On Sunday I did something that I can't believe it has taken me 37 years to do. I spent part of the morning making jam with my baby sister. Oh, I have been somehow part of many, many, many a canning and preserving project over the years but it has been awhile and I was never co piloting the mission.
Last fall was really amazing. It was long and warm and each perfect day felt like it was borrowed. Like it was a gift from mother earth. We squeezed every last drop out of those days. Wringing them out like a wet rag. In June the promise of many great days to come has you squandering a few hours here and there but by September, when each warm day could be your last for months you tend to live it as fully as possible. We had so many days like that last fall that I felt I lived more fully for weeks. We walked, road tripped, geocached, picnicked and cycled. We found new places to explore in our own back yard and were surprised by the treasures we uncovered in the process. One of those days we packed all of our bikes in a few vehicles and headed out to cycle along the river in Fort Saskatchewan. Their trail system there is beautiful and most of it was very ridable for our gang of five year old bikers. Along the route we found an outcropping of chokecherries. Right next to the path. The branches were heavy with the weight of the fruit and we were shocked that no one else had relieved the trees of their bounty before us. We had some bags in our picnic basket so we began to pick. The kids loved it and in very short order we had filled all the bags we had with us. We hadn't even made a dent in the massive amount of fruit. We couldn't bear the thought of it rotting on the branches so we returned the next day with pails and bowls. As much as we could carry in the bike trailer. The picking was so gratifying. One of us would get near the trunk and pull the branch within reach and the other would hold a bunch of the cherries at the top and "milk" the berries into the pail. My Grandma would have been in her bliss. She used to take us for long car rides up and down the county roads looking for a crop like this. I spent hours upon hours of my childhood sharing the back seat of her trusty old Pontiac with a mountain of pails, my eyes peeled for the elusive berries. When spotted we would wade through thistle and tall grasses and stand perched on the slope of a steep ditch with a honey pail hooked on our belt.
I was so smug with the find and tickled with our harvest that I forgot about the labourious task of extracting the usable fruit from the cherries. So a few days later there were mom and I washing and boiling the mountain of fruit and then pressing it one cup at at time through a sieve with a spatula. For those of you not familiar with the chokecherry it has a surprisingly large pit for a fruit the size of a small blueberry. The first few sieves full had me cursing this brilliant idea...but then something happened. I became completely consumed by getting every last bit of pulp out of those cherries. Watching the thick, rich flesh ooze into the pot. Mom and I would trade off because the effort would soon turn our arms to rubber and force us to take a break but the satisfaction of the job kept us coming back for our turn to urge the fruit into our pot.
My mind is now swirling with what this all means.... my love of fall, the harvest, the warmth of the autumn light, the heaviness of the burden of winter to come. This subject is rich for me. I could write for hours in a meandering torrent of words that would turn over and over like a falling autumn leaf. Focus. Where was I? Ah yes.... I feel as though there is something in my DNA that compels me to harvest, and then preserve food for the long winter months. So far it hasn't been compelling enough to line my pantry with jars of preserves or my freezer full of pies but every fall I feel this urge to don an apron and juice, freeze and can everything in sight. I love to walk down the aisle of the supermarket specially stocked for fall with pint jars and pickling salt. There is something so completely wholesome about a mason jar and a fresh box of snap lids.
So that brings us to Sunday... My first foray into the world of jam making. The chokecherry pulp was bagged and frozen last fall. And then shortly thereafter I was launched into the throes of gestation. Canning no longer held its romantic allure. In fact food prep of any kind was pretty much agony. Fast forward to this fall... My baby sister came into town unexpectedly this weekend and I bought a couple of boxes of pectin for the occasion. Mom took a couple of bags of raspberries out of the freezer for us. (The chokecherry pulp will lay in waiting while I hone my jam making skills.) Soon the sound of metal jar lids rattling in a pot of boiling water filled the air and I was up to my elbows in raspberry mush. Potato masher in hand, grin on face. We were a bit shy on raspberries so on the fly we made up the difference with fresh pureed apples. I felt like i was channelling my grandma and my Auntie Gwen all at once. The sugary fruit was bubbling away on the stove and my baby sister was juggling jars and lids with her tongs like an old pro. We poured the rich, red, molten mixture into the jars and carefully sealed them. Then they were gingerly lowered into a pot of boiling water to process for ten minutes. As this was all taking place I had started the second batch. I was merrily stirring and measuring when Kathy took the first jars out of the water. The first one popped as she extracted it with her tongs..... That sound... I had forgotten about that part. I almost burst into tears or song or applause or all three. A tangible, audible, heartwarming sign of success. It immediately transported me to my youth. To rows and rows of jars draped in teatowels and the sweet/sour smell of crabapples in the air for days. To my red thumb, raw with the tiny cuts of a paring knife after hours of halving those little red apples. To a stovetop filled with pots all bubbling away with juice or jam or jars in process. To my gran's agility in the kitchen when timing is everything and the nourishment of her family hung in the balance. All of those things and more flooded into me (or oozed out of me, I'm not sure which) in the moment following the sound of that jar lid popping. Each pop sent a tingle through my body. The feeling was sublime.
I plan to make more jam this weekend...