‘Preserving the past’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The tradition of homemade jams and jellies is slowly dying out as brand-named concoctions become more familiar in households, but if the Mitchell family in Greensboro continues their routine, area families will enjoy their jarred goods forever.

When John and Frances Mitchell were married in 1957, Frances turned into a food freezing, preserve making, vegetable pickling queen.

“If it can be put in a jar, I’m going to put it in a jar,” Frances said. “I love to see stuff in a jar.”

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Having grown up in a family who had fields of vegetables instead of gardens and their very own smokehouse where hogs were roasted to perfection, Frances said her family never went to the store to buy jams, jellies or pickled items.

“My mama made stuff,” she said. “If we wanted pickles, we didn’t run to the store when I was a little girl growing up on 14. We made them.”

Although Frances’ family had land suitable to grow vegetables, soil on the Mitchell’s property is not crop friendly.

“We’ve tried to grown our own vegetables but we can’t. John’s even tried to grow them in a bucket, but it still doesn’t work,” Frances said. “So we get our vegetables from the farmer’s market in Birmingham.”

Frances said she uses a 100-year-old recipe that she received from a friend to make her cucumber pickles.

Peach preserves, squash relish, sweet pickled cucumbers, pickled tomatoes, chow chow, spicy chow chow and pepper jelly also are among the items Frances has stored in jars in her home.

The items are made in the Mitchell’s state-approved kitchen where she has two stoves, two deep freezers and a refrigerator.

Although she usually sells her items wholesale to local vendors, Mitchell products can be purchased individually at Deb’s Fruit Stand in Greensboro.

During the weekend, the Mitchell’s sell their products at the flea market in the French Creek area, and they were also at this year’s Christmas on the River with many of their items, including homemade fudge, candy apples, and fruitcake cookies.

At the age of 68, Frances has passed her preserving skills down to her three daughters, Vickie Sprewell, Stephanie Elmore and Rere Osmor, who currently handle the majority of their mother’s home-canning business.

“My girls are talented and they are our lives,” she said. “They can play any instrument they pick up and they’ve given us six grandchildren and one great-grandchild with one on the way.”

Although pickled items are among Frances’ specialty, she and her husband also enjoy baking together.

Occasionally the couple will team up to make homemade cakes with homemade icing.

“Ninety-nine percent of our stuff is made from scratch,” Frances said.

Among the list of baked treats are strawberry cake, peanut butter cookies, turtlebacks, sand tarts, coconut cake, red velvet cake, caramel cake, blueberry muffins, Mississippi mud cakes, pumpkin bread, banana nut bread, cherry bread, and Frances’ well-known sourdough bread.

“It takes me 60 hours to make the sourdough bread,” she said as she describes the long process of allowing the bread to sit out for increments of 12 hours. “It’s a long process but the reward is great.”

Between the two, John and Frances Mitchell could prepare a full-course meal from appetizers to dessert because John is also a self-proclaimed professional deer cooker.

“I can put the seasoning in there and it’ll be so good,” he said. “A good cook can take any ole piece of meat and make a good meal out of it, and that’s what I do.”

And although their homemade goods are typically for sale, the Mitchell’s don’t hesitate to share the wealth during the holidays.

“We believe in helping people who need help,” Frances said. “And we take pride in that.”

“If we know there are people out there who will be alone during the holidays, we try to take care of them,” John said. “We invite them to the house for dinner, and if they can’t come, we’ll bring it to them.”

For more information on the Mitchell’s homemade treats and preserves, contact Vickie Sprewell.