Stuff and Nonsense: Strawberry Picking, Memories Old & New


6.22.2019

Strawberry Picking, Memories Old & New

My Dad and I used to go strawberry picking every June, returning home with large baskets full of strawberries Mom would turn into jam, shortcake, and bread. I had a love-hate relationship with strawberry picking. I loved strawberries and all the things my mother would make from them, but I hated being out in the fields at the crack of dawn when they were still a bit misty and the mosquitoes were waiting. However, there was usually a sweet spot when the mist and mosquitoes left, but it had not gotten so warm my sweat attracted the horseflies. Then I loved picking and raced to see it I could fill my basket faster than Dad could fill his.


Once I went away to college I wasn't home for strawberry picking and it was all up to Dad. My parents found other things to do on June weekends and, eventually, strawberry picking stopped altogether. My mother put up fewer and fewer preserves and pickles and, while she still had all her canning accoutrements when she died, aside from a batch of pickled green tomatoes, she hadn't put up anything in a decade or more.

And yet when I think about my mom lately, my heart is full of memories of preserving and pickling. The humid kitchen heavy with the scent of hot jam which no amount of window-opening or fan use would shift. The kitchen counter covered with towels and quilted glass canning jars glowing like gems. The taste of still-warm strawberry jam on a slice of buttered white bread. And much later, in the autumn, the top shelf of the fridge door lined with a row of half-pint jam jars and quarts of pickles.


As I can't seem to stop thinking about jam making, I visited Lyman Orchards last week and, after an hour or so, picked almost thirteen pounds of strawberries. I could have picked faster, but the field was full of excited young families and adorable elderly ladies and it was pleasant to pick slowly among them.

Thirteen pounds of berries is quite a lot of berries and, as I'd picked the reddest, ripest fruit I could see, I was quite anxious to get them home once I filled cardboard flat. I was quite concerned about jam making, because it had always struck me as such a huge production that could so easily run amok. The jam might not set. The lids might not seal. I could bollocks the whole thing up.


But I didn't. I made two batches of strawberry jam -- one a traditional high sugar recipe and the other a reduced-sugar vanilla bean infused one -- from the instruction materials that came with the Ball freshTECH Automatic Home Canning System I'd purchased on clearance from BJ's Wholesale Club back in January at a delightful discount. Everything came together flawlessly with minimal fuss. The jam set. The lids sealed. I am now filled with confidence and want to jam all the things.

I used Mom's half pint jars and when I look at my jams, glowing ruby in the light from the kitchen window, I feel pride of accomplishment as well as a sense of continuity and permanence. While these are not my mother's jams, I imagine her twenties teaching herself to can and preserve, worrying about whether her jam would set or the lids would seal, and I think we share this.

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