Harvest time is here. You might know, because suddenly you can’t keep up with the steady onslaught of ripening tomatoes from your garden. Or maybe it’s the walks down city streets, when you find yourself tiptoeing under plum trees, their blue fruit lying on the sidewalk, rotting. Sometimes it smells like slivovitz. You breathe deeply.
If you’ve somehow avoided these signs, opening your Facebook feed might remind you of the task at hand. Here are a couple of posts I read yesterday: “We are the lucky recipients of 2 huge bags of pears from our neighbors. Today is pear butter making day!” Or “3 gallon bucket of plums; I am slightly terrified.” Comments on these posts seem to proliferate like zucchini at the end of the summer. Everyone wants to add their two cents, sharing their ideas for chutneys, jams, ketchup, and dumplings.
Here in Portland, produce hounds are busily preserving, pickling, and fermenting the bounty from the generosity of our gardens and street trees. Time was I did the same, though I must admit I remember canning being more of a solitary chore back in the 1990s. Remember The Dream of the Nineties? It’s alive in Portland.
Now is when I remember that I’m older than this new generation. I don’t have young kids to ply with applesauce, or a year ahead of peanut-butter sandwiches needing equal parts jam (though those who know my husband will realize that his jam intake at least equals that of a normal four-person family).
So instead of joining the Portland pickling parties, I pack away my glut of fruit into plastic bags in the freezer: the blackberries we picked on Sauvie Island; the six grocery bags’ worth of prune plums, halved, from a friend’s tree; and a few Gravenstein apples, peeled, sliced, and sugared. I tell myself (and anyone who will listen) that this way I can turn the fruit into whatever I want later: a pot of jam for tea on a rainy autumn day, a plum cake, applesauce or apple pie, stewed breakfast fruit.
It’s partly true; who knows what I’ll want for the winter once this abundance is gone? But really I’m just lazy. And there’s just one way, the older I get, that I want to preserve summer.
So I step out into my backyard for 30 minutes of solitary grazing. I crouch beside my cherry tomatoes, and hungrily pull them off and pop them into my mouth. The sun’s warmth amplifies the scent of the tomato leaves, and with each tiny explosion I feel as if I’m tasting the sun, the leaves, my garden, and time — the last three months I’ve been waiting for these red jewels. I taste every moment.
When I feel as if I can’t eat another tomato, I eat at least 10 more. On my way back into the house, I get waylaid by our grape arbor. Covered with vines we propagated from cuttings my grandfather gave us nearly 20 years ago, this is the first year the grapes have been perfect. My husband has been eating them for weeks already, and we’ve had a few skirmishes over them out the back door; I’ve tried to get him to see they’re not ready.
“Don’t you feel how they pucker the back of your mouth? That’s the tannin. They’re not ready!” He ignores me, and we adopt a (mainly) peaceful truce, me watching to be sure he’s leaving some grapes to ripen for me.
And suddenly, today, the grapes are ready. So I stand in the shade of the arbor, pulling off the dusky grapes, a Muscat variety. They’re sticky, with leaking juices and bits of spider web. I keep eating, thinking about my grandfather and the childhood summers I spent among his grapes, eating them the same way I am today. I think about my husband, who built the arbor. He’s away on business. I’m a little sorry that I can’t show him how the grapes are supposed to taste. Maybe he’d even admit I’m right. But mainly I wish we could graze together, and tell stories about my grandfather.
I’m storing up the warmth and love for the winter. I know I can’t really save it in my mouth or stomach. But it’s all packed away in my head and heart.
Giovanna Remolif Zivny is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her food writing has appeared in Gourmet magazine and on her blog, Giovanna's Trifles.
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