What follows is a collection of stories submitted by readers in response to the theme of “preserving.”
For me, August of each year begins canning time. I learned how to can helping my mom in the 1950s. Then in the 1960s I struck out on my own with books from the New Hampshire extension office.
First I can peaches, then pears and later applesauce. One of my favorite times is preparing sweet pickles and putting them by for the winter in pint jars.
One day, as I was making another batch of pickles, my husband, Peter, queried, “How do you know when the jars are sealed?” Once I lifted them from my ancient canner, I instructed him to listen.
Ping! Then two quick pings. Four more jars to go. Then ping! Ping! Ping! Ping! Music to a canner’s ears are the pings emitted by each jar, announcing it is sealed. It’s just as wonderful as an evening of Mozart’s Andante from the 21st Concerto.
Jac Hull, Bedford, Virginia
My story is not about me, it’s about my mother, Joann Sills Grohman. Back in the early ‘50s she was a young mother with, gasp, five children under five (she went on to have more), struggling to get by on whatever salary they pay graduate students. She learned to buy cases of food direct from farmers, how to can food and make jam and jelly, and how to grow her own. All of us kids “helped,” and I remember well the hot sticky kitchen back in California. She learned to buy meat direct from the farmer, and later to raise her own. About 1975 she bought a farm in Maine close to where her grandmother had lived when she was little. She went on to raise cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and had a very productive vegetable garden. She’s 93 now, still lives on the farm, the garden is still insanely productive, and all of her children and grandchildren raise their own food or buy from farmers. One of those (step)children was Kamala Grohman who went on to be a founder of MOFGA. My mother is the author of “Real Food,” “Born to Love,” and “Keeping a Family Cow,” all written to help others learn, too.
Sally McGuire, Haines, Alaska
In the dark days of late winter when the seed catalogs were the only sign of spring, you told me you had less energy for gardening. “I’m only doing my raised beds this year — but I’ll happily grow seedlings for you. What do you want?” you asked.
I cooed over the tray of tiny tomatillo seedlings on your window shelf, tucked among the heirloom tomatoes. “What will you make with these?” you asked, leaning on your walker. “I’ve never known what to do with them.”
When I came to pick up the bigger seedlings, each in its own pot, you were asleep in your chair under a quilt. The writing on the masking tape labels was shaky and slanted.
I held your gardener’s roughened hand, sitting on the edge of your hospital bed. “It’s been so hot and dry,” I complained, “I’m having to water the garden nearly every day.” You nodded sympathetically.
“The only thing growing well this summer is the tomatillos, but all the husks are empty. I don’t know if we’ll get any,” I said, giving you the daily outside update. This time you could only frown and wrinkle your brow, curled up on your side.
The rain clouds that skipped around us all summer finally came together in a steady rain. The tomatillo husks filled to bursting. Bees buzzed around my head as I harvested the first round, pollinating the yellow flowers for another. Oh, to have shared a smile with you about that.
The tomatillos kept coming in waves. I raided your canning supplies (wishing you had more pints), tracing your handwriting on the old labels with my finger.
Peel, chop, season, cook, jar, seal with a boil, think of you. Preserving, preserving.
Jennifer Dann, Orono, Maine
We wouldn’t have even known the plums were there if our neighbor, Jesse, hadn’t pointed them out: small perfect globes of purplish blue showing off in the August sunshine. My husband and I looked up at them in amazement. It was our first week on our newly purchased farm, after years living in London.
Jesse told us he had grafted the European Mount Royals onto sturdier rootstock for the farm’s previous owners. Gently, he shook the tree branches but no fruit fell. Impatient, I scoured the ground for drops. I found one unblemished, wiped it clean, and took a tentative bite.
“Sweet, but tart.”
“Wait a few days,” Jesse advised, “but not too long. The critters have been active at night.” He gestured toward his orchard, where an apple tree stood like a skeleton, stripped bare.
In the next few days, I made a habit of checking the plums each time I went outside. Most clung tightly to the tree, but some, softer to the touch, gave way to my greedy fingers. I brought a few in for breakfast one day, hoping to harvest more the next.
But disaster struck that night. I suspect a portly porcupine climbed the young tree breaking off two heavily laden branches at the graft. Limbs lay strewn across the grass like fallen soldiers.
“What a shame,” my husband said, shaking his head in disappointment.
“Too bad about the plums,” Jesse commiserated when he saw the carnage.
But the plums were still there; the nocturnal vandal hadn’t touched them. Determined not to let such delicious fruit go to waste, I found a large basket in the farmhouse and returned to the scene of the crime. I plucked the plums from the fallen branches, filling the basket, then took them into the kitchen to finish ripening. When they were as sweet as they were ever going to get, and before they started to rot, it was time to make jam.
“Do you know how to make jam?” My husband asked. I was insulted, but to be fair, he’d only ever seen me eat jam.
