There’s this thing I like to do in the summer and fall and I recognize that it’s increasingly regarded as esoteric behaviour. I can fruits, pickle vegetables, make jam, so that in February, when the only fruits and vegetables available are either past their best or transported from halfway around the world at exorbitant cost, I can still enjoy the flavour of the previous summer’s local, tree-ripened harvest.
Yes, yes, I know it all sounds rather quaint and people are often surprised to discover that someone who’s not particularly domestically inclined spends hours in the kitchen boiling down potent mixtures of berries, sterilizing jars, sealing bottles and admiring the rich colours of their contents. I sure ain’t no Martha Stewart, but I enjoy putting up jams and preserves and I certainly enjoy the results.
However, in the last few years, I’ve become increasingly aware that people just don’t do this anymore – or at least, not in large urban centres. Earlier in the summer I went in search of paraffin wax to seal some bottles of rhubarb-ginger jam. My first stop was the drug store because it’s the kind of thing drug stores used to sell. I looked around and couldn’t see any, so I asked one of the staff who informed me that she didn’t even know what paraffin wax was. As I tried to explain what I wanted it for, her puzzlement grew and I gave up.
The second stop was the grocery store because they sell supplies related to cooking. I looked around and couldn’t see any paraffin, so I asked one of the staff who knew what it was, correctly guessed why I wanted it, but informed me they didn’t sell it anymore.
The third stop was the hardware store, again because it’s the kind of thing hardware stores used to sell. I looked around and couldn’t see any paraffin so I asked one of the staff, who led me to the last package in stock, wiped the dust off the box and handed it to me. No doubt he was glad to finally have it off the shelf.
What concerns me is that if I’m having difficulty finding necessary supplies now, it’s only going to get worse five, ten or twenty years from now. Maybe I should begin hoarding paraffin wax and snap
lids while I can still find them!
A couple of years ago, a (younger) friend told me that he’d told some of his (younger) friends that I made my own jams and such. They thought it was charming – but weird. They didn’t understand
why I’d want to waste time and energy making something that I could buy ready-made off the shelf.
What? And miss the visceral enjoyment of raw mango flesh coursing over my fingers? The beet juice staining my skin? The satisfaction of feeling a raspberry go squirt? The clean, sweet smell of peaches boiling in sugar syrup? The fulfilling sound of a lid snapping into vacuum state? There’s a physical enjoyment in making food that can only be experienced. And when that food is preserved, the reminiscence of that enjoyment lasts too.
Although it’s been a disastrous year for some crops, it seems to have been a good year for others (’twas ever thus!). This year I had a plentiful supply of rhubarb from a friend’s garden and
the mangoes were cheap (although obviously not locally grown). I get an extra kick out of producing something pleasing out of ingredients that cost me little or nothing.
Each year I try a few new experiments, some of which fail, many of which are quite successful. Last year’s kiwi-plum jam never set properly and surprisingly doesn’t have much flavour other than sweet. This time I had the same troubles with sumac jelly, but at least it looks pretty on the shelf.
This year I’ve made strawberry-mango jam, mango butter, rhubarb-ginger jam, raspberry-peach jam, apricot jam (that I swear is better than sex!), garlic dill pickles, spiced pickled beets, canned rhubarb, canned yellow plums, canned apricots, canned pasta sauce and frozen peaches, blueberries and strawberries.
It’s comforting to have a full larder, especially as we head toward fall. It’s comforting to feel some small taste of self-sufficiency. Not that I keep all of it. A fair bit of what I make gets given away as presents. They’re not expensive presents. They’re homemade and well-loved and that makes them unique.
©Catherine Jenkins 2003