Last Saturday morning Jamie came home with a huge loaf of French bread from Balthazar. He sliced several fat chunks from it, plugged in the toaster and, as it preheated, began rummaging in the refrigerator.
“Do you want something?” I called from the family room. I know from painful experience how much easier it is to offer help before he begins emptying shelves in pursuit of the invisible item that was directly in front of him the entire time.
“No,” he answered, slamming the door and moving to his left to rummage through the pantry shelves.
I tried again. “Can I help you find anything?”
“No.” The pantry door banged. I heard the light switch click in the back hallway and footsteps descend to the basement pantry cupboard. Within thirty seconds he was standing in front of me, empty-handed and wearing an expression like a dog that cannot find its food bowl.
“Where’s the jam?”
“In the pantry. We have jars of it, all kinds, Italian lemon, Maine blueberry, orange marmalade.”
“Where is your jam?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. In the pantry, I guess.”
He shook his head mournfully.
I thought briefly. “Maybe we ran out.”
He looked as though he might burst into tears. “You didn’t make any?”
“Sure, Jame, I made strawberry and raspberry in June before I left for California.” I had spent a month in Pacific Grove taking a graduate class on John Steinbeck.
“I ate that while you were gone. You haven’t made any since you returned?”
“No. Sorry. I gained seven pounds out there and haven’t been eating toast.”
He turned heavily and wandered back into the kitchen. “I guess I will just use butter,” he sighed with the same air of resignation Louis XVI must have utilized when faced with the guillotine.
His reaction to a lack of homemade jam still surprised me after all these years. We were both raised on Welch’s and Smucker’s. His mother was a good enough cook but she never believed in making something herself that she could purchase just as easily. Her only exception was a version of Schrafft’s fudge sauce, which she made once a year or so and canned for use throughout the summer ice cream season. My mom never made jam, either, although she made any number of other things from scratch. The only reason I even started making jam was because – in an effort to entice me to cook something, anything – my mom bought me a series of cookbooks for various holiday gifts when I was in my twenties. Upon visiting and observing the dust bunnies living atop them, she upped the stakes by one day walking through the front door of my apartment carrying a huge, silvery pot, shrink-wrapped in plastic.
“A canning pot.”
“Waddaya do with it?”
“You seal jars.”
“Mom, why would I want to seal jars? Don’t they come sealed? Isn’t the point to break the seal and eat the contents?”
My mother’s face got that expression of exaggerated patience she often employs with me when I refuse to see her point, however obtusely she is making it.
“When you can things.”
“Can things? You mean like your grandmother did?”
She smiled, pleased that I had finally made the connection. “Yes.”
“But I don’t know how to make anything.”
“You might want to some day, if you ever decide to stop living on Cap’n Crunch and Spaghetti O’s.”
The look on my face probably told her the likelihood of such a day coming was slim. After all, I didn’t need to learn to cook; there was always food around. I lived in an apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan, not in the Little House on the Prairie. She turned toward the spare bedroom, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll just put it in here until you want to use it.”
It sat there blocking my shoes for months until one day I passed a huge stall on the sidewalk selling fresh fruit to commuters. The strawberries looked great – plump and shiny crimson. “I wonder how hard it is to make jam,” I mused to myself. Deciding to try I bought six quarts and ran down the steps to catch my train.
I stopped at the Red Apple grocery on Broadway and bought two bags of sugar on my way uptown and dropped it all on the kitchen table after unlocking the apartment door. Kicking off my shoes, I petted Tux, then flicked on the light switch in the spare bedroom. I opened the closet and pulled out the enormous pot. “Come on, buddy,” I muttered to it. “Let’s see what you can do.”
Tux leaped onto the counter to help me slice the shrink-wrap and pull off the lid. Inside the pot was a metal colander-like thing and another shrink-wrapped package, this one holding six glass jam jars. I leaned to the right, blew the dust off the cookbooks, and slid out one entitled Southern Living Sweets and Gifts. Turning to the index in the back I found” jam, strawberry” pretty quickly. Scanning the recipe I decided that it didn’t sound so hard; clean and weigh the fruit, measure the sugar, dump it in the biggest and heaviest pot I owned with a candy thermometer, and let it cook until it thickened. I had my first batch of glossy red jam bubbling away on the stove in no time. Then I turned to the paperbound book tucked inside the canning pot to read the canning instructions.
