Story last updated at 8/6/2014 - 10:25 pm
KETCHIKAN - Faith Duncan has a secret life: pickling.
With her self-described hobby business, Verushka Arts, she cans and pickles hundreds of pounds of vegetables, traditional Russian foods and fruits. In addition to canning all she can, Duncan sells traditional Russian painted spoons, painted rolling pins (a traditional wedding gift), bird houses, quilted products, recycled cork boards, and more.
She thought of starting Verushka Arts (Verushka is Duncan's Russian name) one year while helping a friend at the Blueberry Arts Festival. She brought blueberry jam, and it disappeared.
"The light went on," she said. "(I realized) people really want home-canned goods."
She grew up helping her grandfather make Russian pickles at his home in San Francisco.
"I was just tall enough to reach the bench," she said.
She knew dill, garlic, and other ingredients went into the recipe but didn't know the amounts.
So, after she decided her business should specialize in Russian foods, she began looking up old recipes her mother had written down. She talked with her mother and combined that with Internet research to recreate the recipes her grandfather made.
Now, to make Russian pickles, she lines her crockpot with sour cherry or grape leaves; their tannins add bitterness to the brine. As it ferments, she keeps it in a cool, dark place, skimming it every day for weeks. She also has a few secret ingredients.
Many of her other products are also a family affair. The birdhouses are a legacy from her father-in-law, who made birdhouses and dollhouses. When he died, he left hundreds of pieces already cut. He also left some of his designs.
"I've been finishing them," Duncan said. "(His craftsmanship is) a wonderful legacy, because everybody in the family has a bird house. Most have a dollhouse, even though they're grown up."
One of her favorite creations is a Russian food known as ikra, also called "eggplant caviar" or "poor person's caviar," Duncan said.
It's marinated eggplant, tomato and onion, served cold.
"We always used to have it at family celebrations," she said.
Some recipes, such as her bread and butter pickles, she got from her mother-in-law, who is the one who taught her to can.
"She grew up doing extension, basically," Duncan said. "She sewed all her own clothes, made soap, grew a gardens. She was raised (in northcentral Missouri) where everybody was very self sufficient ... (she) taught me the value of self-sufficiency."
She's also been doing some experimenting, looking in books for old pickling recipes.
"Sometimes you get a recipe that doesn't sound very good, but you experiment," she said. "You have to know somebody that likes pickles. You don't put it out there (to sell) until you're sure."
In some jams, she doesn't use pectin at all. Time, and an exact ratio of water and sugar, serves to thicken the food. Different fruits react differently.
"There's a lot to be said for being patient when making canned goods," she said. "You get a lot of ice cream topping when you're learning."
She also makes sure to can safely, within USDA standards, and doesn't give samples, as she doesn't have a certified kitchen, she said.
She uses organic products: This year, she got a 25-pound bag of "the biggest beets you ever saw" from the greengrocer at her local market.
"Things that grow in the earth taste like the earth," she said.
She gathers locally, grows herbs and some vegetables in her garden, picks carrots from her mother-in-law's garden, and gets other products through the gardens of friends or family. She picks Alaskan fruits, flowers and foods like salmonberries, blueberries, fireweed and spruce tips as they become available, and uses recycled bottles.
"I have my special spots," she said. "I pick flower stalks at the height of the flowers being out, and I don't take everything from the same place."
Despite the scope of her canning, Duncan said she is not an expert.
"I call myself an advanced learner," she said.
She's a learner in language, as well.
Duncan has Russian and Ukranian heritage. Her maternal grandparents fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, arriving in the United States from China on steamships. They met in San Francisco. Her grandfather grew up in Byelorussia, now an independent country called Belarus, and her grandmother came from a Chernobyl-affected zone where people can no longer live. Though she was born in America, Duncan's mother didn't speak much English until she was 11 or 12 years old, Duncan said.
Though Duncan's father wasn't from Russia, he was a linguist and joined the Russian Orthodox church. Her parents spoke Russian when they didn't want her to know what they were talking about, which made her want to learn.
When she arrived in Ketchikan, she studied the language for five years.
"I'm still not fluent," she said. "You have to speak it every day. But at least I got a sense of how difficult it is to learn a new alphabet and speak in Russian. ... I always follow what's going on in the country."
Duncan's pickling life is "secret" because she also has a full-time job with the U.S. Forest Service as the interpretive and conservation education program manager for the Tongass National Forest.
She sells her products at Ketchikan's famers markets and the Winter Arts Faire.
"The energy the farmers market has instilled in the community here has been real positive," she said.
She estimates she does something related to Verushka Arts every night of the week for between one and five hours; her weekends are also taken up with it. She does get a bit of a canning vacation between Thanksgiving and March, when she takes the canning pot off the stove.
"It's a balancing act," she said. "You have to want to do it to be able to do it. You have to be very time management-oriented ... it's like anything. If you want to smoke fish, you have to plan ahead, set aside days. Canning is like that."