Author Archives: kimodonnel

Preserving Memories

For me, a woman not more than a minute away from her twenties and raised in a suburban setting, it would have been entirely possible for the concept of canning and preserving to have passed me by completely. If a bell jar was in my mothers house, it was either being used to clean her paintbrushes, or housing one of her collections of random items; a paperclip, a dirty penny stuck to a dime, an oddly shaped rock, a small army figurine, a gum wrapper, a Popsicle stick glued to a cut out of Harrison Ford, and perhaps a barrette, for example. My mother, Denise, was a million pieces of joy, but Martha Stewart she was not.
Dana Cree Headshot

I could have lived entirely in a world of Smuckers jams and Vlasic pickles, never realizing these were manufactured versions of treasured home made recipes.

I could have, but I didn’t. I had Grandma Eva, and because of Grandma Eva, I had a life filled with freezer jam and jars of preserved fruits.

To describe my grandmother to you would take pages of words, discussing her rural childhood on a female run ranch, home economics degree, disciplined personality, sorority manners, and impeccable and modern yet traditional home. However, thanks to another blond haired super hero home maker, I can sum it up with two words. Martha. Stewart.

To say my grandmother cut the mold Martha came from would not quite be right. Martha Stewart could have sprung fully formed from my grandmothers soft grey, neatly permed head. Had she different motives, grandma Eva could have built that empire. Her home was a tidy collectors paradise where the china and silver were used often, intermingled with use of hand painted pottery collected on trips to Mexico and beyond. Her kitchen was one of intention, with a split drawer for sugar and two ovens. There she baked daily, cooked, and prepared to entertain. Her well manicured garden flanked a winding path that led from a cherry blossom tree to a small yard wrapped in a rose garden, and fresh cut flowers sat on the tables. Her lavish pick-nicks were tightly packed in a woven basked, complete with silverware tucked in the elastic cuffs. Behind closed doors were meticulous sewing rooms filled with a spectrum of colors and projects, and her storeroom was a museum.

As a child, this store room was a source of constant fascination. It required a trip down the stairs, a place my sisters and I used like a jungle gym. However, once at the bottom, providing you didn’t turn and run back up the stairs as fast as your thundering arms and legs could propel you, you were forced to choose between two doors. One door led to the shelved treasures of the storeroom. But the other door, which led to the large room we played in, was guarded by a menacing wicker monkey, casually suspending itself by one arm from a curtain rod. The glimmering button eyes were precisely pointed at the bottom stair, a place I often sat apprehensively, believing the monkey was staring directly into my eyes, unsure that he couldn’t really move.

Finally, aided by my sister Libby, I would make my move, and run into the store room. There we would stare at the shelves, looking at the rows of puzzles, the boxes of small farm animal toys, barbies from the 50’s with entire wardrobes beside them, tin-y tonka trucks and worn tractors neatly parked in rows. We would laugh at the Madame Alexander dolls, china white and dressed in frill, knowing that one of them had proudly belonged to our father. While my sister would start collecting our afternoon entertainment, I would turn around and stare.

Behind me, opposite the wall of collectible toys we were about to devalue, were rows and rows of ball jars, packed with fruit. To my wide young eyes, they shimmered like jewels. I would run my hand along the cool glass, letting it fall in the space between jars with a small slap, slow to climb the next jar and let it fall again. A bit dazzled by the bright colors illuminated from behind the shimmering glass, I would think of eating them, of being allowed to use all my strength to twist the cap until it popped. I thought about the apricots, my favorite by far, and that both of my sisters preferred the peaches.

My trance broke when my sister would command me to carry something and we discussed tactics for passing the woven gate keeper. A count of three, a quick sprint, and our little legs would speed us past the staircase, beyond the wicker monkey and his piercing button gaze. As we fell to our knees, our arms would relaxed spilling our toys onto the carpet in a clutter. Immediately we began to loose ourselves in childish games that chased away any lingering memories of the jars of preserves that captivated me.

Missing from this glimmering wall of canned gems were jam and jelly. These were held a short distance away, tucked into stacked plastic square containers, locked away for the year in frosty preservation. While I really had no concept of where these jars of fruit that I so loved came from, I actively participated every year in the jam making. Not jelly and not jam, but freezer jam.

