Before the fateful batch, I had been preserving food for a couple years with an intensity that astonished everyone, even me. I dabbled in other areas of doing-it-from-scratch, baking bread for a while from sourdough starter, and sun-drying homegrown tomatoes on homemade screens. Tattered tomes about obscure smoking equipment and long-term egg storage lined the bookshelf and cluttered the kitchen. But canning was where it was at.
Visitors boggled at the sight of 30 quarts of applesauce sitting solidly on the floor of the linen closet, and were gratefully astonished by my regular gifts of food. (I had run out of room in the kitchen cupboards.) When asked -- which was frequently -- I said canning was fun, that we knew where our food came from, that I was getting back in touch with old food-ways that were in danger of dying out.
The truth was less pretty: I was berserk.
A summer kitchen, made swamp-hot by a violently boiling vat of water, was almost a magnetic force to me. I scanned newspapers and visitor brochures for harvest festivals, and spent hours with pencil and paper, calculating pounds of produce per quart of finished product. At one point I was even designing a new shelving system to bear the weight of the abundant harvest.
This passion turned out to be a lonely one. Sales clerks were invariably surprised by a 20-something woman with a lip ring asking for jar clamps and half-pint jars, and the aisle to the canning supplies was always a long and dusty one, populated by a few joyless matrons getting ready for another season of string beans.
All jibes to the contrary, I was never a Martha Stewart. That paragon of personal planning did her work for entertainment or showing off, or at least to get the viewing audience to buy the book. My motives only seemed more sensible: I was stocking up. Fueled by deeply ingrained memories of the self-sufficient Mormon ideals of my childhood and a 14-month stay in an Eastern European country, I craved reassurance that we would always be fed, even if the diet would be rather strange: apple pie filling, pickled garlic, stewed tomatoes.
But jam? Why stock up on a product that has less nutritional value than an equal weight of Spam? The last foodstuff we'll need when the bomb drops is something that has to be washed down. It's right out of a "Got Milk?" commercial, for chrissakes.
The appeal back then of making my own jam remains a mystery, something about jam prices and the saccharine sludge that comes out of Smucker's jars. I could do better, I thought, and drove out the very next day to a u-pick farm near Santa Cruz. Five minutes into the row, my hands clicked into berry overdrive, stripping the bushes methodically, twisting and dropping the berries carefully into the bucket. My less-experienced girlfriend moved more slowly, the bend in her back saying, "Are we there yet?" as plainly as a 7-year-old in the back seat. Not yet, not yet ... OK, 80 pounds was enough. (For those who are preserving-impaired, 80 pounds of strawberries is 320 strawberry shortcakes. Put that on your plate and eat it.)
Back home the flats stood in a triumphant tower on the front porch, while the capacious gas range soon grew crowded with a speckled enamel vat of simmering water, a smaller kettle of bubbling jam. We hulled and chopped and stirred and poured as fast as we could -- miraculously, no jars exploded -- and by 2 a.m. we were able to go to sleep with the plink-plink of the sealing lids ringing in our ears.
The kitchen next morning was a landscape of scorched sugar and rotting berry stems that hadn't made it out to the compost heap (all right, there is a bit of Martha in me). I slid a toasted slice of crusty homemade bread out of the toaster, buttered it lavishly, and carefully opened one of the few jars that hadn't sealed. The moment of truth had arrived. Ah, glorious self-reliance!
The knife slid easily into the jam, but the wan red paste that emerged stiffly on the blade of the knife resembled pink grout more than any kind of home-crafted fruit spread. Any fruit that survived the pectinized cauldron on the stove had been finished off with 25 minutes in the mandated boiling water bath (scared of botulism, I had added another 10 minutes to the time).
I spread the jam with some difficulty on the waiting piece of toast and bit in, hoping for redemption in the flavor department, at least. Alas, what pectin had done for the texture, sugar had done to the taste. The blandly sticky paste bore as much resemblance to those aromatic fruits of the field as a squirt-can of Cheez-Whiz does to a good hunk of cheddar.
A couple of years have passed since that humbling bite, which appears to have cured me of my compulsive canning behavior. Oh, I still linger over the jewel-like pages of those gifts-from-the-kitchen books, and even threw some Bing cherries in brandy last month with the idea of giving it to friends come the holidays. But the darkening jars of ersatz jam, reproachful as the picture of Dorian Gray, stand as grim sentinels in my closet.
There's no more room, they say. Just buy it one damn jar at a time. ©