The post today is dedicated to the memory of my Mother-in-Law who, were she still living would be celebrating her 100th birthday today. All who knew and loved her thought she was one of the smartest, kindest and most gentle people ever. My love for and the art of preserving and canning was fostered both by my own Mother and Pauline Kaylor.
There is something very grounding about making jam, particularly my favorite, apricot. Taking beautifully tree-ripened fruit from its crate, one cot at a time, slicing it open and removing the pit, cutting it in chunks and and tossing the pieces into a large pot…once the rhythm of those moves has become automatic, the mind can travel out across time remembering the roots of this process. It becomes almost a meditative event. Weigh the fruit, add the right mix of sugar and lemon juice. A chemistry happens when lemon juice, sugar and stone fruit sit for awhile to macerate then are boiled together in a large round low pot (preferably a copper jam pot). One can watch as the mixture comes to a boil, foams up and after about fifteen minutes of intermittent stirring a colloidal transformation begins to take place. Foam subsides and the loose liquid begins to bind together and thicken…the chemistry of cells connecting in a new way creates jam.
On the drive between Sacramento and Klamath Falls, off I-5 near Williams there is a narrow and bumpy farm road that runs towards the west. A vast apricot farm is tucked in between hundreds of acres of almond trees. Late May to early June the apricots are ripe and ready to sell, fresh off the tree…farm to customer with no one but the farmer’s Mother, kids, and wife touching their organically grown fruit. I contact the Bremner’s every year before leaving Arizona to make sure there will be apricots ready to pick up on the drive to Oregon. I missed the big coral Robadas with their bright red cheeks because I’m later than usual this year. And last year none of the fruit was ripe because my trip was early. Timing…weather…are everything. During my farm stop I walked out into the orchard and picked up a handful of almost over-ripened Robadas that were in a throw-away pile and ate them as I drove north towards Corning, juice dripping onto my lap.
This year there was a choice between Blenheims and Modesto’s and as this blog is being written, twelve pounds of pitted and quartered Modesto’s are bubbling away on the stove, six little porcelain dishes are in the freezer ready to test drops of apricot syrup for the proper thickness and twelve “quilted” Mason canning jars are scalding in a pot beside the jam pan ready to be filled and sealed as soon as the jam is ready.
While waiting for that magical moment of chemistry when the pectin in apricots and lemon juice floating in the liquid from the fruit join together and the mixture begins to thicken memories return of my Mother making jam on her six burner yellow enamel stove out on the farm, of Ron’s Mother canning fruit in her white kitchen with all the canning equipment from her pump house at hand, knowing that my daughter will do it again when she is no longer herding a three year old and working full time. Both Mothers would be wearing homemade aprons and their counter tops would be clear of clutter and all their tools laid out ready to use as soon as the jam was the right consistency. I’m dodging kitchen bowls and pans that have just come out of winter storage and are sitting on the counter along with the make-shift canning equipment. I have yet to find a place in cupboards that someone else has used over the winter where my personal favorites can be put away. And I have not yet found the box from winter storage that holds my aprons. When the apricots are ready to preserve, they do not wait for unpacked boxes and an organized kitchen.
On the farms, canning and preserving was a spring and summer ritual as long as I can remember. My parents had a Fruit Cellar, a little stone house with a damp dirt floor and long, hand hewn 2X12 boards that formed shelving from the front to the back of the cellar, just five long steps on a narrow little sidewalk bounded by an herb garden outside the back porch door. The little screen door always let out a screechy squeak when it was pulled open and the inside door usually had to have a toe shove at the same time one turned the handle because the door always stuck. There were five shelves along the left wall, which, by the end of September, were lined with quart jars of canned peaches, pears, cherries, apricots, green beans, pickled beets and homemade pickles…several different kinds. And the boards sagged a bit in the middle of their long expanse. Some winters there were jars of homemade mincemeat made from venison given to my parents by a neighbor who had bagged a deer during hunting season. By the end of the winter, the shelves were still lined, but the jars were empty because our meals throughout the winter were built around all the fruit and vegetables, jams and jellies Mother had canned during the summer. While she was preparing dinner she would often ask my sister or me to go out to the fruit cellar and bring in a quart of string beans which she would pop open, heat on the stove top and season with crisp bacon and a dash of vinegar.
On the opposite wall in the fruit cellar was an old wooden kitchen table, paint mostly peeled of that probably was on the farm when my parents bought it in 1942. And next to the table, the pump that brought water from the well into our house. On the dirt under that table there was always a burlap bag of netted gem potatoes and mesh bags of onions, all grown on the farm. Placed carefully on the table was an empty egg gathering basket, an egg scale, an egg candler, and a stack of egg cartons. AND there was an open space where large white flat enamel pans with black trim on the rims would be set at night. They were filled with warm milk, cheesecloth covers were clothes pinned to the rim, and the milk left to cool overnight. During the week, Mother carefully skimmed the cream off the top of each pan, put the thick golden cream into an aluminum pan with a handle curved over the top and set it on the stove to simmer until the cream divided into curds and whey. She poured that cooled mixture through more layers of cheesecloth and set it back out in the fruit cellar to cool and then she would make butter using her old yellow Sunbeam Mixmaster, it’s beaters slipped through a paper plate with holes in it to keep the liquid which was pulsed out of the butter curds from splashing all over her kitchen counter. On Saturdays, when there was no school, it was my job to skim the cream. I hated that task, did not like the smell of raw milk and disliked having to wash out the cheesecloth covers afterwards in the laundry tub on the porch.
