Patience in Small Batches

A.V. Walters

This is the time of year when, as a kid, we picked berries and fruit and my mother made jam and preserves. Mornings were for picking and, after lunch, it was time to do the canning—the already hot, summer kitchen sweating with the aroma of fresh fruit, sugar and paraffin. (Yes, paraffin. We did it the old way.) We’re a large family and a successful summer could be counted in the Mason jars lining the pantry—enough to tide us over until the days lengthened and we’d be at it again.

With so many pickers (there were seven of us and that probably equaled five actual pickers) we brought in gallons of fresh fruit. You could count the season’s progression as the jars filled—strawberry, plum, blackberry, raspberry, thimbleberry, blueberry, peach, pear, and finishing up with apple. . My version of summer includes the bubbling of veritable cauldrons of jam and the jiggling rattle of jars and lids boiling on top of the stove. There were enough of us that we needed to do jam in quart jars.

My dad was in charge of paraffin. As the steaming jars were filled, each got a thin coat of paraffin, followed, after it cooled and turned translucent, with a thicker coat that filled in the deep well that formed in the cooling wax cap. He melted the paraffin in bent tin can, simmering in a pot of water. When he wasn’t looking, we’d quickly dip in our fingers in the hot wax, making perfect, inverted copies which my mother would find later. Canned goods, other than jam, actually still got glass lids with rubber gaskets and bails—the way my great-grandmother did it. When we modernized using the fresh, new, gummed caps and screw top lids, my father’s paraffin job was displaced. He resisted some, until he found out that the post-canning plunk, as the jar cooled,was the sign of yet another perfect seal.

My grandmother dragged us on the annual tour of her old, Finn lady-friends—them all exclaiming at us; a swarm of towheads, lined up in stair-step, chronological order. All of the old Finn ladies baked and canned—it being a measure of one’s housekeeping prowess. When one of them died, the others would assemble to grieve and compare notes. No funeral gathering was complete until they’d made an accounting of preserves in the decedent’s larder. (The old men, when they passed, were judged by the size of their woodpiles—winter’s warmth, split and stacked, ready for the widow.) So summer canning runs deep in my bloodline.

My adult life demanded smaller yields—there was no way that my smaller family could consume at that level. Still, there were gifts to consider and enough to get the two of us through winter, with enough to remember the flavor of summer, but nothing compared to the cornucopia of jars from my childhood. My parents continued to make big batches of jam, especially thimbleberry, which they shipped across the continent (and even across the ocean) to those of us far away from our childhood berry patches.

Eighteen months ago my dad passed away. True to tradition, he left an impressive wood pile, but the loss left a huge hole in our lives and my mom cut way back on her canning. Picking and putting foods by is, in large part, a social experience. Last year she hardly made any jam at all. This year, her berry season came early. It’s been happening a little earlier every year. Climate change isn’t fiction. It’s here—with Northern berries in mid-July, and ticks! (There weren’t ticks back home when I was a kid because the winters were too cold and too long. Now, they have to worry about Lyme disease.) Nobody believed that those early berries were really “the season.” Just some fluke—a smattering of early. My mother went out for just a few minutes, every day, and made small batches of jam, a couple of half pints at a time. Each day she’d report on her progress—she had set herself a summer quota. It worried me, a bit. It was not our normal, marathon method. I was afraid she’d lost heart in it. I thought she might be getting too old. Then, at the end of July, the berries dried up. (Usually that’s peak season!) The annual vacationers came, looking to recharge their own larders, but the berries were already gone! My mother sat smug—she’d reached, and then surpassed, her quota—all in small batches. I had to set aside my concerns. There’s more than one way to fill the pantry.

Thinking of her, I’ve been making small batches of peach jam as they come ripe on the tree (great peaches by the way—this is the tree from which we stripped all the leaves back in May.) But, they’re coming faster now, so I anticipate a large batch of peaches, any day now. Today I made 11 pints of plum jam. Our friend’s tree was laden, and so it all came at once. I still have blackberries to go and of course there’ll be tomatoes to can if they ever decide to ripen. (Still paying the price for our late start.)

I feel as though my dad is there with every jar, hovering— just in case we need paraffin.