly about how to use vegetables,” she said. “Think flexibly about the storage potential in your house. Open up your thinking about it.”
Even if the cellar isn’t ideal for storing potatoes, carrots and apples, perhaps there is a cool, dry corner that could be turned into storage.
A chilly spare bedroom, the attic, a bulkhead — all of these areas might be turned into a place to keep food over the winter.
Oliver also emphasized that the work isn’t done after you find a storage space.
“You’ll have to learn how to pay attention,” she said. “Visit [food] often, and you’ll have to get into the habit of record keeping.”
All of this work pays off, she said. She and some island friends have a year-round challenge to hold a potluck dinner made from the fruits of their own gardens. She also takes pride in a summertime potato salad made from the last of the stored potatoes and the first of the new crop.
“This is fun, and it beats working in a cubicle,” Oliver said. “This is the essence of keeping house.”
Deborah Ventresca of Paris, Maine, said she has a vegetable garden and is excited to try new preservation techniques. She admits that economizing wasn’t her top priority.
“I think people are becoming concerned about their food supply,” Ventresca said. “I think you just feel you have more control over your food.”
For more information, go to www.extension.umaine.edu/.