This time of year finds me standing in the kitchen, windows open wide against the heat of the stove, the heat of that golden September light. I am standing on the tile floor, standing in the kitchen, my shoes sticking and pulling like they do on the movie theater floor at the end of a Saturday afternoon matinee. There is sticky, always sticky.
I am pushing my hair back the the back of my hand, slicing the tops off pounds and pounds of strawberries…machine-like; open the package, wash the berries, stack the package on top of the just-emptied one, green tops filling empty grocery bag, my favorite paring knife (dull, so the blade won’t cut my thumb) working in a quick V shape. Empty containers stack up on the counter, berries stack up in the colander.
I don’t know why I do this, really. Every year for the last 10 I have spent an unreasonable amount of September canning…preserves, jams, pickles, salsa, pie filling, applesauce. I don’t have time for this. And, when I add it up, it probably isn’t particularly cost effective. When we had the peach trees, it made good sense…hundreds of pounds of fresh organic fruit, picked at its peak, and that’s when I learned to preserve (and persevere). Racing against the falling peaches, come ripe all at once and the wasps droning a half-foot from the ground waiting for fruit to fall…split open, all juice and pulp in the hot sun. I’d put in 10 hour days, the counters overflowing with jars and rings and lids, great bowls of peaches to be slipped into boiling water and then plunged into ice, their skins slipped off like silk petticoats in the most delicate shades of yellow and rose. I’d be tired, so tired and hot and sticky and still the harvest kept coming and oh! There is nothing like the joy of working so hard that you fall into bed, thinking of the miracle that brings such bounty in year after year, from bare branch to ripe fruit.
It made sense then, so we pulled down baskets and boxes and tubs of fruit. I bottled peach halves and slices, jams and chutneys and once I’d learned how (we did not die, not even once, from eating those preserved slices of sun…though I cooked the first few batches to mush for fear of botulism) I called my friends and they came too, learned to preserve. I’ve stood in one kitchen or another with many friends over the years, sharing this crazy habit and it always brings us closer…there’s a rhythm you find, one that lends itself well to talking as you work. There’s a camaraderie in it, and there’s the sound of children playing in the yard and through the house and there’s sitting down together while the jam is processing (hot steam condensing on the hood above the stove, then falling like rain) and the guilty pleasure of eating the foam you’ve just skimmed from a batch of fresh raspberry jam. The taste! Bursting, tart-sweet and tantalizing like nothing else I’ve ever eaten.
There are certain things that don’t make a bit of sense, when you add it all up. The trees are gone now, and my garden is dry. So we find other reasons, because September is canning season whether I have a garden or not. I buy flats of berries, boxes of cucumbers, carry home bags of tomatoes from the gardens of friends or from the co-op. And we keep doing it, because it is September. And because there is something so satisfying about feeding my family, from vine to to plate, and knowing where it came from and because I know exactly what goes into each jar (the food, and the love) and because somehow, I feel connected with the women who came before me when I draw those jars out of the boiling water, listen for the “pop” that means it’s properly sealed.
Some things have value that can’t be calculated with pen and paper. Sometimes you do a thing because it’s got to be kept alive, because we all need those little traditions that remind us that we’re still connected…to the soil and to the vine, to the thousand grandmothers before us, to the friend pitting peaches beside us in the sticky heat of this moment.