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Six Kitchen Lessons from Kevin West That Also Apply to Life

Here are six life lessons I learned after talking with West from his home in Los Angeles.

Kevin West’s primer on home preserving, Saving the Season, is an instant classic. Making his own cornichons, mastering the art of canning fish, and testing his other recipes for fruit butter and jams, kimchi, chutneys, and bitters (yes, cocktails)—yes, he’s got a lot to offer and has learned a lot. Here are six life lessons I learned after talking with West from his home in Los Angeles.

1. The skills are not beyond you.

"Home canning is just home cooking. If you can make cupcakes or brownies or spaghetti sauce or chicken, then you’ve got all the skills you need to preserve. It’s not a mysterious process."

2. Understand the process.

"Focus on the technique, not the recipe. In canning, sweet preserves are fruit cooked down with sugar under the influence of heat and pickles are usually vegetables covered in an acidic brine (the silver bullet against botulism). It’s applicable and straightforward across a range of recipes, whether it's dill pickles, preserved cauliflower, or tomato jam. Understand the process."

3. Start small.

"Make it manageable. Walk before you can run. Start with a small batch of jam or pickles and watch the transformation right before your eyes. You'll understand more closely and have better control of the outcome. A couple of pounds of peaches will give you enough jars of jam for you and your friends for a year. Aim to capture just one moment in the agricultural cycle, and remember that cycle will return next summer: you’re not stocking a bomb shelter. For a home cook, buying twenty pounds of cherries is a good way to ruin a weekend. Hold you ambitions in check."

4. Sh*t in. Sh*t out.

"Good fruit makes good jam. If you want the best outcome, start with the best raw material. Nature provides you with the raw: it’s up to you to transform nature (raspberries) into culture (jam)."

5. Be prepared.

"Life is in the details. More than half of preserving is preparing. You have to plan and organize in order to have a successful product. Once your jelly is done it needs to get into jars as fast as possible. Be ready."

6. Pay attention to the stories.

"When you learn how to cook something, only part of it is technical. You learn a lot more than a recipe. What you learn when you cook with friends and family are the stories that go along with that dish: where that dish came from, who used to make it, why you eat it on certain holidays, and the cultural and religious traditions surrounding it. Sometimes these stories have long and distant paths. Stories, talk, narratives—these are a crucial and maybe the most valuable part of the preserving and cooking process. You'll learn about your nation (or someone else's), a heritage, and shared human history. Cooking has the ability to telescope in that way. It starts very local and specific but it gets to something much larger about who we are as communities of people."

Image courtesy of Random House

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