I stood in my steamy kitchen surrounded by glass jars, newly clean and hot from the dishwasher, a huge cauldron-sized pot of boiling water on the stove, and next to it a large saucepan of homemade jam ready for canning. It was about 104º outside on a late July day and it boiled hotter than that inside my non-air-conditioned kitchen, like a sauna, the sweat sticking to my skin. But somehow I didn’t mind at all as the aroma of hot sugary berries bloomed throughout the entire kitchen.
It was the first time I’d ever canned or preserved anything and I was both slightly nervous and absolutely excited, like a child catching fireflies for the first time. The warm mixture of strawberries, raspberries and tayberries was sweet and thick, the steamy aroma, intoxicating.
Greg, three-year-old Lily and I slathered the warm gooey jam over homemade scones just out of the oven. At fifteen months, Jasper ate it right from the jar with a spoon. Our eyes were glazed over like someone was feeding us nirvana. It tasted like heaven. This is Jam? I thought to myself. No jelly, jam or preserves I’d ever eaten before prepared me for this homemade delicacy. It was as if it captured all the sweetness of summer in one perfect bite. Warm jam is divine. I love to cook, but I had never been inspired to preserve the harvest by canning before. The kitchen is my comfort zone, my office, my science lab, my creative space and often my therapy, but canning and preserving were far, far away on some other periphery. I had it in my head that preserving was just for things I didn’t like anyway, things like soggy pears and no-longer-green green beans, things I’d be happy never eating in my life, let alone spending hours in a hot kitchen prepping, sweating over, saving on purpose.
What hooked me was a story. It was summer, berries were flowing at the farmer’s market, and their luscious fragrance lured me in, a fragrance I suddenly needed to capture. And I had recently read an older essay of Molly Wizenberg’s from Bon Appetite called “Jam Session.” She writes, “It’s slow, it’s sensuous, and it makes the kitchen smell like candy.”
This preserving business sounded scrumptious, definitely a process I wanted to be a part of.
I found that I more than liked it, I sort of became obsessed with it. I studied different types of jars, their shapes, how they sealed, beauty vs, practicality. My library bags became full of books on how to preserve. I tested recipes and filled my curiosity almost to the brim. Mixed berry jam, lemon curd, rhubarb shrub, grapefruit bitters, pickles, all kinds of pickles, pickled sugar snap peas, pickled red onions, pickled yellow squash. So many possibilities, so many delicious things to put in a jar.
I loved the vibrant colors, the chopping, the stirring, even the popping sound the jars make when the seal adheres. I loved the thrill of grabbing those hot jars from the boiling water with awkward canning tongs. I loved the steamy kitchen even during the hottest days of summer. I absolutely loved making jam from fresh berries picked that morning.
Only, I felt like something was missing. The entire process felt so vintage to me. Feelings of nostalgia, of a past, of a shared experience of families, probably mostly women, gathered together in the large kitchen to preserve the harvest for the long winter to come. And while they worked, while they chopped and washed and stirred and canned, while they listened for the sound of the popping, they shared about their days with each other, little morsels of wisdom and thoughts. They connected.
There was more to this whole preserving business than I originally thought, it wasn’t just about saving food in a safe way to eat later, or even simply about making something delicious to put in a pretty jar. It was about a shared ritual revolving around food and comfort in the kitchen with good people. And while I have many warm memories related to cooking, this was a particular ritual which I had no knowledge of, no history of my own.
With this thought I found myself thinking of my grandmothers, my past. Both of them are gone now, but even when they were alive I don’t remember either of them preserving or canning anything. My own mother didn’t do it. It’s a past I don’t have.
There’s no one to teach me the trick of putting a bit of jam on a cold plate, just out of the freezer, and sticking it back into the freezer to test, if, after all the stirring and cooking down, it’s reached its gelling point. There’s no plump, loving grandmother to tell me which combination of berries is the tastiest, or when exactly I should jam them. If, for example, it’s best to make jam during the heat of summer, when the berries are fresh, while sweating over a hot stove. Or should I freeze the berries and wait until a day during the too long, too cold winter when the simmering jam steams up my kitchen windows and scents the air with that sugar sweet perfume of warm berries, and makes me believe I’ll make it through the forever bleak days of the darkest, coldest season?