Pauline Kaylor had what she called a pump house because it too had the well pump in it. At the Kaylor house Pauline canned fresh ripe peaches that she drove over to Medford or Central Point to buy every summer and it was always a huge treat to open a quart jar and eat them for dessert after a winter dinner. She froze strawberries from her garden and made countless jars of strawberry jam. I have a vivid memory of her asking me to do her preserving task with bushels of corn while she drove to Albany to help with the birth of a grandchild. It brings back a movie in living color of that day. Not only did I blanch and cut corn off what seemed like an entire garden’s worth of corn cobs, put them in containers for the freezer and clean up the hot, messy kitchen, but I was also asked to be sure my Father-in-law and his two pre-teen grandsons had dinner on the table when they came in from loading hay and taking it to the hay shed. Our family’s little black female poodle named Homer kept me company that whole day. Exhausted, kitchen cleaned up after dinner, I had just relaxed in a chaise lounge under the willow tree in the back yard when Buford came in at sunset from the last load of hay with a concerned look on his face. One of the boys caught his finger in the gears of the hay loader after his Grandad had just cautioned him to keep his hands off the machinery!! One glimpse of the finger and I told him we needed to go the the ER to get the finger fixed. I left our dog home in the house and off we went, twelve miles into town to the hospital where Daryl’s finger was stitched and padded with bandages. In the meantime, Pauline returned home and when we arrived, she asked me if there was any ham leftover from our dinner. “ Yes, there is half a ham on a platter by the sink, covered with foil,” I countered. She duly informed me that the platter was on the floor when she came in, there was no ham, no bone, and no foil. Homer had quite a bellyache and survived, Daryl’s finger healed and I am probably the only one who can give a play by play description of how that day evolved. That was just one of the home preservation episodes that came back to me while pitting apricots and stirring jam.
I also re-played a day when my daughter was just about the same age as her ginger haired Emilia is now when Mother, Patty, Greg and I drove to Ashland to get nectarberries and pick cherries to make and freeze pies. At age three Patty could not be dissuaded from trying to climb the ladder with bucket in hand to “help pick cherries”. Tiring of arguing with her, I took her back to the station wagon that was parked under trees in the orchard, gave her a blanket and instructed her that it was nap time. When we returned to the car with our buckets of cherries Patty’s bare feet had pulverized a crate of purple nectarberries onto her little dress and the pastel green carpet in the back of our brand new station wagon was splotchy purple. The faded purple stain was an ever present reminder of how strong-minded my young daughter was…a moment that I wished her father, who was off in Vietnam at the time, had been there to witness and to calm my ruffled feathers. Patty remembers the story slightly differently, but is adamant that she remembers how angry she was not get to climb the ladder and pick cherries, my fearless three-year old.
When it came time to jar the jam, I realized that one of my critical pieces of equipment was not there…a wide bottomed funnel to set on top of the sterilized jars to keep the top edges clean and dry while ladling the hot mixture into the jars. The makeshift funnel was not exactly successful so the top of each jar had to be wiped clean with a damp paper towel before lids and rings could be attached…and another clean up after the jars cooled and sealed. Years ago, my Mom, Pauline, and I each had an entire home canning “kit” and now the only one left in the family belongs to Patty and hers is boxed up in their basement someplace. So I had cobbled together all the parts I remembered were needed…just missed that most important funnel.
The creative in me departed from tradition during that final jarring process. I had carefully saved the apricot pits, put them in the oven to dry out and while the fruit and sugar were doing their chemical meld, took hammer and pliers out to the deck and cracked open each pit, removing the inner kernel that has a distinctive almond flavor. Squirrels in the nearby field got the shells and some of the pits that couldn’t be cracked. The soft little kernels went back into the oven, were toasted and three little toasted apricot kernels went into each jar of jam to add depth of flavor. That’s a trick learned at a cooking school in Provence in 2003. And from this year’s cooking class in Nice, I returned home with a package of little beans used for flavoring custards…Tonka Beans. These deep brown, dried and shriveled up little almond-sized beans from Africa can be finely grated to add an unusual flavor…a cross between vanilla and almond. I decided to add the fine powder gratings of one Tonka Bean to the last three jars of jam, labeled those jars as Apricot with Tonka and we’ll see how that flavor matures over time. Apricots and almonds have an affinity for each other.
The jam is finished and stored away, we have had three delicious apricot tarts made by Patty, and feedback from those who have been gifted a treasured jar of apricot jam is that it is the best ever.