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Photograph by Traci Hukill
Barons of Brine : Happy Girl chief executive Todd Champagne, left, brandishes a pickle at Shawn Wallace.

Preservationist's Society

Canning and kibitzing at Happy Girl's Aromas headquarters

By Jessica Lussenhop

A trip to Happy Girl Kitchen in Aromas--Todd and Jordan Champagne's home and actual kitchen--may feel a bit like hitting a big pause button on life, what with the 1950 Willys-Overland jeep rusting in the front yard, the baskets of toys for two ruddy-faced children who intermittently appear and the call of roosters in a neighbor's yard. But that's no excuse for being late. This tomato-canning workshop moves fast.

With two gigantic bowls of sunset-colored heirloom tomatoes resting on the floor behind them, the Champagnes blow through a pack of recipes they've prepared for their 15 students, all early to late middle-aged women, save for one lone male farmer. The recipe itinerary includes salsa, preserved dry farm tomatoes, tomato juice and roasted red pepper marinara. But this is a learn-by-doing kind of gig, so the papers are abandoned and everyone crowds into the kitchen. "Are there any brave people to do onions?" asks Todd.

Knives crunch through greenery and the kitchen fills with the crisp herbal smell of the basil. The proportions--30 pounds of tomatoes, 13 onions, gigantic metal pots, two-foot-long whisks and stirring paddles--coupled with the shy but relentless questioning makes the students seem almost childlike. Is this cut thin enough? Too thin? Too much? Has this been washed? The couple deftly maneuvers through the firing squad of questions.

"There's something to be said for a really smooth, velvety marinara," Todd is explaining of a skins-off sauce, versus the more rustic skins-on. "Maybe that's better if you're having your fiancee's parents over."

If velvety marinara is all it takes for a smooth marriage, there must have been plenty of it for the Champagnes, who positively ooze off-the-grid wholesomeness. They call each other "babe" and sling their kids from one hip to the other while dispensing handy tips. In fact, it was the birth of their second that inspired Jordan to slow her once-constant farmers market trips and pass on seven years' worth of canning experience from Happy Girl Kitchen. "Local foods are really catching on as the new organic, and while sure, you can buy organic pickles, you can't buy local," she says.

The couple learned their basics in Norway, where the climate forces locals to be canning-proficient. When they returned to California and the lengthy growing seasons, their threshold for waste was low. "In Norway, every strawberry was a precious gem, not to be wasted. Here, where the surplus is completely ignored, thrown away, the contrast was so glaring," says Jordan. "I'm a conservative. I like to conserve things."

The Champagnes started making locally grown pickles, but as the products flew into the hands of locavores prowling the farmers markets, the line grew to include jams, canned tomatoes and salsa. Jordan worked hard to cut back on the sugar and salt without compromising flavor or color--which required a good deal of experimentation.

"I had the low-sugar strawberry jam start out like a mild pink," she says, "and over the week phase into taupe--the worst color in the world."

She says that's the real service her workshops provide--basic skills from someone who's run the gauntlet of canning mishaps, including the best ways to avoid what they call "The Big B," or botulism. The Champagnes instruct on proper processing, which includes removing air bubbles, keeping the pH of the contents highly acidic, and plunking the jars in boiling water to create a vacuum of air to clamp the lid down.

As time passes and the house warms with the sunlight and roaring stove-tops, so do the attendees, who've come to Aromas for a wide variety of reasons. Two discover they're old high school acquaintances who haven't seen one another for 17 years--they came because of the locavore's Bible, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Some are here to brush up on their skill set. Julia Crookston, a professional chef from Santa Barbara, views the class as a potential way to further her own career. "I've always known I wanted to do a product rather than a service," she says. "And this is it."

As morning turns to afternoon, mason jars start filling up and the students sample the fruit of their labor--chips with warm, fresh salsa and tomato juice with a hot peppery kick. This gets everyone bragging about their killer Bloody Marys.

Jordan says that once the students have been sent back to their more urban lifestyles with armloads of colorful jars, the experience often doesn't end there. "There's some people who've even formed a canning cooperative. They can get better deals on the jars, they buy in bulk," she says. "The workshop can really develop into wonderful things, just by meeting like-minded people."

THE HAPPY GIRL KITCHEN CO. offers a Pickles Workshop on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 10am and an Heirloom Tomato Workshop on Sunday, Oct. 26 at 10am. $110 per workshop per person. (831.750.9579.

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