Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

Preserving summer

The pressure’s on

August 22, 2008

It’s 12:45 a.m., and my kitchen counter is splattered with the sweet juice of pounds of Bing cherries. I hope my neighbors can’t see in, because it looks as if I’ve just chopped up a murder victim. And I have the crazed look in my eye of a killer; it’s my third batch of jam of the night, and I still want to get the kitchen cleaned up so tomorrow’s berry-picking bounty will be easy to process.

I am tired, but I press on, exulting when I get the proportions just right. I’m making jam without sugar, and my first batch of cherry-honey jam is marked with “super sweet” on the lid, and I don’t really know what I’m going to do with those six neatly sealed half-pint jars. Perhaps it should be “honey-cherry jam.” I was replacing 6 cups of sugar from my recipe, and thought 2 cups of honey might do. The resulting purple spread was so cloying I almost choked.

It’s pretty, though.

Now it’s nearly 2 a.m., and I wonder if I shouldn’t start a batch of honey wine, but a crying, hungry baby finally gets me in bed. I take Linda Amendt’s Blue Ribbon Preserves book to bed with me, thinking I’ll mark a few ideas for the strawberries I’ll be bringing home in the morning. I dream of lifting jars out of hot water baths. I dream of state-fair ribbons. I dream of a chest freezer.

I’m thoroughly crazy. The next day, my sister, my three boys, and I head out to 242nd Avenue, to Thompson Farms. The place comes highly recommended by a few friends, and the enthusiasm of the farmer who gives the “crop report” on the answering machine every day is palpable. They never spray insecticides or herbicides, and their prices are fabulous — $1 per pound for U-pick.

Raspberry riches.

Today’s crop update isn’t what I’d hoped, as the recording says the berries are somewhat picked over — but it mentions raspberries, available for the first time this season.

We get to the field around noon, and I strap Monroe in his baby carrier and hand off buckets to the boys. I’ve weighed the buckets at home, writing the tare weight on them to make checkout easier, and we get to work. The fields aren’t as verdant as the ones I remember from my youth (as a pre-teen in Portland, I picked berries at a piece rate with one of my little sisters and my just-younger brother, whose proceeds often tripled mine at the end of those hot days); they’re rather more dirt than berry plants, and Truman just wants to run around. But after about an hour, we’ve amassed 12 pounds of strawberries, and we head to the raspberry field about two miles away.

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We must be one of the first to arrive at the raspberry rows. They seem sleepy and untouched; we must push away weeds and grasses to reach the gobs of fat, bright-colored berries. Compared to the strawberry plants, these are the frontier of berry-picking. I cannot help but feel spoiled, looking over my shoulder to see if someone else might dart up to steal away the riches of these prickly vines. We would pick for hours, but we have Things To Do, an appointment to make, and we must pay and go. As I leave, I let Everett talk me into a big carton of apricots I know he won’t end up eating.

That night, as I try to put into practice some of the things we’ve discussed in our couples counseling, what I really want to be doing is making jam. I have read comments on Harriet’s latest post and I have two books open on the kitchen counter.

Here is the thing about me: I am able to hold many conflicting values and desires at once. Perhaps it is mania. Perhaps it is a pointless striving toward an unattainable (and ever-changing) perfection. Perhaps it is a heroine’s quest, a design that is as stunning in its nobility as it is in its difficulty. Perhaps.

I know that this is what I must do: I must have jam, made with locally obtained ingredients, unsullied by chemicals, entirely without sugar, and as Linda Amendt reminds me on nearly every page, I must make that jam within hours of harvesting. If not sooner.

The baby cries and I must send out a report still; I am exhausted. I fall into bed, covering buckets of berries with a towel. As I nurse Monroe, yearning wildly for sleep to overtake me, I remember keenly reading the tomato-canning chapter in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (the book that started this all). I remember how manic she seemed, how she remarked upon how her ambition had got the best of her with the tomatoes. I remember how I thought, reading that, “This wouldn’t be me! I would be so much more under control, I would welcome all those tomatoes! I would exult in that preserving marathon!” and how I knew somewhere under my sheen of self-satisfaction that Barbara’s mania would have nothing on mine one day.

The baby in the berry field.

If anyone can out-exceed Barbara Kingsolver, it’s me.

The next night, my husband needs my attention, and so it is two days after harvest before I make jam. I now have cherries, strawberries, raspberries, and apricots; I am out of Pomona pectin (and also out of money), so I have cooked a pint of currants with a few cups of water and strained it to make a natural pectin.

I have grown confident from my strawberry-raspberry-blueberry-cherry jam, delicious beyond measure, made without measuring (I just poured a liberal swig of wildflower honey, somewhere around 1/2 cup) and I have decided I will embrace extempore. I make batch after batch, each one less precise than the one before, the small-batch way where I cook the berries in a deep wide pot until they jell a bit on a chilled plate.

Strawberries and currants and honey make a delightful, if soupy, jam, and the raspberry jam made with a little rapadura is so pure and lovely, I am transported back to Thompson Farms as I lick every last bit from the jam pot, standing in my sticky kitchen.

