SELF-PRESERVATION: The Art of Putting Up


    My obsession with "putting-up" started innocently enough 30 years ago. It began with a small batch of pear honey, a nod to my grandmother's, mother's and aunts' pickles and open-kettle preserves. A few years later, I thriftily home-canned a humble spaghetti sauce from our garden excess. For the project, I used an abandoned pressure canner from a disillusioned back-to-the-land enthusiast. That winter, when the garden was a bare rectangle of mud, I began to realize the importance of what I had done. Eating the sauce reminded me of summer and our garden. There was comfort in those few first jars that lined our pantry shelves.
    Later gardens were planned for less immediate gratification. Many more tomatoes were planted. I noticed road signs offering excess produce for sale by home gardeners, and the Healdsburg Farmers Market was born. My blossoming confidence and skill, and memories of my mother and aunts (pictured at right preparing to gather berries for jam), encouraged me to fill my shelves with sauces, preserves, and condiments. Not all of it was delicious. I particularly remember an elderberry jam that I overcooked to a stiff, seedy mess. Rejected, it sat on the shelf until I needed extra jars. However, by learning the art of canning through my successes and failures, I began to identify my taste preferences and to trust them.
    These days home-canning is an anachronism to most. But it is my opinion that a Kerr jar full of the red juiciness of Brandywine tomatoes is a flavor miracle without substitute. I know of no jam, however exclusive its origins, that can compete with the sunshine memory in a jar of open-kettle apricot preserves if the fruit is from an honest source. I am content in the fact that my sauces nourish others when I cannot be with them, and I believe that the communal activity of activity of putting-up has made my family closer and has taught my daughter well about the seasons and food.
    Each batch of preserving has its own personality dependent on the whim of the season and my own. Best of all is my realization that, through the alchemy of preserving what is locally grown and gathered, I am linked, in a most visceral way, to our distant beginnings and that this linkage is a truthful journey of self.

© Elissa Rubin-Mahon 2002



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