The summer day would start with a much anticipated visit from Grandma Eva, her long green Dodge Dart Swinger pulling into our gravel driveway. She could expect to be mobbed by affectionate granddaughters while my mom rushed us into the back seat, buckling us into the sprawling bench seat in preparation for the drive to the U-Pick strawberry fields. We delighted in riding the tractor-pulled trolley to the fields, dry powdery dirt clouding the trail behind us, our fingers wrapped tightly around the handled flats we were preparing to fill. We scattered ourselves down a row, crouched on our knees, and plucked sun ripened berries from their dusty vines. I prided myself in my contribution to the cause, and admired the collection my sister Libby would gather of the smallest, brightest, most perfectly shaped strawberries. The baby, my sister Sarah would eat everything she picked plus some, evident by the red staining her little hands, chubby cheeks and T-shirt. This never failed to prompt my grandmother to tease us, telling the cashier that she should have weighed us before we came in and after.

Once home, my mom would prepare a quick lunch while my grandmother carefully set up a new fangled contraption I was in awe of; the food processor. We girls helped wash and hull the berries for as long as it interested us. Inevitably Libby and Sarah would wander off, dragging out their my little ponies or putting on their roller skates, or perhaps running through the sprinkler. These were games I usually enjoyed, but the ritual of jam making held me in the kitchen. At my grandmothers side, I took all the difficult tasks off her hands. I measured sugar, poured things, and most difficult of all, I stirred for her.

Over the course of one afternoon, our tiny “two butt kitchen” as my mother called it produced enough strawberry and raspberry freezer jam to get 4 households through to the next year. Needless to say no one ate as much of the red stuff as my house, the only one writhing with children. The remaining berries, and yes, there were remaining berries, were sliced, sugared, packed in Zip-Lock bags, and frozen. They were saved for fruitless times in winter, waiting to be turned into jam if need be, or be eaten over ice cream, with cake, or smothering biscuits with whipped cream. Oh, and how could I forget, my favorite of all, sugary sliced strawberries scattered in the steamy crater of a dutch baby.

I would love to say that my grandmother still comes over on a sunny summer day, driving with my mother, myself, and my adult sisters to the U-Pick fields, or simply continuing to make jam. It aches just a little to sit and paint this collection of memories without new ones to add. However, it’s just my sisters and I now, scattered between Seattle and Germany, and in the time consuming process of becoming adults.

The last few remaining ball jars that once adorned my grandmothers shelves now live in the cupboard above my refrigerator. The occasional turquoise jar will spend a short time on my table, containing stems of cut flowers. Each year I get closer to taking them all down, teaching myself how to fill them with summers bounty and tuck them away for the winter. Every time I taste peaked season strawberries, or freezer jam I cross-my-heart-swear I will make it next strawberry season.

Next year I will. No really, I will. Probably. Until the day I do, the memories and traditions my grandma left behind her will help hold me tight, part of the thread that weaves me together. These memories wait, preparing to become part of my life, waiting for another someone to pass them along to. When it comes time, I know I have two sisters ready with memories of their own, eager to begin tradition anew.

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CAA contributor Dana Cree was named “Best Pastry Chef On The Rise” in 2008 by and honored as a “Rebel Chef” in 2009 by Seattle magazine, was awarded a Rising Star Pastry Chef award by Starchefs in 2009, and has been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and in Gourmet Magazine. Her own food writing can be found on Tasting Menu and have been published in The London Guardian. She currently works as the pastry chef at Jerry Traunfeld’s restaurant, Poppy, in Seattle.

Blueberries (and Raspberries and Apricots) for Zoe

Zoe and her canning projects

Many of us have fond memories of Blueberries for Sal, the classic Robert McCloskey picture book about a mother and daughter in 1940s Maine who head out one summer’s day to pick blueberries to can for the winter.  At the beginning and end of the book is a wonderful illustration of Sal and her mother in the kitchen, wood-burning stove behind them, pouring blueberries from a pot into a canning jar, with several filled jars – and several more yet to be filled – waiting on the kitchen table.  For me, this image evokes a world that has all but disappeared, but one that holds tremendous appeal: a world in which a mother could walk out of her door, pick the freshest, tastiest berries and then preserve them, in her own kitchen, so that her family would have homemade blueberry jam to sweeten a cold February morning.

My daughter, Zoe, at 6, is a few years older than Sal was when she and her mother went out to pick blueberries on that summer’s day in the late 1940s.  But this summer, Zoe and I have had our own version of that scene in the kitchen filling glass jars with beautifully preserved fruit.  We began making jams and pickles with fruits and vegetables from our local farmers’ market.  Unlike Sal and her mother, we live in as urban a setting as you can imagine, only a few miles from the Chicago Loop.  But Chicago is close enough to Michigan’s wonderful fruit orchards that, thanks to the farmers’ market, we can still get fruit that was picked only a day or two before.