I am running out of ingredients by my last batch, so it is cherries and apricots and currant juice and honey, and I declare it my best yet! Amazing! Unbeatable! I wonder if I can enter it in the Oregon State Fair. I say “jam” to myself in other languages to pay its rightful homage. “Confiture,” I whisper. “Marmelatta.”

The jam kitchen.

Every night that I make jam, I line up my pint jars on the edge of the counter before I fall asleep so that I can awake and gaze at them, perhaps pick one to open to spread on my toast or pancakes or waffles. I honor each jar, I caress the top where it’s sealed, pop pop pop, I tip them this way and that to watch the many colors of fruit spark in the light, to assess if this jam is thick, or thin, to imagine how it will be in September, November, February.

I know that my Thanksgiving pies, my Christmas linzer cookies, my gray January breakfast biscuits will take me back to July, to August, to this heat and abundance and the pressure to savor it all for the winter to come.

I know that as I swim inexpertly through this never-ending cascade, the rows and rows of pints of blueberries, cherries, and raspberries at every farmers’ market, as I gasp for breath trying to keep my head above the spoilage, as I flail wildly to commit the sparkling sweet strawberries to their rightful place in my pantry, I will never quite manage to stay afloat. But I will eat every day better than I have all my life until now, this year, this preserving summer.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Aug 25, 2008 at 9:15 AM PDT

Blue Ribbon Preserves isn’t a very useful book if you don’t want super-sweet jam. The woman loves the sugar. And liquid pectin. Yuck. But the pomona is oh so wonderful. Less sugar and practically un-screw-up-able.

2. by Caroline Cummins on Aug 25, 2008 at 3:40 PM PDT

You can definitely screw up with Pomona pectin. I did and promptly chucked the rest of the box in disgust. It’s apple pectin or none for me now.

3. by cafemama on Aug 25, 2008 at 8:59 PM PDT

anonymous, you are right about Blue Ribbon Preserves being over-the-top with sugar! my goodness. most recipes require nearly as many cups of sugar as of fruit. I’m now using the book mostly for the notes on canning methodology and fruit preparation; it’s useful to see which fruits she recommends adding lots of lemon juice too, for instance. I’ve also followed her basic guidelines for pickles. another post!

I’ve been picking up ‘Mes Confitures’ at the suggestion of Jocelyn from the Brownie Points blog, and that’s more up my alley -- far more complex and exacting, but the art makes up for it. (and besides, I am not known for following a recipe :)

Caroline, I haven’t yet screwed up with Pomona, but it definitely adds a taste element that detracts from the fruit in my opinion; and experimenting with nature’s pectin is so much more fun (plus I’ve gotten to know some neighbors as I beg for unharvested apples!)

4. by Kathleen Holt on Aug 25, 2008 at 9:41 PM PDT

I should be putting up the last of my peaches as chutney or jam right now, but after making blueberry jam on Friday night and peaches on Sunday night, I’m wiped out. I know they’ll be lovely in winter--I too line them up to gaze at their loveliness and daydream of their futures--but I think I need a night off from the stove.

I’ve screwed up with store-bought pectin, too, refusing to use as much sugar as the box indicates, etc., but if you cook fruit long enough, it seems to set just enough to count for jam. Worked with strawberries, raspberries, peaches, and blueberries so far--some looser than others, but all delicious.

5. by Fasenfest on Aug 28, 2008 at 7:57 AM PDT

Oh, the sight and accounts of committed jam makers does my heart good. And Sarah, I think you deserve the blue ribbon for shear determination.

As I have often said, it is an odd think to try and incorporate the workings and preservation of the bounty within our modern world and with our limited knowledge but slowly each of us develop the new wisdom and ways to move forward.

I feel a bit crazy myself these days trying to can, freeze and jam the 71 pounds of peaches I picked; the pounds and pounds of pears reading for canning from my tree (canned pear, pear sauce, dried pears) the tomatoes that are beginning to ripen (Romas for canning) the pickles that are now fully fermented and want to be put up and the cucumbers that keep coming that are waiting to be fermented. Even as I write I am waiting for the bucket of peaches I froze in mass (was last minute effort before getting out of town for ONE DAY) to defrost a little bit so I can put them in reasonable size containers. And then it is out to the garden to weed and transplant and on and on. Oh yeah, the milk for the yogurt is cooling so I can add cultures to set up and the chicken feet and necks are waiting to get cooked for stock.

So, how the questions and discussions will continue to be how to do this all gracefully and within the measure of our days. For me, a full-time homemaker now, it is lots easier so I have nothing but awe for your 2:00am efforts.

As for pectin, I will say it again. Make your own with early drop apples or crap apples. Cook them with skins and seeds, drain, reduce (by half or more) until it is a strong pectin mass. I really makes for easy jam making and no need for Pomona. But you are the trailblazer and I am stuck in my ways. I will say, though, it will work well with honey even though I don’t use it. If you like we can get together and make some of the last of the seasons berry jam since I was so busy teaching it I didn’t make as much as I wanted. I will bring the apple pectin.

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