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Posts Tagged ‘farming’

I just finished processing the last of seventeen jars of four-berry jam (currant-blueberry-raspberry-cherry) in my canning kettle.  I’ve had the blue kettle, with it’s now-rusty jar rack, for years, and it’s the same one my mother had.  Hers was just like the one her mother had — the one I remember when we visited the farm in Cuddebackville, New York.

Canning is not easy.  I realized, only after I had prepared all the fruit for the jam, that I didn’t have enough jar lids — or, for that matter, enough jam jars — to handle what I was making.  So I sent Ben off to the store to buy jar lids (and more sugar).  Turns out that almost no one knows what canning jars are, or dome lids, for that matter.  After a bunch of calls, I found that one of the four supermarkets in the area had the lids — but they had already closed for the night.  At 7:15 this morning, I was at the store, sweeping up a couple of flats of jars and three boxes of lids, so as not to run out again.

I fear that putting food by is a dying art.  The bounty of the season is coming in right now.  I suppose the stores may view supplying canning supplies (including paraffin, pectin, and even drying racks) as competition for their prepared foods, but to me, this is a matter of reminding all of us where food comes from and what it means to eat healthfully. I bought almost all the fruit for this jam at the local farmers market, knowing that I was supporting local agriculture and getting food that was not processed – most of it organic as well.

Ben asked me today why I do this, and it’s a good question.  I didn’t grow the fruit myself and it’s not cheap – although the cost of ingredients makes it about 1/3 less than what I would pay in the supermarket for the jam. It takes a lot of time and last night, a lot of sweat as well, to make your own preserves.  But I know exactly what went into this jam, and there are no additives, no corn syrup, no preservatives.  It’s got three ingredients in it:  fruit, sugar, pectin (if you count the 1/2 teaspoon of butter that went in to reduce foaming while cooking, make that four ingredients).

I support local farmers wherever I can, a tribute to my grandfather and all who work to grow our food.  I want my children and our family to remember that food is sold in grocery stores, but it’s not grown there. And pretty soon I will be harvesting my own produce, and I’ll be thinking about what I can ‘put by’ for the winter from the garden:  dilly beans, perhaps, or tomato jam.

For the big-ticket canning that I’ll be doing, however, I’ll be buying local.  I just talked to my best friend Connie, and we compared notes on what’s coming in in western Montana vs. the northwest Boston suburbs.  She’ll be making cherry jelly and putting cherries by in a crockpot, along with sugar and vodka, to have delicious cherry cordial in the winter.  Even though she’s made dozens of jars of rhubarb jelly already, there will be a second crop, along with raspberries, which are starting to yield now.

Here in my area we’re starting to see local peaches, and that may spur me to make some of my Gram’s recipe for peach and cherry jam, or my own spiced peach preserves.  In a few weeks, the rest of the canning will commence:  bread-and-butter pickles, and a run at my Gram’s oldest recipes, which date from her mother:  corn relish and chili sauce, which our family always ate on the New York-style baked beans (less molasses than New England style) that were a regular feature of Saturday night suppers.

When I was a kid I remember my father, who grew up poor in the tenements of Newburgh, New York, going downstairs to the basement as the winter set in, to the fruit cellar he had built to hold my mother’s and my canning efforts.  He’d organized all the jars of red, green, yellow, orange, purple by color and type.  He would smile, survey the jars and say, “Well, we’re ready for the winter.”  That was all he needed to be comfortable as the snow began to fly.

Life is good.  In the kitchen behind the table where I sit, I hear the ping of the dome jars sealing.  My hard work has been preserved for the months to come.  Some of this will go to friends and relatives, some will go to our store room downstairs, waiting to be opened up for biscuits or even the best peanut butter and jam sandwich you could want.

Sometimes I joke about being a “pioneer woman,” but after a morning of canning, I do feel like I have that spirit.  I’m not putting the canning kettle too far into the back of the closet, because I’ll be dragging it out again soon.  The summer’s in full swing, and I’ve got my jars ready to go!

