Homemade leaves home

Cottage food producers spread jam and joy as they sell their wares. From the Littleton Independent.

Diego Hernandez reigns over his kingdom of fruits at the O'Toole's Farmers Market.

Joanne Littau seems to float as she works, blending strawberries and rhubarb with pectin and lemon juice with the deftness and grace of an orchestra conductor. Ceramic pigs peer down at pots of jam bubbling like cauldrons on the stove of her little kitchen. On the wall hang the former New Yorker’s blue ribbons, earned at county fairs for delicacies like ginger pear butter, peach butter with rum and cranberry chutney. “Oh, it’s a delightful hobby,” Joanne said. “I’m proud of what I do, and people just love my jams.” Littau, of Denver, is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Coloradans who sell homemade goodies under the auspices of the Cottage Foods Act, a set of guidelines designed to grease the wheels for home cooks to sell their wares at farmers markets, community events or even out of their driveways. The short version of the regulations is fairly simple: take a food safety class — in person or online — keep a clean kitchen, make sure your items are properly labeled and get cooking. Many potentially non-hazardous foods are allowed, such as jams, jellies, honey, baked goods like bread and cookies, dried items like spice blends and teas, and even fresh eggs. Pickles are allowed if their pH is below 4.6. Nothing with meat is allowed, nor is anything that requires refrigeration, except eggs. Dairy products are off the menu, as are salsas and sauces.

Joanne Littau tells tales of her younger days in New York while finishing off a batch of strawberry rhubarb jam.

Producers can only sell directly to consumers, and you’re only allowed to earn $10,000 per year per variety of food item — meaning you can make 10 grand off chocolate chip cookies and another 10 grand off chocolate chip cookies with walnuts. Littau’s business keeps her hopping — she estimates she makes two batches of jellies, jams and preserves a day, most days of the month. She mainly sells her products, under the brand name The Jelly Jar LLC, at the Four Seasons Farmers & Artisans Market in Wheat Ridge, but she also makes the rounds of local festivals. She shared a booth at the Fourth of July parade and craft fair in Byers, and she’ll be at the Lafayette Peach Festival in August. This year she’ll enter the competition at the Arapahoe County Fair for the first time, and she’ll be back to defend last year’s first place ribbons in the Boulder County Fair. “I’ll never get rich off of cottage foods,” said the diminutive woman with smiling eyes and an easy, musical laugh. “But it occupies my time and makes me feel productive and involved with people. When I came here in the ‘90s, people kind of looked at me funny. I’m a New York girl — we’re bold and brassy. People out here are a little more toned down. At the market I can really cut loose and be myself.”

Trying to fill a niche Being themselves is big for cottage food producers. “I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” said Diego Hernandez, the proprietor of Ant D’s Fine Foods, as he presided over tables loaded with jams, jellies and crates of fresh fruits and veggies under a canopy outside O’Toole’s Garden Center in Littleton. “It’s a hard life, but I get to show what I can do from my heart. I don’t have to do what my boss says, because I don’t have one.” Hernandez’s offerings include strawberry cracked black pepper jam and habanero peach jam, but the big seller is farm-fresh eggs. He has regulars who show up every Tuesday to snag a dozen or two or three. “The only way you’d get ‘em fresher is if they were laid in your backyard,” he said. Ant D’s was started “with a raspberry bush and my last unemployment check,” said Hernandez, a lifelong chef and a Denver resident. Across the way on the hot asphalt, Dorreen Strnad sports a sheepish grin as she’s cajoled into talking up her sugary baked goods. “My scones are selling like crazy mad today,” Strnad, of Littleton, said. “Seems like nobody sells a good scone anymore, so I try to fill that niche.” She does it well. Her scones are fluffy and moist, almost mouth-puckering with tart blueberries. She does loads more than scones, too: big hearty loaves of sandwich bread, flawlessly frosted cookies, and yes, jams and jellies. “For me, cottage foods means freedom,” Strnad said. “I went to culinary school, then I did the whole punch-the-clock thing. I got tired of being a link in a chain and making money for somebody else. This is my nine-to-five now.” Following the rules Getting set up in cottage foods isn’t difficult, said Sheila Gains, a Colorado State University extension agent who teaches a cottage food safety training class that satisfies the law’s education requirement. Most important is understanding the ways in which a home kitchen is different from a commercial kitchen. “In a commercial kitchen, everyone there is prepped to make food,” Gains said. “In a commercial kitchen, nobody’s coming home from work and wanting to taste-test, no dogs are roaming around, no cats are jumping on counters. When somebody’s sick, they stay home. You’ve got to get everyone in your home on board that when you’re cooking, they’re either helping you keep everything clean or staying out of your way.” There are no hard numbers on cottage food producers — there’s no mandatory or voluntary registry. There may be thousands since the law took effect in 2012, Gains said. Before that, to legally sell homemade goods, you would have needed a commercial food license and kitchen. “It’s like going from zero miles per hour to a hundred to become a food producer, so this lets people in at 10 or 15 miles per hour,” Gains said. “They can develop their product through trial and error. They can see if producing food is something they want to do day in and day out. If they become super successful, they have a fighting chance of becoming a commercial producer.” To date, there have been no known outbreaks of foodborne illness from cottage food, said Therese Pilonetti with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees administration of cottage foods. “This law is about breaking down barriers,” Pilonetti said. “And it sure seems to be working.”