The reactions of non-Southerners who visit Preserving Place make Martha McMillin happy.
"They walk in the front door, and they kind of gasp," she says. "They look around and they go, 'Wow, this is really cool. This should be in Brooklyn.'"
She laughs heartily. "That's exactly exactly what I do. I laugh and go, 'It's right here in the ATL.' That's probably happened six times." She starts counting the times this scene has replayed itself in her store. "Probably four or five times, 'This should be in Seattle.' Three times, 'This should be in Portland.' Five times, 'This should be in Chicago.' Oh! And San Francisco. I forgot that one. That's an important one."
How does she reply? I ask.
"I'm just always saying sweetly, 'Well, It's here in Atlanta.' The store makes me very proud. I'm very proud that this is the only store of its kind that I've ever been able to find."
I talked to Michael Wall, the director of programs for Georgia Organics, a non-profit that tries to build the supply of organic foods from Georgia farmers by doing grower education and outreach programs and tries to build demand among consumers and restaurants by fostering market opportunities for locally grown food. Wall reminded me that in rural communities all over Georgia, almost 30 community canning and food-processing facilities still operate, despite the ever-present threat of state funding cuts. And notably, the University of Georgia in Athens runs the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which publishes research-based (and therefore safe) methods of food preservation for anyone who's interested.
A little website called PickYourOwn.org tries valiantly to keep a running list of all the community canneries operating in the United States, and its listings show that the community cannery isn't just a Southern thing, although the Southern states do appear to have higher numbers of facilities.
"Those places are pretty cool, too," Wall tells me. "They're all rural. They are for people who aren't doing it because it's cool; they're doing it out of necessity and because it's part of their family tradition."
John T. Edge, executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, says Preserving Place is an urban example of a "rebirth of that style of community-focused collaborative enterprise." It is an adaptation of rural expertise and rural products to a world whose people increasingly live in cities.
"It's like she's running an ag extension agency for the modern era, with a good marketing campaign and a great interior designer," he says.
What McMillin has done, essentially, is recreate the rural community cannery in an urban setting. The economics are different, but what happens inside the place is basically the same. Only the decor is different, and that's required if you're going to do battle in the urban retail wars.
I thought about Wall's characterization of the people who use rural community canneries around Georgia — people who process their own foods because they can't afford not to or because it's in their family tradition — and then I thought back to my classmates at the Preserving Place. Clearly, no one was there because canning was an economic necessity. But it was equally clear that all of us knew that what we were doing was part of our family traditions. Some of us knew it from our own experiences as children, and some of us knew it from stories passed down.
But all of us, each in his or her own way, knew that much.
"I think what Martha is doing, in her way, is getting people reconnected to real food," Wall says. "She's giving city folks access to this and the ability to reconnect with this tradition of using real food and learning how to preserve it. And that's something cities have lost. She's putting something back in the city that used to be in all our lives. There was a canning season, and there were canneries in the cities. And she's brought this back to the city."
In a world that often feels as if it's going completely sideways, McMillin has conjured up a little place where people can relearn and begin to carry on a truly meaningful tradition and a very useful set of practices.
"Everybody loves good food, but I think what makes me happy is to see that my customers get our mission here," McMillin says. "They're proud to buy food that they know is what it says it is, that it's really made by hand, that it's made in small batches, that it's made here in Atlanta, that it's purchased from local farmers, that we really want to work with the local farmers so that they can plant extra rows and plant trees and orchards and have another source of income."
I think we feel good doing business with McMillin because her economic model is one that requires her and us to deal directly with individuals — farmers and customers. We can actually see everything we're buying and know where it came from. We need not, for at least a little while, deal with large, faceless enterprises.