Don’t Let the Bureaucrats Get You Down — Make Rhubarb Lime Syrup

My career as a legal writer and editor has involved reading and analyzing hundreds if not thousands of legal statutes. I wouldn’t call that part of my job fun, but I’ve always been nerdy enough to find it a little bit fascinating. Because people write laws and people are quirky, laws are often quirky, too. For example, California exempts “housewives” from getting a cannery license, if they are canning foods for their own consumption and not selling them to others. (California Health and Safety Code, Section 112665.)  The law was written in 1947 and the language hasn’t been updated since then, so a strict reading would fail to include all of the other interesting individuals who have taken up home canning since the postwar era. The California Health and Safety Code is most definitely not down with DIY. Not yet, anyway.

I never expected that a time would come when my legal life would squarely intersect my passion for canning but, in the past few weeks, I have made numerous trips into the California Health and Safety Code on behalf of new canning endeavors in the Golden State. First, I have been helping a growing food processing business to secure a cannery license. Second, I had the privilege of being asked to read and submit comments on California’s pending cottage food law — the California Homemade Food Act, officially known as AB 1616. And last (but definitely not least), I am investigating what it will take to start my own small-batch preserves business, either by obtaining a commercial license or waiting for the cottage food law to come through so I can register my home kitchen. (If you’re waiting on that, too, take heart. Things are looking good — and you can find a current summary of how the law will work by visiting the website of the Sustainable Economies Law Center.)

So far it seems that if I want my little jam business to be licensed in a rented commercial kitchen, I would owe ongoing paperwork to two different cities (the one where I live and the one where the kitchen is), the county, the state, and the federal government. For some of these entities, I would have to pursue not just one license or permit, but several. And almost every one of them costs money. (At the municipal level, for example, you have to pay to register to pay your taxes.) When one city’s clerk handed me the tax and licensing form, I looked at the fees and said, “It’s like California wants to kill small businesses before they even get started.” I felt just like Charlie Brown, defeated at every turn. The clerk gave me a sympathetic look and told me not to give up, but I went out and sat in my car and cried for a minute, anyway.

I may yet pursue the necessary commercial permits, but I have to say that I now have a much fuller understanding of why state cottage food laws are essential for very small food producers. There’s no way to make economic sense of a micro food-production business without them — at least not in the state where I live. More than half the states are already on board with these laws that permit safe foods to be produced in registered home kitchens; it’s time for California to join them.

This is how it really looks!

So, the paperwork may be temporarily edging out the preserving around here, but there are still simple and satisfying things to do with fruit. Rhubarb syrup is incredibly easy to make: toss chopped rhubarb, water, and sugar into a pot, simmer it for a while, then strain it. That’s syrup. Many people have already posted lovely rhubarb syrup recipes suitable for different quantities of fruit and a variety of ingredients. (Hungry Tigress’s rhubeena is downright famous, and you should check out Gloria’s heavenly rhubarb and angelica cordial. Marisa has a basic rhubarb syrup recipe, too.) The simple method below was right for what I had: one pound of ginormous rhubarb stalks and some very nice Bearss limes. The proportions worked for me because I could taste the rhubarb in the end. The flavor of the fruit (or perhaps I should say “fruit-like vegetable”) wasn’t diluted by too much water, masked by too much sugar, or overpowered by the enthusiasm of the limes.

Now I have homemade rhubarb lime soda and I am soldiering on!

I used up all those prized Bearss limes so I had to go to the store and buy a green one.

Rhubarb Lime Syrup

1 pound rhubarb
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
pinch sea salt
juice of 2 limes, or to taste

Trim the leaves and ends from the rhubarb and wash the stalks. If they’re huge, like mine were, slice them in half down the middle. Chop the stalks crosswise into 1″-2″ pieces. Place all the ingredients except the limes in a medium saucepot and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the rhubarb starts to fall apart and most of the color has leached into the liquid. Strain the syrup through cheesecloth, a jelly bag, or a chinois (that’s what I use) and let it cool a bit. Add lime juice to taste. Pour into a clean bottle and store in the fridge. Makes 2 to 2 1/2 cups of syrup.

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  • Reply Tamika April 30, 2012 at 4:36 am

    Hi, I am so disappointed for you! I thought California was progressive in it’s views and support of small DIY businesses. Here in NY I have a home processing ‘exemption’, so I can make high sugar, high acid fruit jam/ jelly/marmalade and sell direct to public (farmer’s mkts, fairs, word of mouth). We have many restrictions, Chutney for instance, even with sugar and high acid fruit, if vinegar is added it’s a NO.I long to have these outdated NYS Ag and Mkt rules changed (as of 2012 they have allowed us a web presence). I’m applying for my ’20C’ commercial license, for $400 annually. The fees of that plus commercial kitchen rental on top of farmer’s mkt fees, feels prohibitive.I keep wondering if I will make money on top of overhead. Because, while I adore making preserves, I need a bit of income too.
    Keep us posted on the California Homemade Food Act! And take a deep breath and know things will be easier for you soon!

    • Reply Shae May 3, 2012 at 10:28 am

      I have been following the progress of your cottage food law in New York. I wish you the best with your new license and your growing business. Indeed, you would think California would be progressive in this area as it is in so many others, but the state actually has a reputation for being a harsh environment for small businesses. I hope that is changing!

  • Reply Denise | Chez Danisse April 30, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Way to stay positive, Shae. Cheers to rhubarb and lime.

    • Reply Shae May 3, 2012 at 10:25 am

      Thanks to you, fellow fan of rhubarb!

