Thursday, August 20, 2009

I love picking blueberries. There is something so soothing about sitting in a high-bush berry grove, hidden from view and filling my basket to brimming. I love listening to the kids as they wander in and out of the bushes, picking, eating and chasing dragon-flies. I love the way the dog uses her lips to gently pick off the ripest and fattest berries, without ever seeming to accidentally pick a green one. I love chatting with my mom and sister as we pick from the same bushes we have harvested for the last 20 years. I have used the same container for years. A metal basket that I think was once part of a vegetable steamer and that, when filled, holds the exact amount I need to make 10 jars of jam.

I have never once bought already picked berries for jam. For me, the process would be the less for skipping that first step. Earlier this summer, I saw a couple unloading their hand-made, wooden touring kayaks off their car. Kayaking, be it white-water, sea, or touring is always fun, but I bet there is an extra element to the sport when the craft you are paddling was made by your own hands. The same goes for preserves; they are always tasty, but there is something extra in the flavour when they are the product of your own labor.

When I was in my early 20's, I used canning as a way to avoid studying. Zach and I were living in my childhood home (now home to my sister's family) with our great friends Mark and Kipp at that time and Mark is an incredible bread baker. I have the best memories of the four of us standing around the chopping block in the kitchen and pouncing on the loaves as they came out of the oven, trying not to burn our fingers as we slathered butter and blueberry jam all over them. It was very liberating for me to live with two immensely cool people who were smart, accomplished and who took huge pride in the fact that they had mastered many domestic arts that many people deem "quaint" or "old-fashioned". Kipp is a great sewer and knitter and maker of all kinds of fabulous things (as well as being a Yale trained nurse-midwife), while Mark, well there isn't much Mark can't do. He seems to be gifted and motivated in all areas of life from building hilarious winter sporting equipment (I'll tell you about the "Jack-Jumper" another time) to baking, to building saunas, cider presses and having a mean green-thumb. Their offspring have out-standing genes.

Zach comes from a family of ridiculously smart, talented people who put an emphasis on hand and homemade in their lives. Zach's mother has two Master's degrees, is a teacher and writer and also spins, knits, quilts, cans, and makes all her food from scratch as a matter of course. She does it because she LOVES it, not because of some feminine ideal she feels she needs to live up to. I love the fact that she is a truly domestic woman, who is also a terrible house-keeper. I can SO relate to that. Zach sister is a violist with the NY Philharmonic and yet she gets as much respect for that as she does for the fact that the woman can BAKE (with a capital B.) as well as sew beautifully. Growing up in that household brimming with creative people, Zach has always loved and appreciated my domestic bent in a way that is genuine and not in the least patronizing. He was raised in a family where the domestic arts are equal to all the arts, literature, music, politics etc.

I came from a family of talented academics and artists as well, but of a different kind of art. Classical musicians and people high up in the New York art scene. They hang out with, what my mom amusingly dubs, "the greats and the near-greats." My mother has always had a deep appreciation for what Jane Brockett calls "the gentle arts" but she was never much of a practitioner. While she is a fabulous cook and gardener, and homemade food was the norm for me, she was not a knitter, quilter, or fiber artist. She didn't can things (probably because we ate everything before it could be preserved, her food is that good,) and yet lately I have noticed jars of ruby-red crab-apple jelly and rich black-currant syrup showing up on her counter. She has a natural gift and a great palate. I think I have converted her to the ways of the jar. My sister, oh my talented sister whose gifts are too many to mention, she and her husband make mead. Do you know about mead? It's a liquor made from honey. They make all kinds of flavors but my favorite is the blueberry made with Vermont honey and blueberries picked 100 yards from their kitchen.

For me, canning has been something of a passion for many years. When Zach and I got married , I made little jars of blueberry jam, blackberry jam, apple butter and peach butter as favors for the guests (all 195 of them.) It was a 3 season labor of love, and one which I so enjoyed. We had a 14 month engagement and taking the time to capture the flavors of the seasons was a really special way to prepare. One of my bridesmaids caught people hoarding them in their jackets as the left at 4am. They needn't have bothered. I made enough for everyone to take 2.

Blueberry jam takes no time at all, and I am emphatically haphazard about my recipe. I never follow the suggested proportions (I think they call for too much sugar) and almost always use double or more the amount of blueberries. It's yummy.

It is the colors I love the most when I am preserving. These fruits take on hues that you wouldn't notice unless you took the time to work with them. I particularly like the hot fuchsia shade of the foam that I have to scrape off. That color would be tacky anywhere else, but in nature or when it comes from a natural source, it is stunning.

The kids get such a kick out of eating something in the dead of winter that they helped to make, from start to finish, on one of the hottest days of the summer. I hope it becomes a happy memory for them in life, like the way my mom made Christmas cookies with us, or my grandpa read the Declaration of Independence every 4th of July.

The pantry is full of the bounty of summer, some of it gifts, some made by us. It seems like a lot now, but I promise you, come February, each bite will taste like sunshine and help keep us going until the spring peepers come out and the robins return. The only problem is making sure we have enough to get us through. These first 10 jars won't even get us to Thanksgiving.

The day we picked the berries, we were driving home from my sister's when all of a sudden the kids started yelling for me to pull over. I slammed on the brakes (with no one behind, thank God) and for a minute we all stared. They had never seen the sun quite this color. It was almost as if it was celebrating summer too.


Maria said...

It was like reading a well-written novel and so ... well, my words can't capture how beautiful this post from your heart and your history actually was!!

And the word verification -- can you believe this? "CANSO" As in, you can so you can have food in the winter!!

Crazy Sister said...

How sweet!

I love the colours of those berries in your last post, too.

Lori said...

I pop in now and then to see if there are any updates. I never tire of reading this post. Today especially it inspired me as I begin my "Spring" cleaning and general re-organization of my life. I come back especially for what is seeping from this post, inspiration. I hope you're inspired again soon!