“Oy vey!” I thought as I read all of the sanitary procedures required before even beginning. “No wonder Welch’s makes a lot of money. This is going to be a pain in the ass!”
The book showed all of the equipment I would require to complete this project successfully. Pot and lifter. (So that’s what that big colander-thing was.) Jars. Lids. Rings. Jar lifter. Canning funnel. Bubble remover. Candy thermometer. Foam scraper. A dishwasher for sterilizing the jars before filling. Suddenly I was sorry I had started this entire project before I knew what I was getting into. Well, it was too late to stop now; the jam was cooking and if I stopped it I would waste all that money and time, not to mention feeling like an idiot. I looked at Tux sprawled on the counter. “Hmm. They say necessity is the mother of invention and mine is the mother who invented it. So we have to make this work.”
With Tux watching curiously, I dug through every cabinet and drawer in the kitchen until I had collected an approximation of the required equipment. Besides the pot, the jars, and the candy thermometer (another of my mother’s hopeful, yet unexplainable purchases for me) the rest of my equipment looked as though the cartoonist Rube Goldberg was going to participate.
I filled the canning pot with water and set it on the stove on the highest flame. I had no dishwasher then, so using hot dog tongs, I slipped the jars into the boiling water to sanitize and set the kitchen timer, then tossed in the metal lids and rings as an afterthought; too late it occurred to me that I had no idea how I would get them out. I slipped the thermometer into the bubbling jam; it wasn’t at gelling temperature yet but the top of the pot was filling with fluffy, pink, cotton-candy-like foam. Now I knew what the foam scraper was for. Since the recipe advised removing the foam for a smoother taste and cleaner appearance, I pulled out a mixing bowl and spatula and stood next to the stove, steam curling my hair, while I skimmed the foam. It was a losing battle; as it boiled more foam was made continually and soon I had a pile of sugary, sticky, glop in the bowl.
When the timer sounded, I ceased foam-scraping and attempted to lift the slippery, wet, jars filled with boiling water out of the enormous pot without burning myself. It wasn’t easy but I did it. I placed them carefully, opening-side down, on a cotton dishtowel on the section of the worktop close to the jam pot, then peered into the bubbling water wondering how I was going to remove the rings and lids. It turned out that the hot dog tongs grasped the rings without a problem but squinting into the roiling liquid while fishing for wafer-thin lids felt like a form of medieval torture. “This is why they make specialized equipment,”I muttered. With burning skin and dripping bangs, I dipped the hot dog tongs in for what seemed like the eightieth time. Finally I had all six. Turning away to mop my face, I realized that the Le Creuset pot holding my jam had what resembled a massive pink and sticky cumulous cloud about to burst from its confines. “Shit!” I yelled, scaring Tux, as I realized that my foam had now gotten completely out of control.
By the time I had the foam out and the candy thermometer in, the temperature was at gel point, so I turned off the burner and scooted the jars closer. I had no canning funnel so I wrapped each jar in a damp paper towel and began filling them carefully with a soup ladle. When the jar was filled to a half-inch from the top, I ran the thin handle of an iced tea spoon around to chase out all air pockets, then wiped the lip carefully with the damp towel before pressing on the lid and tightening the ring. After finishing all six jars, I placed them all carefully in the canning pot and set the timer for ten minutes. As I was about to collapse on the sofa I realized that there was some jam left in the pot. Since I had no more jars, I scraped it into a Tupperware bowl and popped it into the refrigerator.
Jamie walked in the front door just as I was lifting the sealed jars from the canner.
“What are you doing?” he asked tossing his coat across the back of the wing chair.
“Making strawberry jam,” I answered as the seals began to pop closed in the background.
“Where’d you learn that?”
“A cookbook. Wanna taste it?”
He did and that is the exact moment when his love affair with my homemade jam began. I have been making it now for over 30 years, although now it’s a lot easier because I have a dishwasher and all of the correct equipment.
I pushed myself up from the sofa and walked into the kitchen to put on my shoes. “I am going to the store. Do you want anything?”
Jamie looked up from where he was reading the Times while eating his sad, lonely, butter-saturated toast. He shook his head. “No. What are you going for?”
“Strawberries and raspberries. They should be on sale now and we need to stock up on jam before winter.”