  • Reply deb April 30, 2012 at 9:13 am

    I enjoyed your thoughtful post regarding the California Homemade Food Act. As a fellow Californian I certainly hope a change to the law is made soon! I also forwarded this link to a friend who produces sea salt who is very intrested in in this legislation.

    • Reply Shae May 3, 2012 at 10:25 am

      Thank you, Deb. I have faith that the California cottage food law will pass in a form that will make things easier for folks interested in starting very small businesses to produce quality packaged foods.

  • Reply Gloria April 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Such beautiful images.

    • Reply Shae May 3, 2012 at 10:23 am

      Thank you, Gloria. And I return the same compliment to you!

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  • Reply tigress April 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    keep on keepin’ on shae. thanks for letting us know about your endeavors, as i am sure readers are pursuing or contemplating pursuing similar paths.

    i agree with gloria – such beautiful photos!

    • Reply Shae May 3, 2012 at 10:22 am

      Thanks, Tigz! Your encouragement is much appreciated.

  • Reply tigress April 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    …and thanks for the rhubeena shout out btw!

    • Reply Shae May 3, 2012 at 10:22 am

      Your rhubeena is a thing of beauty!

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  • Reply Blorgie May 10, 2012 at 2:13 am

    You are the patron saint of all things preserved Shae. Seeing all your jammy goodness brings a smile all over even in the antipodes.
    When I did a food handling course a few years ago in Melbourne the teacher looked a bit concerned when I told him I planned to call my business the ant farm..but accommodating cottage industry protects the collective memory

  • Reply lynn May 10, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Oh, doesn’t this rhubarb syrup look delicious! My only experience with rhubarb was last summer (June? July?) when I made some absolutely scrumptious Norwegian rhubarb soup. That is some yummy stuff. I’ll bet the lime soda is amazing.

  • Reply Sara May 13, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    As a lawyer, I have to say how much I love this new sub-specialty of the law you’re forging! The next LLM program? It is pretty cool that these two paths of yours are intersecting.

    • Reply Shae May 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm

      Thanks, Sara! This new area of the law is growing by leaps and bounds in so many directions as people discover that most of our existing legal systems don’t apply at all well to the new ways that people are starting to share at the neighbor-to-neighbor and local levels, including wanting to start very small and simple businesses. (Everything is still so driven by the model of relentless growth and competition.) That’s why I love what the Sustainable Economies Law Center is all about. Suddenly lawyering seems a lot more interesting to me!

  • Reply meg June 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    Great post! I have a mini baking business in Tennessee. I only sell at farmer’s markets. In TN you can work from an inspected domestic kitchen, but we have a cat, so that wasn’t going to happen. I found an inspected kitchen in a neighboring city to work in, and while it’s okay for now, I have to say that the process has been daunting. There’s mounds of paperwork (for city, county, AND state), the labeling issue, and inspections. It’s really all about jumping through hoops, though, and if you have a little patience and perseverance, it’s really not that bad.
    I’m also happy to report that things are going well. Since I don’t have the high overhead of keeping up a store front and having a commercial kitchen of my own, I can save more money for the day when I (hopefully) have a bakery of my own. Good luck with the process. It’s a very exciting proposition.

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  • Reply Chris May 28, 2013 at 10:50 am

    This is a great article and personally I can’t wait to try the recipe. I hope you get to a good place with the California laws. The laws here in NY are changing and we do have some great people in the Ag market and Cornell Coop is a blessing! Interestingly some recipes that need scheduled process like chutney or relish or acidified Jams take you into the federal realm and it looks like there are few if any laws written on that (under 100,000 jars per year) but also it falls under homeland security….. It can really get confusing quickly with out the right info! Keep up the good fight!

    • Reply Shae May 31, 2013 at 9:35 am

      Thank you, Chris! You are so right that there are few laws that make sense for small producers. If we do keep up the good fight, I have faith the situation will continue to improve.

  • Reply Ashley Pabst January 7, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this. Even with the cottage food law passed, I still feel as if I have been jumping through hoops and being discouraged by the health department, feeling as if I will owe the city just to make jams– being told inaccurate information and given the general run around.
    I sat in the car and cried for 15minutes yesterday. But, with the feeling of community now runnin through my blood after reading this (not-so-recent) post, I shall persevere! And hopefully the chutney will soon have a place among the jams and jellies in this new cottage-fueled world :)
    Thank you!

    • Reply Shae January 17, 2014 at 1:23 pm

      Ashley, I truly empathize with you. The cottage food law, as passed, didn’t give me anywhere at all to go as a jam maker, because it allows only high-sugar preserves and doesn’t permit the use of backyard or foraged fruit. I know there are people working, as we speak, to make the law more flexible. (I’m afraid chutneys will be facing a high hurdle because of low-acid ingredients.) And I know a lot of folks are just going ahead and making what they want regardless of what the law says. Having studied it so closely, and being here writing about it, I don’t feel like I could go that route. So, yeah, there was a certain amount of fist pounding and crying in the car. Do persevere!

      Right now, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is accepting requests to broaden the list of foods allowed under the cottage food law. If you haven’t already added your voice, you may want to do that and ask your friends to do the same. Here is the information I received about that:

      The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has decided to consider requests for additions to the list of allowed foods in two annual bundles and they have put out a call for suggestions for additions to the list of allowed foods under the California Homemade Food Act.

      This link will take you to the instructions for submitting a request:

      This link will take you to the application you need to fill out to make a request:

      NOTE: the first link takes you to an instruction page which has a broken link to the application so you’ll have to use the second link provided above to access the application.

      Good luck to you!

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