“It’s easy,” I explained. “It’s just sugar and fruit.” But, of course, that’s not true. Pectin is an important ingredient. Some fruits have it naturally, like apples, but I wasn’t so sure about plums. I assigned my husband the job of pitting the plums then studied plum jam recipes. One called for pectin; another didn’t. As there was no pectin in the cupboard and the nearest store was inconveniently miles away, I trusted the plums to do their magic, and they didn’t disappoint. We made enough jam to fill a dozen quilted jelly jars, then distributed them to friends and neighbors, including Jesse.
My husband spent his career in finance; he was surprised to discover that, in the country, you can repay a debt with plum jam.
Rebecca Buyers, Sweden, Maine
Our grandparents would drop off a couple of bushels of Bartlett pears every fall. They ripened quickly and had to be preserved right away. Mom set up an assembly line for us older kids washing, peeling, cutting and stuffing into jars. One critical “tool” was an ordinary rubber band and an old tea towel wrapped around each arm. This kept all the juice that ran down your arms from landing on the floor.
Barbara Clorite-Ventura, Waldo County, Maine
Passing on family recipes is a gift that keeps on giving. Having the opportunity to prepare and make the recipe from a hands-on approach is even more rewarding. Growing up I was fortunate enough to have both sets of grandparents. My nanny was an amazing baker. She would be in the kitchen most of the time, and I would basically be underfoot trying to see what she was making.
The kitchen chair would be dragged to the countertop and my nan would begin showing me how to bake, step by step. Her favorite thing was making pies. She told me how important it was to follow recipes but also to taste the fruit. When the fruit was in season, it didn’t require as much sugar. She would say, it’s an apple pie — you need to taste the apples, not the sugar or other spices.
She and I also entered many local pie contests. We actually won three years in a row.
When I got older she gave me all of her recipes. One of which I would love to share is her no fool pie crust.
4 cups of flour
1 ¾ cups Crisco
1 beaten egg
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
Mix the first two ingredients by hand. Mix the next three ingredients together, then add to the Crisco and flour. Mix thoroughly. Separate into four equal balls. Wrap tightly and freeze. Thaw and use as needed.
Enjoy the baking and sharing your time with your friends and family (priceless).
Cindy Keith, Branford, Connecticut
When I moved to Maine 10 years ago, my husband and I first moved to a 900- square-foot cabin in Thorndike, a stone’s throw from MOFGA itself. Pregnant with my first child, I learned to keep a woodstove going throughout the day, baked bread from scratch, and once our garden started churning out veggies, I learned to can. Dilly beans were first, then jams and fruit butters.
My husband knew how to can through his family’s food traditions, but I was a novice, and as it turns out, not the best with following instructions exactly. My husband works in a lab and is very precise; I’m more of a “wing it and see what happens” kind of gal.
Once we moved to Dexter and I was managing a farmers’ market in my spare time (along with raising two wild daughters at this point), I had aspirations of homegrown everything. At one point I was serving my kids PB&J sandwiches with homemade bread, homemade peanut butter and homemade jelly. I was so proud.
With our daughters now school-age and my student loans looming, I started teaching at our local elementary school. With that abrupt lifestyle change came another edit in our self-sufficiency goals. At first, I thought I was a failure, having to subsist more on frozen pre-made meals rather than the made-from-scratch baked acorn squash stuffed with craisins, rabbit sausage and goat cheese that I used to serve.
Until recently, I felt as though we would never get back to our dream of living off grid and preserving food from our own small farm. This summer we moved to a cabin on one acre of ledge. I reevaluated our lifestyle and our goals, and realized that we are lucky to live near several wonderful farmers who grow much better produce than we could ever hope to (shout out to Ripley Farm and Marr Pond Farm!), and that if we could make deliberate plans to preserve kimchi and sauerkraut, jams and fruit butters, that we would have more time to spend together as a family.
I have attempted to start a food forest, planting dwarf fruit trees and berry bushes, mushrooms and perennials, hoping to cut down on the amount of time and effort needed for us to still feel as though we are accomplishing something. My husband and I both work full time, and our kids are growing faster than weeds. We want to preserve what time we have with them, and fill their childhood memories with gathering eggs from sassy hens, eating grapes off the vine, boiling sap for syrup, ice fishing and watching bats come out at dusk. These are the things we feel are worth preserving right now and, for the first time in a long while, I am at peace with that. My pantry may not be filled with jars of canned goods at the moment, but our lives are filled with adventures, and memories worth saving.
Meredith Josselyn, Dexter, Maine
Food Storage, 1970s-2010s
Apples: wrapped in newsprint in root cellar if perfect keepers; if not perfect, sliced thin and air dried and sealed in jars (they will keep for years!), or apple sauced (chopped and blended, skin and all, canned).
Cabbage: newsprint-wrapped in root cellar, sauerkrauted every few weeks.
Kale and collards: in garden till triple hard-frosted, then chopped, blanched and frozen, as with green beans and chard (before the frost).
Potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes and carrots and beets: in sand to root cellar, unless some dug in spring.
Parsnips and skirret: dug in spring (or fall).