For years, Saturday morning at the farmers’ market has been a ritual for our family.  Zoe and her father–and now little brother Jamie–go for the blueberries, the cherries and the peaches. I go for the heirloom tomatoes, the corn–picked that morning or I am not interested, thank you very much–and those delicate and unusual items (garlic scapes? squash blossoms?) that challenge the ambitious cook and that you can never seem to find any place else.  For some reason (and I truly don’t know why), this spring, I decided that I wanted to learn how to take some of this fleeting farmers’ market bounty and preserve it.  My only goal was to have fun trying something new and perhaps to come away with some homemade gifts for the holidays.

Canning is a wonderful activity to do with an elementary-school aged child.  From the moment I first suggested it to her, Zoe has been an enthusiastic partner in my canning endeavors.  She loves going to the farmers’ market and helping me decide which fruits and vegetables to can that week.  By noticing what the farmers have for sale each week, and how it is different from what they had the previous week, Zoe is learning an important lesson about growing seasons.  So far, we’ve made apricot, blueberry, sour cherry and mixed berry jams, and this week, we tried our hand at pickling grape tomatoes.

There is quite a lot that a young child can do to be helpful during the canning process.  Zoe has pitted cherries, crushed all kinds of fruit, peeled cloves of garlic, pricked grape tomatoes (so the skins don’t crack), squeezed lemon juice and measured out cups of sugar.  With close supervision, and a kitchen chair to stand on, Zoe can even stir the fruit as it reaches the gelling point.  And once our jars are processed and cooled, Zoe helps with the labels. One of her favorite tasks is coming up with the names for our products, such as Zoe’s Very Berry Jam. 

For Zoe, canning is something that she and I can do together–without her little brother around–and it makes her feel extremely competent.  Plus, just like me, looking at those gleaming jars she feels the pride that comes from making something with your own two hands.
jam 008

I knew I had a convert when Zoe rushed into the kitchen after a birthday party that had taken her away during the middle of a canning session, and asked breathlessly, “Did you hear the jars ‘ping,’ Mommy?” (Of course, if I knew more about science, I would use this opportunity to explain to Zoe about vacuums. As it is, we are just relieved that our jars sealed properly.)  Zoe and I also feel a special connection to the past by participating in this traditional domestic art.  Blueberries for Sal aside, we’ve noticed references to canning in some of our favorite books, including the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.  Even Zoe’s American Girl doll, Kit, who lived during the Great Depression, is shown in the accompanying books canning peaches and tomatoes. 

For Zoe, there is perhaps a special reason why canning is such a joyful activity.  Zoe has many food allergies, including to such basic foods as wheat, milk and egg.  As a result, cooking can be a touchy subject.  My husband and I had to tell Zoe that she could not participate in the cooking activity at her day camp this summer, and last spring, when her Hebrew school class learned how to make matzo, Zoe and I stood in the back of the room, away from all the flying flour, watching sadly while the other kindergartners pounded and pressed the sticky dough.  But canning is an activity that perfectly safe for Zoe.  And the results are delicious, even on wheat-free bread. 

As I mentioned, this is the first summer that Zoe and I have canned fruit and vegetables, so I don’t know how it will feel in December to give away a jar of our homemade pickles, or crack open a jar of our homemade jam.  I am hopeful, though, that, in the dark days of winter it will help us feel closer to the warmth and abundance of summer, much as it must have for Sal and her mother.

Emily Paster, Canning Across America contributor
Emily Paster is a passionate home cook and novice canner who lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two children.

If You Want The Best Jam…

berries1

We had high expectations for our Shuksan strawberries from the start.

Tastemaker Jon Rowley and six-degrees-of-Traca Savadago had led our group to the gleaming, paint-red berries as the representative of a certain kind of umami. For Jon, these berries fit a particular sense of the word. They were a food that “has become all that can be, when it is at its peak of quality and fulfillment.” We sliced them with whipped cream for dessert that night, we made two batches of strawberry ice cream, we ate them out of hand…

nberries

but Jon had warned us that the berries wouldn’t last past nightfall. The rest were destined for jam.

First I turned to Marisa McClellan’s post on Strawberry-Vanilla jam. I’d had a song in my head ever since reading what she wrote about her day of berry-jamming, the subversively merry Michelle Shocked tune that goes “We were making jam. Strawberry jam! Well, if you want the best jam, you’ve got to make your own.”

