For me, a woman not more than a minute away from her twenties and raised in a suburban setting, it would have been entirely possible for the concept of canning and preserving to have passed me by completely. If a bell jar was in my mothers house, it was either being used to clean her paintbrushes, or housing one of her collections of random items; a paperclip, a dirty penny stuck to a dime, an oddly shaped rock, a small army figurine, a gum wrapper, a Popsicle stick glued to a cut out of Harrison Ford, and perhaps a barrette, for example. My mother, Denise, was a million pieces of joy, but Martha Stewart she was not.
I could have lived entirely in a world of Smuckers jams and Vlasic pickles, never realizing these were manufactured versions of treasured home made recipes.
I could have, but I didn’t. I had Grandma Eva, and because of Grandma Eva, I had a life filled with freezer jam and jars of preserved fruits.
To describe my grandmother to you would take pages of words, discussing her rural childhood on a female run ranch, home economics degree, disciplined personality, sorority manners, and impeccable and modern yet traditional home. However, thanks to another blond haired super hero home maker, I can sum it up with two words. Martha. Stewart.
To say my grandmother cut the mold Martha came from would not quite be right. Martha Stewart could have sprung fully formed from my grandmothers soft grey, neatly permed head. Had she different motives, grandma Eva could have built that empire. Her home was a tidy collectors paradise where the china and silver were used often, intermingled with use of hand painted pottery collected on trips to Mexico and beyond. Her kitchen was one of intention, with a split drawer for sugar and two ovens. There she baked daily, cooked, and prepared to entertain. Her well manicured garden flanked a winding path that led from a cherry blossom tree to a small yard wrapped in a rose garden, and fresh cut flowers sat on the tables. Her lavish pick-nicks were tightly packed in a woven basked, complete with silverware tucked in the elastic cuffs. Behind closed doors were meticulous sewing rooms filled with a spectrum of colors and projects, and her storeroom was a museum.
As a child, this store room was a source of constant fascination. It required a trip down the stairs, a place my sisters and I used like a jungle gym. However, once at the bottom, providing you didn’t turn and run back up the stairs as fast as your thundering arms and legs could propel you, you were forced to choose between two doors. One door led to the shelved treasures of the storeroom. But the other door, which led to the large room we played in, was guarded by a menacing wicker monkey, casually suspending itself by one arm from a curtain rod. The glimmering button eyes were precisely pointed at the bottom stair, a place I often sat apprehensively, believing the monkey was staring directly into my eyes, unsure that he couldn’t really move.
Finally, aided by my sister Libby, I would make my move, and run into the store room. There we would stare at the shelves, looking at the rows of puzzles, the boxes of small farm animal toys, barbies from the 50’s with entire wardrobes beside them, tin-y tonka trucks and worn tractors neatly parked in rows. We would laugh at the Madame Alexander dolls, china white and dressed in frill, knowing that one of them had proudly belonged to our father. While my sister would start collecting our afternoon entertainment, I would turn around and stare.
Behind me, opposite the wall of collectible toys we were about to devalue, were rows and rows of ball jars, packed with fruit. To my wide young eyes, they shimmered like jewels. I would run my hand along the cool glass, letting it fall in the space between jars with a small slap, slow to climb the next jar and let it fall again. A bit dazzled by the bright colors illuminated from behind the shimmering glass, I would think of eating them, of being allowed to use all my strength to twist the cap until it popped. I thought about the apricots, my favorite by far, and that both of my sisters preferred the peaches.
My trance broke when my sister would command me to carry something and we discussed tactics for passing the woven gate keeper. A count of three, a quick sprint, and our little legs would speed us past the staircase, beyond the wicker monkey and his piercing button gaze. As we fell to our knees, our arms would relaxed spilling our toys onto the carpet in a clutter. Immediately we began to loose ourselves in childish games that chased away any lingering memories of the jars of preserves that captivated me.
Missing from this glimmering wall of canned gems were jam and jelly. These were held a short distance away, tucked into stacked plastic square containers, locked away for the year in frosty preservation. While I really had no concept of where these jars of fruit that I so loved came from, I actively participated every year in the jam making. Not jelly and not jam, but freezer jam.
The summer day would start with a much anticipated visit from Grandma Eva, her long green Dodge Dart Swinger pulling into our gravel driveway. She could expect to be mobbed by affectionate granddaughters while my mom rushed us into the back seat, buckling us into the sprawling bench seat in preparation for the drive to the U-Pick strawberry fields. We delighted in riding the tractor-pulled trolley to the fields, dry powdery dirt clouding the trail behind us, our fingers wrapped tightly around the handled flats we were preparing to fill. We scattered ourselves down a row, crouched on our knees, and plucked sun ripened berries from their dusty vines. I prided myself in my contribution to the cause, and admired the collection my sister Libby would gather of the smallest, brightest, most perfectly shaped strawberries. The baby, my sister Sarah would eat everything she picked plus some, evident by the red staining her little hands, chubby cheeks and T-shirt. This never failed to prompt my grandmother to tease us, telling the cashier that she should have weighed us before we came in and after.
Once home, my mom would prepare a quick lunch while my grandmother carefully set up a new fangled contraption I was in awe of; the food processor. We girls helped wash and hull the berries for as long as it interested us. Inevitably Libby and Sarah would wander off, dragging out their my little ponies or putting on their roller skates, or perhaps running through the sprinkler. These were games I usually enjoyed, but the ritual of jam making held me in the kitchen. At my grandmothers side, I took all the difficult tasks off her hands. I measured sugar, poured things, and most difficult of all, I stirred for her.
Over the course of one afternoon, our tiny “two butt kitchen” as my mother called it produced enough strawberry and raspberry freezer jam to get 4 households through to the next year. Needless to say no one ate as much of the red stuff as my house, the only one writhing with children. The remaining berries, and yes, there were remaining berries, were sliced, sugared, packed in Zip-Lock bags, and frozen. They were saved for fruitless times in winter, waiting to be turned into jam if need be, or be eaten over ice cream, with cake, or smothering biscuits with whipped cream. Oh, and how could I forget, my favorite of all, sugary sliced strawberries scattered in the steamy crater of a dutch baby.
I would love to say that my grandmother still comes over on a sunny summer day, driving with my mother, myself, and my adult sisters to the U-Pick fields, or simply continuing to make jam. It aches just a little to sit and paint this collection of memories without new ones to add. However, it’s just my sisters and I now, scattered between Seattle and Germany, and in the time consuming process of becoming adults.
The last few remaining ball jars that once adorned my grandmothers shelves now live in the cupboard above my refrigerator. The occasional turquoise jar will spend a short time on my table, containing stems of cut flowers. Each year I get closer to taking them all down, teaching myself how to fill them with summers bounty and tuck them away for the winter. Every time I taste peaked season strawberries, or freezer jam I cross-my-heart-swear I will make it next strawberry season.
Next year I will. No really, I will. Probably. Until the day I do, the memories and traditions my grandma left behind her will help hold me tight, part of the thread that weaves me together. These memories wait, preparing to become part of my life, waiting for another someone to pass them along to. When it comes time, I know I have two sisters ready with memories of their own, eager to begin tradition anew.
CAA contributor Dana Cree was named “Best Pastry Chef On The Rise” in 2008 by and honored as a “Rebel Chef” in 2009 by Seattle magazine, was awarded a Rising Star Pastry Chef award by Starchefs in 2009, and has been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and in Gourmet Magazine. Her own food writing can be found on Tasting Menu and have been published in The London Guardian. She currently works as the pastry chef at Jerry Traunfeld’s restaurant, Poppy, in Seattle.