Well Preserved

Interview by Meghan Sheffield

Photography by Jeannette Breward

It was two days after Christmas. The turkey had been eaten, the guests had all gone home, and Joel MacCharles went back to bed for a long winter’s nap. When he woke up, his partner Dana met him with the words “I started a blog.”

Dana set up the blog, registered the wellpreserved.ca domain name, and launched it, without talking to Joel about the whole thing first. She thought it might help to alleviate stress from his day job, and maybe nail down some of those preserve recipes he’d been creating. (“I’m notorious for never writing recipes down,” Joel divulges.)

Joel’s response to waking to a new identity as a blogger? “I decided to blog for the next 100 days in a row.”

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It ended up being 1500 consecutive posts in a row, a years-long process that changed their lives. The first hundred were the easiest, Joel admits. From there, Dana and Joel were pushed into a learning curve to keep up with the bar set by their educated and engaged readership.

“When she started the blog, I think she thought she started a hobby for us. That tiny little decision fundamentally changed the course of our life,” Joel told us.

The couple had come to preserving in the first place through a jam-making session with Joel’s parents, an opportunity that opened their eyes to the simplicity and value of the process. Four months later, they had over 300 jars of preserves stacked in their Toronto apartment.

A stickler for originality, Joel dug into Google translate to learn new techniques on, say, kimchi (it turns out Korean preserving has a thriving life on Youtube), and then iterated and experimented to make recipes their own, to make sure that they worked with commonly-found ingredients.

Joel loves to cook, ignited by a passion so strong that it borders on “maybe a little obsessive.” He’s the kind of guy who would (and did) create a list of 200 preserving ideas on a spreadsheet and then go back to reorganize his list, rating each idea on a scale out of 5. Joel did not rate the flavour or the process, simply the idea itself.

Dana is a willing taster, dishwasher and talented graphic designer. The creative presence she brings to the Well Preserved projects has become a huge part of their collective brand and helped to set them apart in a visual landscape. She doesn’t love the limelight, but she’s a behind-the-scenes catalyst.

Through preserving food, learning more about preserving food, and most especially, writing about and illustrating preserving food, the couple has landed a TEDX talk, TV appearances, the book deal that lead to their first cookbook, Batch, released last year — and the country home the couple bought and started renovating last winter.

Like the day Dana launched the blog, there is a sense of surprise when Joel talks about the past five years or so. Both the purchase of that house in Northumberland County last winter, and the book deal with the Appetite imprint at Random House, happened shortly after they had just decided they were not going to do that exact thing.

“We absolutely decided that we were ruling out a book,” Joel said. They had friends who had written books and knew it was an unprofitable process, especially for Canadian first-time authors. After a meeting with Robert McCullough at Appetite, their minds were changed, and they got to work on a book proposal. Normally a six-month to year-long process, Joel and Dana had a table of contents, list of recipes, the 25 ingredients the book focuses on and marketing plans wrapped it up in just six weeks — because they’d known what the book would be before they decided not to pursue it.

“When we decided not to write the book, I knew the book ‘Batch.’ We already knew this is the book we aren’t writing,”  Joel says now.

That’s the book they did write after all, spending three years creating it on their off-hours, in their tiny apartment in downtown Toronto, taking separate vacations to focus on it, first Joel to write it, then Dana for the art direction.

The result is a visually stunning and staggeringly encyclopedic compendium of preserving 25 ingredients (from apples to tomatoes, with meat and fish and everything else between) that somehow manages to pack a whole lot of information into an accessible, user-friendly volume.

A year and a half out from its publication, the book is still hot out the gate, something Joel says is unusual in the publishing industry. At one point the number two selling book in Canada, after Harry Potter, this summer Batch debuted in Poland, and Joel is still doing TV appearances (Dana preps, styles and art directs at every turn, but prefers to avoid the limelight) and creating recipes for Oprah.

As for what comes next, Joel says he doesn’t know. They plan to take some time to work on their country home, a massive reno that he says they wouldn’t have had the guts to take on had it not been for the experience of writing the book.

They split their time between their day jobs and their new roles as cookbook authors, just as they split time between that same small apartment they’ve lived in for thirteen years, overlooking a streetcar stop in downtown Toronto, and a 19th century farmhouse where coyotes howl in the backyard.

Whatever comes next, you can be sure that the food they love to make, eat, and share will be at the centre of it, with Joel coming up with new ideas about it and Dana making sure it looks good.

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Curious about the preserves Joel made during our photo shoot? Catch his workshop on “15 Preserves in 45 Minutes” at Cultivate: A Festival of Food and Drink on Saturday, September 23.

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