Preserving Pickles and the Past

HOW BETH HORNSBY CAPTURES FOOD AND TIME THROUGH CANNING

Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

Photos by Cary Norton

 

I love going to markets and getting compliments such as, “This tastes just like what my grandmother made!’’ 

Beth Hornsby, who owns and operates Hornsby Farms in Auburn, Alabama, with her husband Josh, is dishing about the jams and pickles she’s becoming known for around theSouth, rattling off just a few of the farm’s fruit-and-veggie-packed products. “We’ve got our Sweet Heat jelly that’s a mix of strawberries and jalapeños; we do a raspberry ghost pepper jelly; bramble jam, which is blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries; a satsuma; a vanilla bourbon jam; dill pickles; pickled okra; pickled green tomatoes; and sometimes, pickled beans and pickled asparagus,” she says.

She relishes the praise the products get, but she’s just as happy to see them kindle connections. “When people tell me that a jelly or pickle takes them back, I love being a bridge to those fond food memories,” she says. “One reason I enjoy canning so much is its ability to conjure up my own past experiences.”Beth remembers watching her grandmother preserve all kinds of produce by “putting up”—canning it at the peak of ripeness—ensuring she’d have summer’s abundance in the leaner months, and she now feeds off those recollections. But she didn’t observe her grandmother quite closely enough.“Josh grew up doing it, so I actually learned canning from him and his mother,” Beth admits.

Today, Beth has found a self-expression outlet in her experiments with different flavored combos and spices. “I have all these yummy, fresh things, and it’s really fun to take them into the kitchen and just play,” she says. She pulls inspiration from chefs, from the farm supplies, and from her own imagination. She is also the master tester. “If I don’t like it, we don’t sell it,” she says.

As much as Beth and Josh enjoy jelly, jam, and pickle-making now, that’s not what pushed them to foray beyond selling their harvest to restaurants—Chef David Bancroft, owner of Acre Restaurant and Bow & Arrow Barbeque, is a big buyer and close friend—to the public through their farm box program, and seasonally in their onsite farm store. It was a necessity. Since they founded Hornsby Farms in 2013, they’ve turned out bumper crops of collards, onions, garlic, radishes, cabbage, snow peas, cauliflower, turnips, broccoli, squash, tomatoes, okra, peas, corn, eggplants, peppers, and more. The couple’s commitment to make good use of everything their toil and their land gives them was the motivation behind the  farm’s canning kitchen. “The farm just grew and grew, and we always had extra stuff,” Beth says. “We were looking for the right way to get the most out of it, and making these products made sense.”

Now, the tables have turned a bit. Hornsby Farms pickles, jams, and jellies have become so popular that they’re running out of ingredients! They’ve transformed the issue into another opportunity for connection, partnering with other area farms. “It’s been such a win-win,” Beth says. “When they have excess produce, our collaboration helps them. It helps us meet customer demand, and it’s helped us forge relationships with our fellow farmers."

Beth is also delighted when she hears that her efforts are encouraging others to try canning or maybe to rediscover it. “It is a tradition that is dying out, but people tell me that our products have made them give it a go,” she says. She recognizes one hurdle can be the intimidation factor, with canning’s specific equipment, multiple steps, and safety concerns scaring some people off. “It can seem overwhelming, and you, of course, want to be careful, butI tell people all the time to not let fear hold you back,” she says. “There are so many resources available out there, and there is a process, but it’s not a hard process.” She also recommends reaching out to someone who cans and ask fora lesson. “Doing it hands-on with someone makes it much easier,” she says.

If you’re in the Auburn area, that person could be Beth.She offers canning classes for individuals and groups, doi ng her part to keep the craft alive and spread the word about its rewards. “It’s such a great way to be less wasteful, and in the dead of winter, when you open up a jar of pickled okra that you made, maybe with your garden’s okra, you’re back in summer.”

Sharing her work with others is rewarding, but Beth finds pleasure in the work itself. “It’s my therapy now. I get in the kitchen, turn on some Netflix, and get to it,” she says. She often has one or all of her three kids in there with her, and they’re learning the trade. Beth’s teaching moments with them are weaving another thread of connection.

Despite the long hours and hard labor, farming has given her and Josh the one thing they most hoped to grow when they began it: more time with their children. “That’s the reason we chose this life, and now we’re building something they can take over, and the canning is adding to that,” she says. “That’s the best part.”