My mother used to can her own vegetables and preserves. My grandmother did too. I did not can. I played sports when the harvest came in from the garden and headed off to study with a friend as it bubbled on the stove. I felt a smug pride in the fact that the kitchen was not my forte and that I was not like my mother.
I left home for university able to change a tire and fix my computer but unable to cook a meal. And I discovered that when all you can make is toast, jam becomes important.
RECIPE: Rhubarb and Orange Marmalade
8 cups chopped fresh rhubarb
8 cups sugar
6 medium oranges
1/2 cup water
Combine the rhubarb, water and sugar in a large, heavy pot. Cut up the oranges and remove the seeds, then grind them (including the peels) in a food processor. Add them to the rhubarb; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered and stirring often, until it sets on a chilled spoon (about 1 hour).
Pour into hot sterilized jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
Sampling my way through brands at the grocery store, I soon found that most jam is too sweet. I like mine the way my mother made it; with a strong fruit flavour and a hint of tartness. The boutique jams at foodie stores were better, but they were well beyond my student budget. And the homemade varieties at the farmer’s market proved too inconsistent. So my mother suggested I make my own. She might have suggested I drop out of university and marry the boy next door. But it was a basket of blueberries that finally swayed me. Plump and perfect, they were disappointing when mashed on toast.
I studied old canning recipes that called for pints and dashes, sieves and pestles. I read the cautions about acids and pectin. Then I called my mother for help.
The mixture bubbled thickly, letting off sticky purple volcanic eruptions as hot blueberry smells infused every corner of my shared apartment. My roommate watched over my shoulder as I tested the jam on a chilled spoon. “How do you know if it’s ready?” She asked. “Apparently it’s done when it looks like jam,” I said.
I poured the hot liquid into the sterile jars then bent down to admire the rich purple hue. When the jars were cool I put labels on each one. I gave some of them as gifts.
“You can?” a friend asked in surprise.
“I thought only our Grandmothers knew how to do that.”
“Can you make pickles?” asked another friend.
“Delicious,” said my mother.
A few years ago, a group of us decided to have a canning bee. We gathered organic apples and tomatoes, beans and berries. With steam filling the kitchen and music blasting, the four of us went through the antique rituals—cooking fruit, filling jars and laughing. We made mistakes; our pickle brine was too salty and the raspberry jam could have had a firmer set. But the plum cardamom butter was declared divine. We joked that modern women can can. We were equally embarrassed and proud as we lined up the jars.
A few harvests later we added pears, peaches and cherries to our bounty. Our group had shifted a bit, but the ritual was the same. We brought our old recipes—ones that our grandmothers had passed our way—and we turned fresh fruit into sparkling jars filled with flavour. We did it expertly now, without embarrassment. “Taste this chutney,” a friend called. Eyes closed, mouth open, I felt a warm spoon slide in. “I haven’t tasted that flavour since I was a child,” she continued.
With each jar I filled, I felt closer to my mother, and myself. The five-fruit marmalade with chunky blood orange peel and key limes was my creation, homage to some of the places I travelled. But the dilly beans, those were from my mother’s childhood; the bite of garlic was added during mine.
This year I’m teaching Maia to preserve food, starting with our Jurassic rhubarb. “Did you like it when Grandma taught you to how to can?” she asked, her small fingers clutching the rhubarb as she chopped. I paused, measuring scoop held aloft. Canning once represented the unwanted world of an industrious housewife—my mother’s world, my grandmother’s world. I’ve grown to love these jars that shimmer with light and flavour, though, and suddenly I hoped very much they would be part of my daughter’s world.
“I did,” I answered. “She was a very patient teacher.”