Leeks: dug up late fall and stashed in dirt in buckets in the root cellar.
Onions: braided and hung in kitchen; garlic strung up, too.
Winter squash: carefully cured and stashed in a cool bedroom.
Climate problem: Root cellar to window chilled gets cold later and later!
Beedy Parker, Camden, Maine
Murabba is a favorite sweet of many recently arriving Afghans and Syrians finding their way through resettlement into some of the oldest New England neighborhoods up and down the East Coast. Whether it is asked for in Pashto, Farsi or Arabic, everyone asking is licking their lips for a dollop of sweet saffron, cardamom and rose scented apple jam!
The immigrant and refugee chefs of Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven, Connecticut, specialize in creating Murabba in many flavors. But Afghan Muraba-e-Saib or Syrian Saib ka Murabba may sound the same and even be made of identical ingredients, but that is where the likeness ends. Each recipe for the sweet fruit preserve has been shaped by Middle Eastern family traditions for generations. And each batch will bear the stamp of bibis sharing a family history, an oral tradition passed from mother to child. As it is a time-consuming process to make and a mainstay of the holiday product line, Sanctuary Kitchen chefs gather once or twice each fall to prepare large batches of the sweet compote for holiday sales. Sanctuary Kitchen often also invites local students to join with us in the festive preparation by helping with the hours of peeling, cooking, seasoning and finally packing jars and jars of the rich spiced fruit.
The steps of the process are meticulously managed by the kitchen’s lead chefs as jars are sanitized and the fruit arrives from the farm. We peel and core, wash and slice each perfectly ripened apple with care. The flavor is peak and the sugar and seasonings are measured. Huge pots filled almost to the brim begin to simmer the rich apple compote. Fresh lemons are squeezed into the mixture as the apples are slowly cooked down to make the perfect consistency. Near the end, cardamom, rosewater and saffron threads are added to complete the balance of flavor. Jars are filled and capped and the canning process finishes the batch. We all listen anxiously for the gentle “pop … pop” sounds to be assured the seal is complete.
No one chef’s Murabba will ever taste like another’s. The apples vary year to year. The saffron one year may come from Afghanistan or in another year from Iran. Each family has their own spin. Some like more saffron and some like more rose. Most love the underlying cardamom spice that layers in a rich flavor. When the project is done it is a celebration! A refrigerator full of brilliant pink jars of homeland memories, saffron-inflected and as precious as gold.
Carol Byer-Alcorace, Naugatuck, Connecticut
In my early farming and homesteading years, I put up 1,000 jars of food each year. Much of it was canned outside over an open fire because propane cost money, and firewood was all around us.
The thousand jars included 50 gallons of cider. I have memories of the cabin floor half covered in jars of cider just out of the canning pot. The rest included 50 to 100 jars each of blueberries, tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes and soup, as well as pear and grape juices, corn, beans, even broccoli for a quick flavor-filled soup. We also canned some chicken, venison and moose meat.
Our biggest annual canning venture was mackerel, “jarred mackerel” as we learned to call it. We started the day by heading to Passamaquoddy Bay with a canoe and a cooler, fishing poles and a collection of shiny mackerel jigs. We would fish the incoming tide and fill our cooler and then head home to begin the long canning process.
The time that I remember most, my cousin, a minister, was visiting. After the long day on the water, she joined in and helped us gut the fish and cut them to fit into pint jars. We topped the jars with our homemade tomato sauce. We needed to exhaust the jars before canning by placing them in the canning pot, lids off, adding water to halfway up the outside of the jars, then heating them until they reached 170 degrees or so. Then we sealed them and filled the pressure canners. It took an hour to bring a canner full of jars up to 10 pounds pressure, then they were processed for an hour and 40 minutes, then it took about another hour to cool down enough to open the lid — about five hours in all. We would stay up all night, taking turns watching the pressure gauges. We usually canned two batches for a total of 70 jars of fish.
Since we didn’t have running water, cleaning up the greasy fish dishes was a multi-step process of many wash and rinse cycles. My cousin busied herself with this chore.
The next afternoon she left, opting not to take any jarred mackerel with her. A week later, we received a letter from her. On her way home, she had stopped into a church for their evening service. She said that nobody would sit next to her, and she quickly realized that she was wearing a perfume she called “eau de mackerel.”
Roberta Bailey, Vassalboro, Maine
The Solitude of Canning
With the summer’s toil behind me
I stand watch over the bubbling cauldron
Black enamel flecked with rust and lime
Slick with steam
Success and failure packed into old jars
and beautiful cackling aunties
And Mum and Phyllis
With layer upon layer of cucumbers
and salt and ice
In that crumpled galvanized tub
Making zucchini relish with Stacy
We heard a pop
Only to find the water
A sea of condiment
And the jar
yielded to the pressure of the ages
But today it is just me
and the gentle chime
of metal against metal
glass against glass
My tired skin
Moist as in youth
Childhood curls returning in the humid air
Preserving what I can
Wren Pearson, Pownal, Maine