Sunday, August 14, 2005

No apron, no jars

Every August for the past 9 years (or is it 10 already?) I have packed a suitcase and a carload of empty jars and driven to Pam's house three hours north of here on the relatively rural outskirts of Ukiah. There, with my boyfriend's mom and her friend Pam, I get myself up to my elbows in sticky pear peelings, peaches, beans, tomatoes, jam, jelly, pickles, and applesauce. My canning trip would have been this weekend, but because of my work commitments, it won't quite happen this year.

Nobody is going to starve because the three of us shirked our annual fruit frenzy, but it is not really August without this ritual. For one thing, it is a huge change of pace from my engineering to spend a week mindlessly processing fruit (650 pounds of it one prolific summer when we kept track). I pet the friendliest of Pam's many cats, since I have none of my own. I dump the pits and peelings over the bank for the wild deer, turkeys, and peacocks. I pick green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers from Pam's large, overgrown, and prolific garden, and we buy most of the rest at various far-flung roadside stands on the edges of their respective orchards.

We chat about anything and everything while stirring the endless kettles of jelly and waiting forever for beans to cook. We also take plenty of shopping breaks and go eat sandwiches and cookies at the local caf├ęs. One year we did a comprehensive cookie survey of the entire town. Moore's Flour Mill came out on top. Pam's husband spends a lot of time on the road, and she makes sure he is gone during canning week, lest he decide to meddle in our cluttered kitchen.

We also turn out jars upon jars of the best tasting canned foods anywhere. We take great pride in knowing exactly where the apples in the sauce came from, and seeing them into jars just when they're perfect. Gravensteins don't hold well, so they rarely appear in supermarkets anymore, but there is no other apple quite like them. It might seem odd that anyone in this day and age would spend 90 minutes watching the needle go nowhere on a pressure canner just for a half-dozen quarts of pinto beans, but they really do come out softer and tastier that way. I can't stand the ones I get in restaurants these days.

Besides, when I get back home, I get to see the look on people's faces when I present them with a jar of homemade strawberry jam. Those who have had it know that you can't buy anything like it in stores. Canning is a dying art, but it is still well worth preserving.


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