I realize I can look most of these things up on the internet, or in a book, but that’s not the point, that doesn’t come with any connection or story of my own. A story worth preserving. The first time I canned jam – even after all the time it took, all the labor on that sweltering summer day – I thought, how could I have missed out on this crazy amazing process? How could canning not be part of my past? I knew of this age-old method for preserving the bounty. But it was more, it was a precious skill passed on from one generation to the next. It was about families together in the kitchen, telling stories. It was about tradition. And I wanted my preserving, my jam-making to come with a story, with a connection to my past.
But I had none.
Writing is often my therapy, when I don’t understand the world around me, when I can’t for the life of me come to terms with mass shootings, with hatred, with one more person in my family being diagnosed with cancer. Unfortunately there are times when even writing brings me no peace, when instead it makes me feel less connected with the world, the very opposite of which I seek, a place that is not good for any of us to be.
But cooking, cooking almost always soothes my soul. I feel lucky that I love it, that I’m good at it, that it can be something creative I do. Something creative that requires no editing, no spell check, sometimes less brain power, and no need to solve the world’s problems in one day, but rather, to comfort, to bring joy and deliciousness to myself and those I love.
It’s that time of year again. My strawberry plants burst with fruit. And, a story, a tradition always begins somewhere, doesn’t it? So I must create my own preserving memories, make my own recipes, figure it out for myself. Eventually, year after year, I can call this a tradition of my own. I think of how much fun it would be if my sister were here doing this with me. I wonder if my aunts would all get along if they sat around my kitchen table making scrumptious, warm jam. Maybe if my mom were here she’d enjoy canning. Wait, no, the thought of Big Mare in the act of canning makes me laugh. She was awesome in the kitchen, she was just more interested in how she could make a meal as delicious and easy as possible so she could get down to what was most important, her glass of wine and enjoying the company of the loved ones surrounding her. Besides, canning probably would have ruined her manicure.
But I guess my own rituals of canning don’t have to wish for what isn’t or what never was, but can just be about making something wonderful for those I love. One true beauty of cooking for me is that even if I don’t have that past of a specific act like canning, even if my friends and family aren’t always present, I can channel the warmth and connection of a lifetime of cooking with them. Thankfully my cooking memories surround me in comfort.
Here I am thinking of the future even as I wonder about the past. All these moments in time come together for a reason, the past, the present, the future. That’s what preserving will be for me, a story in a jar, from the past and the now, to be opened and shared on some day forward from here.
- 6 5- to 6-ounce containers strawberries, raspberries and blackberries (or tayberries)
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- Combine fruit, sugar and lemon juice in a large bowl. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
- Put two small plates in freezer.
- In bottom of heavy large stockpot at least 3 inches deeper than height of jars, place metal rack or extra screw bands from canning jars to protect jars from direct heat. Fill pot with water, cover, and bring water to boil. Reduce heat to low. Wash jars, lids, and screw bands in hot soapy water; rinse well. Set screw bands on clean towel to dry. Place lids in small saucepan; cover with cold water and bring to simmer; turn off heat. Fill jars with very hot water.
- Transfer fruit mixture to large saucepan and bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Mash to thick puree with potato masher. Reduce heat to medium and boil gently until mixture begins to thicken, stirring often, about 18 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat to test jam for gelling point. Drop 1 teaspoonful jam on chilled saucer and return to freezer 1 minute. Remove saucer and push edge of jam with fingertip. If jam has properly gelled, surface will gently wrinkle. If not, return saucepan to heat and cook jam a few minutes longer; repeat test.
- Drain hot water from jars and shake out excess water. Place jars on cutting board. Ladle hot jam into each jar, leaving 3/4-inch space at top. Slide flat plastic spatula between jam and jar to eliminate air bubbles. Clean rim of each jar with damp cloth. Using tongs, lift hot lids from saucepan, 1 at a time, shake dry, and place atop jars. Seal each with screw band, twisting to close but not too tightly. Return filled jars to pot of hot water.
- Add water to pot, if necessary, to cover jars by at least 1 inch. Cover pot and bring to boil; reduce heat and boil gently 10 minutes. Turn off heat. Wait 5 minutes; use tongs to remove jars without tilting. Place upright on towel; cool completely at room temperature. Jam will thicken as it cools.
- Check lids for seal by pressing each lightly. Lids of sealed jars will be concave and show no movement when pressed.
- Her original recipe called for raspberries and blackberries. I use a mix of strawberries, raspberries and tayberries and the jam is out of this world!