By: Molly Gleason
Trays of mason jars are stacked on the shiny metal table. They are filled with fascinating liquids in varying hues of amber, gold, and pink. Pickled vegetables are crammed into many, and strange colonies of yeast and bacteria, float suspended, like moldy jellyfish, in others. I am transfixed. This might have been the opening scene for Frankenstein if it weren’t for the bemused laughter and bustling students in aprons hurrying around me. They are piling trays of ingredients in front of their stations. Beans and butter and baking dishes fill their arms as they move about the kitchen. One students twists off the top to a mason jar in front of her. It hisses and pops as the lid comes off, bubbles fizz wildly as a fruity-vinegary smell wafts out. Around her the other students are doing the same, opening their jars, whiffing the air, sampling the goods, cooing over a few with delighted faces and calling their friends to come take a look, or making faces and hurriedly turning their noses away to breather in less-pungent air. Excitement buzzes through the classroom as they talk about their projects and begin working on the sourdough starter recipes that make up the theme in today’s Fermentation class.
These students are enrolled in the Value-Added Local Food Certificate Program at Lincoln Land Community College which was launched last fall by the LLCC Workforce Development Department. Value-added simply means taking a raw product and processing it in some way to make it worth more than in its raw form. Turning apples into apple cider is one example. Beef into beef jerky and tomatoes into salsa are others. And with the demand for local food growing, so to is the demand for products made from these foods. But taking good food ideas and turning them into profitable business ventures is something that takes time, knowledge of the food industry, space to practice and experiment, and expertise in strategic business and marketing plans, which is exactly what the Value-Added Food Program provides for students. The first of its kind in Illinois, this pioneering new program is a cross between hands-on laboratory practice and online learning, and combines culinary, local food, and business disciplines. The program expects to result in the development of new food businesses in Sangamon County and around the state and to grow the Illinois economy by capturing a portion of the $48 billion Illinois consumers spend annually for food. Courses include such topics as: Food Service Purchasing and Math, Food Preservation Methods, Principles of Marketing, and Fermentation. The 33 credit hour program is geared toward aspiring food entrepreneurs and those seeking employment in the food service industry, although anyone can register for the lower level courses in order to learn more about a specific topic of interest.
The students in enrolled in this spring’s Fermentation class all come from various backgrounds, from farmers and foodies to grandmothers and college professors. Some have already started their own entrepreneurial food business, like Lindsay Record, Program Director at Illinois Stewardship Alliance, who created her own popsicle start-up, Fancy Pants Pops, last year and who is learning to ferment fruit and make her own kefir to use as new ingredients in her artisan pops. Some hope to create a niche product to sell at farmers markets, like Andy Heck, co-owner of Small Axe Market Farms, who is learning to ferment pickles so that the over-abundance that his farm sometimes produces can be preserved and become another possible source of income. Gus Jones, his business partner, has a similar idea, to ferment beans in order to make tempeh, which could be packaged with his vegetables at the farmers market and sold as an all-in-one stir-fry meal. And still others are there simply to learn more about food in general, such as Bob Grant, whose gluten intolerance has led him to explore alternative foods and food preparation methods.
Spatulas fly, whisks whip, and yeasty concoctions bubble over, are cleaned up, and bubble over again, all before the kitchen is returned to a shining stainless steel model of perfection in the four hour class-period. The students walk away from the class smiling with mouths full of chocolate sourdough cupcakes and miso soup (both made in class using the fermentation techniques they have been studying), and new ideas and knowledge brewing in their minds for next week’s class. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.