About a month or so ago, my friends Cathleen and Robbin went strawberry-picking and decided to make jam from their loot. I have always wanted to do that, so when their photos started showing up on Facebook, I instantly demanded (er, asked?) for the recipe. Cathleen took a picture of a box of pectin (called Sure-Jell) and said all I needed was that, some fruit, some sugar, and the jars.
I’ve sat on that information for a month, biding my time because, even though Cathleen swore it was easy, I just knew that making jam was a process as intricate and time-consuming and theatrical as Lucy’s stepping on grapes to make wine.
I come by this misconception (and it is a misconception) honestly. Recently, I assigned my students one of M.F.K. Fisher’s essays from The Measure of My Powers (which is published in her lovely memoir, The Gastronomical Me, essential reading for anyone who loves food and writing), an early essay about her grandmother, mother, and cook making jam. In this very short essay, she recounts the tone in the kitchen – not fun at all, but serious, almost religious, a calculated attack on nature.
All I knew then about the actual procedure was that we had delightful picnic meals while Grandmother and Mother and the cook worked with a kind of drugged concentration in our big dark kitchen, and were tired and cross and at the same time oddly triumphant in their race against summer heat and the processes of rot.
With descriptions like this, how could one doubt that jam would take all day, in a hot kitchen, pots steaming, jars sterilized and bubbling away in baths of simmering water, men and children alike banished from the kitchen? The heat! The pressure!
Nonetheless, this process appeals to me. I’ve always had a very romantic daydream about doing things the old-fashioned way. When I was little, I used to say that I wanted to live in a house without electricity because I wanted to have to use candlesticks. I also wanted a house without closets so that I could use big, beautiful wooden wardrobes to store my clothes. They would be made of dark wood, and if the back just so happened to open up onto another world, then, you know, whatever, that could be cool.
(I would like to point out that this romance with rustic, electricity-free living has quickly been snuffed out by my realization, as an adult, that I rather like the convenience afforded by electricity, Internet, running water, and actual closets.)
I read another essay by M.F.K. Fisher recently, one set during her adult years when she was living in Vevey with Chexbres (who I believe is her lover?). In this essay, she returns to the topic of canning as an adult and the ways that ritual had changed in her estimation.
I canned often, too. We had three cellars, and I filled one of them with beautiful gleaming jars for the winter. It was simple enough to do it in little bits instead of in great harried rushes as my grandmother used to, and when I went down into the coolness and saw all the things sitting there so richly quiet on the shelves, I had a special feeling of contentment. It was a reassurance of safety against hunger, very primitive and satisfying.
Well damn. Okay. So it didn’t need to be the whole big to-do with the steam and the sobriety and certain failure. Fine. And I’m happy to report that both Cathleen and M.F.K. Fisher were right.
When I was grocery shopping the other day, strawberries were super cheap (4 containers for $6). Now I know what you’re thinking – those are grocery store strawberries and they don’t taste as good and they’re modified and everything. And that’s true. But what’s ALSO true is that 1) I’m a bit thrifty at times, and 2) I was still suffering under the misapprehension that this jam-making escapade would end in utter, steamy, sticky failure. So why not test drive the process on cheap-o strawberries instead of spoiling the lovely hand-picked Cullipher Farm strawberries I have in the freezer?
Last night, Amanda and I busied ourselves with sanitizing jars, lids, and bands, and chopping strawberries into fine pieces. We followed the instructions on the insert in the box of Sure-Jell to make freezer strawberry jam. Our initial 24-hour period of letting the jam stand in its jars to set is almost up, and in a few short hours, we’ll be able to put most of those jars in the freezer, chill a few of them, and make up some lovely toast with butter and jam and try out our creation. I’m a little nervous that by following Sure-Jell’s instructions, we’re going to put ourselves into diabetic shock from all the sugar, but the way I see it, we have to start somewhere. I’m already pleased at the lovely peachy-pink color of the jam as opposed to the ruby red color of Smucker’s jam. Methinks that even with these store-bought strawberries, we’re getting at something more natural and better for us. Me also thinks I am going to put a powerful hurt on toast with jam over the next few days.