An overabundance of berries reminds Storey’s digital features editor that the reasons to preserve food go far beyond the practical.
I didn’t grow up in a house where we canned our own food. For my parents (both city kids from Philadelphia, raised in the ’40s and ’50s) fresh vegetables and the fruits were few and far between. Summers brought some New Jersey tomatoes and corn, perhaps. Otherwise, vegetables came primarily from store-bought cans whose contents rarely resembled the original source in look or taste.
Maybe the unappetizing canned stuff of her childhood was one of the reasons canning was never my mother’s jam (sorry). Excuses aside, I didn’t learn to can until last summer. My partner has been putting up food ably for most of his adult life. I’ve watched for years from the sidelines with all the familiar feelings of anxiety: broken jars, giant pots of boiling water, failing to get a seal, botulism. You know — the fears of the ignorant.
But the bug bit me soundly after one epic strawberry-picking session. We’d frozen more berries than I needed for a year’s worth of smoothies and we’d eaten more fresh than could possibly have been good for us. And yet there were still mountains of strawberries to manage. We had to do something. We had to jam. So with guidance and assistance from my more experienced fella, we dove in.
We may have made a few rookie mistakes that year. We may have used a pot we shouldn’t have (turns out, the non-reactive thing is key). We didn’t have a candy thermometer, so we might not have cooked our jam at exactly the right temperature for long enough. So much winging it made me a little nervous, but in the end, experience showed me it didn’t much matter. The resulting jam was so much better than I could have anticipated, it quickly soothed my nerves. It continued to soothe my nerves all winter long, atop bowls of vanilla ice cream and with spoonfuls of peanut butter, in dollops dropped on steel cut oats, and with thick slabs of rye bread from Hungry Ghost.
Since that first effort, we’ve made several batches of strawberry, and other fruit jams. This year, all of them have a tight seal. And as I survey these happy results, I’m starting to realize that embedded in food preservation are lessons that live outside the kitchen. Here are a few.
1. Gather information from a lot of sources, including real experience. Working at Storey, I have oodles of expert information (and experts) at my fingertips. I have the Internet. I also have my homesteading guy by my side, so I was never alone during my foray into canning. But there is such a thing as too much advice. Outside wisdom can begin to overwhelm and paralyze. Sometimes, it even contradicts itself. At some point in this journey, I understood that I had gathered everything I could from reading and research. It was time to trust that I could find my way through the doing. Now, more than any expert source, the truth I find through making something myself is my best, most reliable guide.
2. There are good reasons for the rules, and for not always living in strict abidance of them. Yes, there are basic safety guidelines you need to be aware of when you’re making jam. It’s not a danger-free zone. There’s thick, sugary fruit cooking at high temperatures. There’s glass and boiling water. There’s the aforementioned botulism (although I worry a lot less about that now). But then there are the things that don’t always matter as much, like whether you use as much sugar as the recipe calls for, or whether cinnamon is really the spice you want to taste when you spoon blueberry jam on your pancakes. Could you substitute cardamom? And could you go rogue and make a jam without a recipe at all? You probably could! Those tweaks and improvisations are what make your jam truly, uniquely your own.
3. Conquering your fears and learning something new will change your perspective. Maybe it goes without saying, but food is storytelling. A jar of strawberry jam is the story of picking organic berries from our friend Bill’s fields in the hot sun under the watchful, desirous eyes of cedar waxwings. It is the story of three varieties of strawberries Bill planted and nurtured, each with unique flavor and sweetness. It is the story of us washing and slicing the berries, of a pot on the stove on a roasting summer day. It is the story of what we say to each other as we stand over the boiling berries and sugar, as we sterilize jars, as we ladle them full. When I take a bite of jam, I am flooded with memory of time and place. When a February deep freeze results in a peach-less summer (and no peach jam), I am reminded that food is tangible, edible reminder of fragility of circumstance, of the ease with which we face abundance or scarcity,that what we have too much of one year may be gone in a flash.
Making jam is just one way to can. There may or may not be pickles and hot sauces in my future. But even if jam is all I ever make, I’ve found reminders as sweet as the jam itself in the process.