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It’s hot-hot-hot in Lexington, Massachusetts, and my mind has been wandering, as I think of other places where I’ve spent hot summer days in a pleasurable way.  The place where my head keeps going is my grandparents’ farm, in Cuddebackville, New York.  When I was a kid, we’d get in the DeSoto, with a pillow in the back seat for me, and off we’d go to the farm.  When we lived in Ohio the trip took a really long time – I can’t remember us staying overnight on the way, but I remember being cooped up in the car for hours – and it was always great to be freed at our final destination.

We’d drive down Route 209, the last part of the trip, and I’d smell the manure on the fields and watch the lightning bugs flying as the day died.  When we finally drove down the bumpy gravel driveway, I’d look for my grandmother, coming out of the house to greet us.  She always had a clean but plain housedress on, with her corset underneath, stockings rolled up at the thighs, and orthopedic shoes, hair freshly done for our arrival.  My grandfather would be sitting inside, in his overstuffed chair with the antimacassars on the arms and back, reading the paper or watching Walter Cronkite.  The cats, Taffy and Fluffy, would be hanging around, waiting for us as well.

We’d have a farm dinner (almost always including a huge plate of corn on the cob, boiled red potatoes, fried green tomatoes), plus homemade rolls, sliced red tomatoes, and a chicken my grandfather had dispatched earlier in the day.  There was unpasteurized fresh milk to drink with the cream floating on top — from the cows in the barn – and fresh strawberries or blueberries on vanilla ice cream.  Later on, there might be sitting in the living room while the grown-ups watched Lawrence Welk and I played with the dollhouse and dolls that were kept in the attic for my visits, or we’d get to see my cousins, Linda and Brenda, and their parents, my Aunt Edith and Uncle Fred.

Life was simple and good.  The next morning I’d get out of my rollaway cot with the quilt on it that Gram had made, and go to the kitchen where Gram was making a first breakfast for Gramp before he went out to milk the cows.  Second breakfast came when my parents were up, after the milking was done…and that was followed by Gramp’s retreat to “his” sitting area, in the cellar, near the coal furnace, where an old sofa was.  In the summer, Gram would sometimes go into the cellar to make jam, using the summer kitchen where it was cooler, to work her magic on peaches, strawberries, cherries, cucumbers for pickles, or to crank out her fantastic chili sauce or corn relish.  This is where I first got interested in cooking, and I paid a lot of attention to what she was doing.

My cousins and I would pick wild berries, walk down to the kill and sit with a fishing pole (I never remember us catching anything, but the cold water of the kill was wonderful on a hot day), or play in the corn crib up on a rise.  Later in the day we’d go to the old bus where Gramp weighed the eggs he collected from the chicken coop, or run alongside Gramp, his hired man, and Barney the dog, to bring the cows out to the night pasture near the end of the property.

I wanted nothing more than to explore the farm with my cousins or spend time with my grandfather.  Life was not fancy in this part of the world, and as I grew older, I got pretty bored with life on the farm.  It wasn’t till much later that I began to realize what a gift I had received from my grandparents and the rest of my family.  I really wanted to garden, and I started to seek out spaces where I could dig in the dirt and plant scallions or potatoes or carrots.  I realized that, when I was selecting corn on the cob, I had learned how fresh corn smells — and that smell is the only way I know to find the really good stuff.  I made jars and jars of jams, relish, pickles, and they were my Gram’s recipes.  One of the recipes even was featured in Yankee Magazine, when they ran their “Recipe With a History” feature.

When I think of home on hot summer days, my mind goes to the farm.  My cousin Linda lives there still, and the corn crib, though rickety, is still there, along with the barn.  When Judy Collins wrote the song, “Secret Gardens of the Heart,” she must have had such a memory in her head:

“…I still see the ghosts
Of the people I knew long ago
Inside the old kitchen
They bend and sigh
My life passed them up
And the world passed them by

Secret Gardens of the heart
Where the old stay young forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter…”
(Words and Music by Judy Collins. Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP)/ Rocky Mountain National Park Music, Inc. (ASCAP)

I see the farm shining in the sun and in my memory I’m eight again.  Tomorrow, on  another hot day, I’ll remember my grandmother’s iced tea (loose tea, fresh lemons, sugar, mint), the breeze that came from sitting under the catalpa trees, and my heart will once more travel home.

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