The Peoplehood of Our Food

Strawberries for jam-making.
Strawberries for jam-making.

If you follow this blog on Facebook (and you should – it’s fun), you already know that earlier this week, I made strawberry jam. You also know I found that process exhausting, aggravating, and stressful.

The thing is, I have a bee in my bonnet about doing things the old-fashioned way, especially when it comes to food. By taking up tasks myself, I control ingredients, nutrition. I boost local economy. I train my body to eat seasonally, to bond with the earth and the elements in that way. And though the old ways are a bit fussy (sometimes), they are oh-so-romantic.

As a writer and a reader, I’m urged on by literary cheerleaders, the voices of writers whose words have guided and inspired and shaped me. Like MFK Fisher, who wrote about jam-making in her book, The Gastronomical Me:

In spite of any Late Victorian asceticism, though, the hot kitchen sent out tantalizing clouds, and the fruit on the porch lay rotting in its crates, or readied for the pots and the wooden spoons, in fair glowing piles upon the juice-stained tables. Grandmother, saving always, stood like a sacrificial priestess in the steam, “skimming” into a thick white saucer, and I, sometimes permitted and more often not, put my finger into the cooling froth and licked it. Warm and sweet and odorous. I loved it, then.

The first few times I read this – I’ve read it often as I used to teach it to my freshman composition students – I focused only on the beauty. I fell prey to the seduction of the old fashioned way of doing things – the steam, the sweet smell, the sisterhood of jam-making, of preservation.

It wasn’t until I re-read it this last time that I caught Fisher’s final sentence. “I loved it, then.” [emphasis mine]

I have an idea, because I like to believe that certain writers would have been friends of mine in real life, that we’re more similar than we could know, separated by space and time – I have an idea that Fisher remembered jam-making fondly because she saw it through the magical eyes of childhood. She peered into the kitchen and only saw something ceremonious and important, something she was barred from, the fruits of which she would enjoy in the months to come.

That was then.

In this idea of mine, I imagine her an adult. She procures a recipe, from memory or from family, perhaps, and some ripe fruit. And she tries her hand at the task that seemed so magical to her as a child. And she ends up how I ended up after making strawberry jam – tired and cranky.

If Papa Johns had been around then as it is now, we would have linked our experiences even more as I am quite certain she would have done as I did and ordered pizza for dinner.

After my berry jam (truth told, it was a mix of blueberries and strawberries) experience, I thought, this just isn’t worth it. I had chosen the hot water canning method because I want a freezer free of jam jars and the ability to gift a jar now and then. I had tried a cooked recipe for the jam because I wanted a jam that really felt like jam, not like a runny, sugary strawberry syrup. And for all that work, I thought, Lord, that just was not worth the effort.

And then I slept. And in the morning, I toasted bread and slathered it with butter and my berry jam.

Confession:  It was worth it.

Perhaps it was because I felt bonded with that jam – a success pulled out of something that felt rather defeating. Perhaps it’s just the sweet goodness of ripe berries and sugar. Perhaps it was my glee at the perfect texture. But no matter what it was, I stood back and looked at the jars in my cabinet and thought, yes, it was worth it, in the end.

There might be people who say, “Honestly, Dana, it’s just jam. Not such a big deal. No use making the mess and the fuss.” But it is to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about heritage and food lately – it’s too long and detailed to go into here, now – but I’ve been thinking of the way that food grounds us. The way it lets us know where we are in the year, in the country. It’s a way for us to unite with each other. To show love. It’s a way to acquaint yourself with your community. One of the first things we did upon moving to California was visit the farmers market, and it made such a difference in helping us put down roots, however temporarily.

I live in Oxnard, land of the strawberry. And I made strawberry jam. I can make bread, and for breakfast, I can slather it with the sweet evidence of strawberry season, even in the months after those plants go to sleep for the winter. In this way, the berries live on. Those roots I put down thrive. My sense of community strengthens. And my link to the past – my past, or another’s – strengthens, too.

It’s in this way that I’m seduced by the old-fashioned way, by the search for heritage and home and taste and place and the sisterhood – the peoplehood – of our food.

I promised a recipe on Facebook, and I will deliver. I used The Pioneer Woman’s strawberry jam recipe, but then my strawberries came up a little short. I had about four and a half cups of strawberries, so I supplemented with frozen blueberries to get six cups. Other than that, I followed her recipe exactly, and it turned out delicious. 

6 thoughts on “The Peoplehood of Our Food

  1. beautifully written! Funny how I read the “I loved it, then…” as you heard it later on (maybe my pessimistic nature shining through like the ray of light it isn’t). Also, I know what you mean about feeling like you and your favored writers could be great friends.

  2. you said that perfectly. PERFECTLY.
    there’s something deeply romantic about doing things the old way. It’s like every time i make a pie, i fancy myself living in another time – usually the fifties or early sixties, when things were very innocent and it was normal for one to be home during the day making pie. i waffle back and forth: it depends on the day, but sometimes realism takes over and i remember that things were, yes, probably sort of a pain in the butt to accomplish back then also. 😉 My grandma laughs at me for pooh-poohing the microwave, because she sees it as a glorious item of convenience. I have to remember that she was cooking before plastic was invented. so.

    1. Thanks! I know what you mean. I’ve read posts by older people who say, why go to all this extra effort? There are easier ways now! But I’m seduced by the extra effort. And I’m fully in love with that deep connection to food. I want to feel it in my bones.

  3. Shannon sums up my thoughts perfectly! It’s why I went to baking school – there’s something so satisfying about taking simple things and making beautiful treats with them. To use your hands to create something – perhaps to share with someone else. It’s so darned romantic. Of course, there are problems in any relationship. Often you just want to throw stuff out the kitchen window…

    1. I like that – thinking of it as a relationship. So good and lovely and satisfying – you take the bad with all that good. Even if it means you have to pour an extra large glass of wine, you know, hypothetically.

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