Canning preserves my memories of mom
I come from hardy stock, pioneers who didn’t have much and wasted little. Survivors. My mother’s mother saved aluminum foil and plastic bags, washing them after each use until they were so ragged they couldn’t be used again. She saved everything, and not in a “hoarders” kind of way, but in a “waste not, want not” way.
Canning and pickling were a way of life, an assurance they would have something to eat in the wintertime, a way to survive before you could buy produce from the Southern Hemisphere at the grocery store in January.
The food my grandmother put up during the season preserved the harvest for lean times. She told stories of canning in a cauldron over an open campfire, stretched meals to serve a dozen, and made recipes using what most people would throw away, like peach pit jelly, watermelon rind pickles and corn cob preserves. My mother and her sisters learned from the best.
This is the root of my canning obsession. As a child, I watched my mother lower jars of fruit into a boiling water bath and listened for the “ping” of the lids sealing as they cooled on the counter. Canning jar rings were some of my first pieces of jewelry, as I liked to play with the clinky metal and wear them like bangles on my arms.
I helped when I could, but sometimes it was better to just stay out of the way when mom had her canning mojo going and shooed us out of the kitchen because we might touch the jars before they sealed.
Almost eight years ago, my husband and I bought our own little homestead with an established orchard, and I suddenly had way too much fruit at once. We gorged ourselves on peaches, plums and cherries, until we couldn’t eat any more. I returned to canning, because I can’t stand letting anything go to waste. A full pantry when the snow flies is one of the most comforting feelings I can imagine.
I think my mom was a little amused at my sudden desire to be so domestic. I prided myself on being a modern, working girl who didn’t have time for that kind of stuff. But preserving is apparently part of my genetic material I cannot ignore. She became my go-to canning hot line, when I called with technical questions about headspace, exploding jars, processing times and whether I should can or freeze something.
Every time I preserve food, I think of my mom and how I wish I could call her with some stupid question, the answer to which I could probably look up on the Internet or the Ball Blue Book. Mom answers are always better.
I keep canning even though it’s hard work, and it’s painful to remember her sometimes because with each jar, a memory resurfaces. This is my first season canning without Mom. She died unexpectedly, after a short but terrible illness last winter.
My dad is still adjusting to domestic life without her. He makes a decent potato salad, with pickles, that he brings over for barbecues. He recently mentioned he needed to buy pickles at the store for that purpose. I gagged at the thought of nasty store pickles, with their yellow food coloring and pathetic limpness, and assured him there were some still in the pantry with all the other jars mom canned last year. Sure enough, two jars were left, labeled in mom’s handwriting. I handed him one, and he looked at the jar and said, “I was saving those.”
My mom peeled those peaches, husked that corn and packed those pickles. Last year. With the same hands that I can only picture now as the hands grasping hospital bed handrails, clinging on through pain. The hands we held to make sure she knew we were there, even though it seemed she was halfway between worlds. The hands that, toward the end, she preferred to clasp over her stomach, distended from her cancer-ridden liver, because it was comforting for her to hold on.
I look at those beautiful jars on which she spent so much time and energy, to ensure we had good food to eat and to carry on my grandmother’s tradition of preserving, and I think of how much work she invested in taking care of us as a homemaker. If she did something different with these jars than the recipes written in her loopy cursive, it will remain a secret forever. Something is missing. Everything tastes better when it was made by your mother, whether it’s a sandwich, a pot of spaghetti sauce or preserves.
With every jar that’s opened, that taste slips away, little by little.