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Jellies and jams and pickles, oh my!

8.September 2009

**A lot has happened since I began writing this post. I’m sitting in my mom’s hospital room now, as I finish it. She’s on the mend, but it’s been quite a scary few days. So, this post is for my mom, with whom I look forward to many, many years of canning, cooking, and all those good things.

I remember many Augusts of my childhood, especially in those early, pre-preschool days, spent as my grandmother’s and mother’s side while they (we, I thought) canned the mountains of vegetables that my grandpa coaxed out of the earth in his garden (which was, gothically, located on the State Hospital grounds). Hour after hour, just as the Summer heat peaked for the year, leaving most of us breathless, they’d stand over the stove, milling tomatoes into juice (which would become vegetable soup or chili when Summer’s sweat became a distant, almost longed-for memory), stringing, trimming, and finally packing green beans into quart jars, ready for the pressure cooker.

I remember (fondly) helping by peeling the wax pencil and writing dates on the lids as they came out of their hot bath. I remember dozens of jars of tomato juice and beans, and in a few banner years, hundreds, lining the shelves under the basement stairs in my grandparents’ house, where it was cool and dark and there were commonly spiders. I took a special pleasure in sneaking into that small space and scaring myself out of my wits at the thought of spiders and other unknown things creeping out of the dark.
At some point, I grew bored of watching the women in my family putting up Summer produce for the Winter. At some point my grandpa stopped gardening on such a large scale. And at some point my grandma stopped canning and this all became relegated to memory, a somewhat peculiar habit held over in my family by those Roosevelt Democrat elders who were worried about potentially lean Winters, even though we always had more than enough to eat in our homes.

I suffer no illusions that my canning now will make up for the years I missed canning with my grandma while I could have, but trying my hand at it makes me feel a little closer in a tiny way. In my case, there was only a very little salt and no tomatoes in sight and I shied away from the pressure cooker (I have visions of Arroz con Pollo stuck to my ceiling – and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up) and decided to give jelly and jam a go. (And pickles, but I can’t take credit for that idea – more about that later.)

Remembering what seemed to a very small child to be a very large production, I decided to tackle this task with help rather than on my own. Luckily, my newly-minted-Somervillian friend Christine was excited at the prospect of giving all this ridiculousness a go and we spent today up to our elbows in brine, pectin, and produce.
Experiment #1. Dill pickles. Christine expressed a great deal of interest in trying to can pickles. So, we stopped off at the Harvard Farmers Market and bought 20 or so pickling cukes and a big handful of dill. With a few mishaps on the way (dill pickles without the dill, briefly, but caught in time), we managed to make eight beautiful jars of tiny dill pickles, steeping (mellowing?) away in a fragrant, herby brine.Experiment #2. Grape Jelly. One of the finest things about the apartment where the Brit and I are living now (since May) is the beautiful back yard that we share with the other five apartments in our little corner of Cambridge. There is a rather stunning grape arbor that, this Summer, became overburdened with a bumper crop of big, fat, purple Concord Grapes. Christine and I went out, armed with one puppy and two big grocery bags and picked, conservatively, 15 pounds of grapes. Our recipe called for three pounds of grapes, with the goal of producing 4 cups of grape juice (but you can add a little water if you don’t have enough). Our three pound batch rendered more like eight cups of juice, so we ended up making two batches of grape jelly. And there’s about 12 pounds of grapes in the freezer, waiting for a (cooler) rainy day. Result: many, many jars (of both 4 oz. and 8 oz. varieties) of grape jelly.Experiment #3. Spiced Plum Jam. The Harvard Farmers Market also boasted a lovely array of late Summer produce, of which we selected Plums as our final ingredient of the day. As the chopped, pitted plums cooked down into a happy, syrupy slurry (Thank you, Seven Spoons, for the phrase “a warm slurry of bacon and sweet shallots” which reminded me that slurry can be a good word, too.), I decided to add some spice. “I feel like some spice would make sense with plums,” I said to Christine, already a little delirious from the jars upon jars of grape and pickles we had done, and I threw in some ground cloves and ground cinnamon. Suddenly it smelled like Christmas and I knew it was a good idea.**Note: While we had plums on hand, I made this plum cake. It was delicious. This picture is before baking.After eleven hours of this business, with aching feet and back, and more than one burned fingertip (and a couple burned spots on face and feet from flying, boiling jelly), I can say with confidence that canning is a LOT more work than you think it is, no matter how much work you think it is.

Also, I can’t wait to do it again.

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