End of the world, or not, there will be canned jam
I read a lot of novels about the end of the world.
I’m not sure why, because I wallow in a paranoid funk for days afterward, but these books have their uses. After I read “Lucifer’s Hammer” the first time, I bought a bunch of sewing needles. A character in the book mentions in passing how difficult it would be to make them and I thought, yeah! That would be tough! So, I bought many packages, and come the end of the world, or even sooner, I won’t want for needles.
Post-“Dies the Fire,” I stocked up on salt — to cure all the game I’ll be killing, apparently. I haven’t run out of salt for years. After “Alas, Babylon” it was a hand-crank flashlight, and “Flood” inspired the purchase of several tarps.
Which brings me to George R. Stewart’s “Earth Abides,” and strawberry jam.
In the novel, survivors of a global plague scour stores in the San Francisco Bay area for canned goods. Years after the pandemic, they still find jars of pickles and peaches and know that as long as the jar isn’t broken, bulging or rusted, they can eat its contents. The peaches may be flavorless, but they signify survival (at least until the second generation can return to stone-age superstition and primitivism, and kill stuff with arrows).
I pondered this the other day as I beheld the floating strawberries in jars of jam I’d just pulled from my canner. I’d done everything right, so the strawberries shouldn’t have been floating, but there it was: a parfait-like separation with berries in the top 3/4 of the jar and red jelly underneath.
This was not attractive jam. I couldn’t enter it in the county fair or give it to anyone I like, yet I was pleased. It tasted great — I’d gobbled the unprocessed leftovers in about two seconds — and with each satisfying, sucking pop that let me know a jar had sealed, I felt a glow of security. Earth had done its part and I had done mine. Come the apocalypse, I will be living on jam, mainly, but I will be living.
More than that, though, is the sense that the bulwark of a home is made of things like strawberry jam. If security is the spot on which I stand and home is an idea rather than a place, then I build my walls of everything I’ve been taught, and lay a roof of all the blessings I’ve been given. That I know how to make jam because my mother taught me, that I have a job and can buy the strawberries, that the ruby-red jam in a row of cooling jars is as beautiful a thing as I could ever hope to see — all these things are what build my home. In the jars of jam I see safety. I see evidence that I have done what I can against the creeping shadows.
When I was little, my great-grandmother lived in a very old house with a very creepy root cellar. I was terrified of that thing. But one day, the doors were open, so I took a quick peek and saw shelves lined with dusty, narrow-mouth quart jars filled with green gage plums and apricots in heavy syrup. Here was a woman who, well into her 80s, canned what fell from the trees in her backyard.
She’d lived through the Great Depression and knew that good-to-bad can happen in a blink. She knew that Earth provides, and that God provides, and that she’d been blessed with two hands and the energy in them. Home was what she could make it, and so she made jam.
I don’t think she was someone who expected bad things to happen, and I don’t think I am, either. I believe that I will eat the jam in good health, with a spoon on lazy mornings — because I can’t be bothered to make toast or a sandwich, and because I’m blessed with the choice. I believe that next year I will make more jam, and that there will be a next year. I believe the jam is pretty and delicious, and that’s enough.
But I also know that the arbitrary vicissitudes of life can drown me in unexpected currents, if I let them. Jobs come and jobs go, storms rage, cars crash, cells go haywire. Maybe that’s what inspired the recent upsurge of interest in home canning, surmised Rhonda Follman, area extension agent with the Tri-River Area Colorado State University Extension: “Because of the economy, people have gardens and they’re actually canning so that they have things to eat over winter and they’re not spending as much money on groceries.”
Or maybe it’s because people want to know what’s in their food, they want to have a hand in its preparation, she said. There’s nothing more basic than knowing what nourishes us.
And however little I can control in life, I can control what I smear on my bagel in the dead of a January morning. I can wander into the kitchen, wrapped in a blanket against the cold, and open a jar of June sunshine, knowing this was Summer Rachel’s gift to Winter Rachel, knowing that outside can stay there and inside is home.
Rhonda Follman, area extension agent with the Tri-River Area Colorado State University Extension, is offering several classes on basic canning and food preservation, including:
At 6 p.m. Wednesday in the downstairs program room of the Mesa County Libraries central library in Grand Junction. The class will include information about canning equipment, methods, techniques for different types of food, safety and cost savings. The class is free and open to all adults.
From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 14 and 15 at Delta Westminister Hall, 135 E. 4th Street in Delta. The class is $50 per person for both days, and will include canning basics and the water bath procedure on the first day, and pickling and pressure canning on the second day. Call 244-1834 for information.