I’d planned on making Marisa’s exact recipe, but decided at the last minute I was more comfortable measuring in weights rather than cups. I wound up with Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton’s book Preserved, which called for 6 3/4 pounds of strawberries, 5 1/2 pounds of white sugar, and the juice of two lemons (not quite as precise as we wanted when it came to the lemon, but there you have it.) We chopped the larger berries into chunks, left the large ones whole, and gently boiled them for an hour or so, as the recipe told us, until the volume had reduced by 10 percent.
berriescooking

Then we added the sugar and prepared to boil the mixture until the temperature rose to 220 degrees F, where it was to set. And we waited. And we waited. The hour crept toward midnight, the jam bubbled away, and the thermometer hovered stubbornly around 215 degrees.

I testily started asking around on Twitter, a surprisingly instant font of advice. Our problem, it seemed pretty clear, was that for all our supposed precision, we hadn’t realized it would be a problem to double the jam recipe. If we had thought to research it before we started, we would have learned you’re not supposed to do that.

But we boiled on regardless, as it didn’t seem like a safety issue, and we finally hit the magic temperature. We tested the jam to see if it had set — we found a clear explanation of how to gauge that in Molly Wizenberg’s berry jam recipe here — and finally proceeded with our sterilized jars and boiling water bath. (The book doesn’t call for water bath processing, but, remember, we’re paranoid.)
berriesfunnel

At night’s end, we were disappointed in the jam’s taste. Those fragile, glowingly juicy berries had disappeared, subsumed into what seemed like an overly sugared, overly cooked-tasting, hot-tub’s worth of jam.

We finished up and went to bed, figuring we would do better next time.

But as strawberry season passed its height and we cracked open our jars for morning toast and jam, something surprising happened.

A few days removed from our memory of the fields, the seasonal abundance, the ripe hit of the just-picked berries in our mouths, the jam tasted darn good. It was sweet, yes, but not as much as most processed store-bought stuff. Taken out of the context of those perfect berries, as just a random jar of jam, it appeared to be that “best jam” that we had wanted.

I was so pleased, I started giving it away to friends, to colleagues, even a jar to (gasp) Thierry Rautureau, the four-star chef who told me once that he cans enough fruit to last him all winter, but saves a single jar from the previous year until the new crops are ready, just to….what? Just to know there’s always one jar there.

Just as our jam wasn’t as disappointing as I thought at first taste, I sure hope it’s as good as I think it is now.

But that doesn’t matter so much. I’m digging up my Ball Blue Book to review basic instructions (as I should have done before hitting the stove this year.) I’ve got canning on the brain. Next week, we want to go picking for raspberries.

And a different verse of that Michelle Shocked song is the one that now just won’t leave my head. It goes like this:

We have a little revolution sweeping the land.
Now once more everybody’s making homemade jam.
So call your friends up on the telephone…
Invite ’em on over, you make some jam of your own
.”

berry2

Won’t you join us on our Canvolution weekend?

 

Yours,

Rebekah Denn

Welcome!

Welcome to the Canning Across America web site!

 Canning Across America is a grassroots-inspired nationwide event that honors the revival of the time-honored art of canning.

Throughout the country, households will join each other the weekend of August 29/30, 2009 to preserve the summer’s bounty. In addition to home canning parties, chefs and food-preservation experts will host classes designed to inspire people how to can creatively and safely. 

Whether you’re new to canning or have been putting up food your whole life, we hope that you’ll partake in the festivities during Canning Across America weekend.

The Canning Across America web site is designed to serve as a community and information clearinghouse. If you plan to can this weekend, please write to us at our email address (see Contact Us, right) and let us know. Include whatever information you care to share—including your name, city/state of residence, the foods you’ll be canning—and we’ll post it on the website in the Events section. 

Have a question about canning? On the web site, you’ll find educational articles on the subject as well as Q+As by food-preservation experts.

 We hope the Canning Across America weekend helps to inspire untold numbers of people—including yourself—to celebrate the craft of creating delicious foods that can sustain you throughout the year.

Yours,

Stephanie Gailing, Canning Across America contributor

The Can-volution Will Not Be Televised!

Here we go, folks. Let this be the first post of many, a place where canning and preserving aficionados gather together and bring back the lost art of  “putting up” food.  More to come!

Yours,

Kim O’Donnel