Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Every Jar a Victory

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

We feared that we'd missed out on fresh strawberries this year, both because there was an early April freeze and snowstorm that killed off the (admittedly meager) supply of strawberries that our own bushes supply us with, and because we were gone to visit family at a reunion in Ohio over Memorial Day weekend, which has been the traditional date for our pilgrimage to the local strawberry patch. Fortunately, after a couple of phone calls to check up on farmers that have been a reliable source to us in the past, this past Friday my wife and I grabbed the kids, and headed a few miles south, to Haysville, Kansas, and Sargeant's Berry Farm. It was time to stock up for the year.

They're good people, the Sargeants. Though they've opened their farm up to city-slickers like myself, who arrive from Wichita and elsewhere in our cars and minivans, parking all over their driveway, and have allowed us--for a reasonable fee, of course--the pleasure of picking our own strawberries, blackberries, peaches, and much more from the land they've done the hard work to tend for a couple of generations, they've always been supportive and polite as they've answered our (no doubt often ignorant) questions about what was in season or the best way to transport and preserve this or that fruit or vegetable. They have dogs and cats, which my daughters love to play around with, and Mr. Sargeant drives customers in a modified trailer out the to fields to do the picking, which my girls chase after. I'm glad they have so much fun out there, because I want them to grow up thinking that what we do every spring and summer in making these trips is important. Which, of course, it is, but you know how it is teaching children to do something on behalf of the future...even something as initially entertaining but as quickly tiring as getting down on your knees and picking strawberries off the bush.

My wife was trained well in the value of fresh fruit, in canning it and preserving it, in making plans year after year for stocking up. I, to my regret, was not. I was blessed with a youth that put me in close proximity to much that was agricultural--bailing hay in the alfalfa fields, milking cows in summer heat and winter cold, and so forth--but I fear that many of the basic virtues and practices of gardening eluded my parents. We grew potatoes and corn and onions, and that was about it; we did our occasional service harvesting raspberries and asparagus on a church farms, but we never did anything with them ourselves. And our daily diet--supplemented by the ready supply of protein available in conjunction with my father's work with ranchers at the feed store his own father had started back in 1938--was classical postwar middle-class American...which meant, garden or no garden, just about everything we ate came from a can. We weren't very open-minded or exploratory in our eating; I'm fairly certain that I hadn't ever so much as taken a bite out of a fresh strawberry, much less ever picked one, until Melissa and I had been married for a couple of years.

Well, she trained me, and while she still runs the yearly Fox Family Canning Operation, I've learned the food value of the strawberry. Jam, of course, but also ice cream, fruit salads, smoothies, strawberry pie, and more. For years, it's just been Melissa and I at the sink, cutting the tops off the fresh berries, washing them, mashing them and boiling them down, filling the jars (not forgetting to add the right amount of pectin; we did one year, and that was a catastrophe) then processing them in a big steaming pot. This year, though, we not only had the occasional assistance of our oldest three girls in the actual picking (Kristen, who is only three, had to be stopped from occasionally popping an unripe or rotten strawberry into her mouth), but the assistance of our oldest daughter, now 12, at the stove as well. With her help, the whole hot and messy process went much smoother than we'd expected that morning.

We usually aim to preserve 20 to 30 jars of strawberries a year--I think we had 21, this time; the Sargeants confessed that, thanks to the early spring snowstorm and all the cool, rainy days, they didn't think this had been a very good year, but it's not like suburbanites like ourselves have much to complain about. Besides, half of the fun is simply going out to the farm, and seeing the crops grow, and talking with others who are looking to add to their diet and support a better way of eating and using land the same way we are. This year, we ended up picking alongside a woman from Augusta, who told us all about she chickens she keeps, and how much better her garden is doing with the chicken manure she's able to till into the soil. Something to keep in mind, as our efforts to plant ourselves--not just literally, but also economically and socially and environmentally--ever more deeply into the local Kansas soil continue.

Strawberries are only the first of several waves of canning that we'll be doing over the summer and early fall; there will be peaches, pears (if we can find them; fewer and fewer orchards have pear trees available for the picking these days, especially in our region of the country), apples (Melissa has just about sworn off using butter in her baking entirely, preferring to use applesauce, though processing apples is definitely not an easy job), cucumbers (those will come from our own garden--we think we've come up with a good dill pickle recipe, to go along with our regular bread-and-butter ones) and my favorite, salsa--it's a mess, I know, but cutting up the peppers and onions, and estimating the thickness of the tomato puree, experimenting with one or another ingredient to throw into this years batch (extra cilantro? a touch of cumin?)...well, it's fun.

Of course, the best kind of fun is when you know that the pleasure you're getting from the work you're doing and the company you're keeping is connected to doing something right, and canning is exactly that. It's a way to be right--or, at least, to get oneself more right--with the world around you, the natural and the socio-economic world. This planet, assuming we do our jobs as stewards of it well (or, at the very minimum, give appropriate praise and support to those like the Sargeants who do it even better), will provide us with a bounty, a bounty that we can delight in but also set aside, to keep us nourished in the cold months to come....and, more broadly, to keep us aware of the fragility of, and transitory condition of, and promise of renewal of, all forms of bounty, which is lesson difficult to learn (and even harder to children!) when one's food mostly comes from cans bought at the same store, year in and year out. The old slogan from World Wars I and II referred to the small garden plots that people developed to lessen their dependence upon the national food supply as "victory gardens"; that's a locution worth keeping in mind today. And not just for gardens. Amongst many of my co-religionists, Melissa and I are small-timers, dilettantes really, in the business of canning and food storage, but as far as I'm concerned, as good as I sometimes feel about my arguments and writings in regards to political and philosophical matters local and communal here and elsewhere, I never feel more of a "victory" than come the days of autumn, when I can go down in the basement laundry room, and see jars and jars of preserves, providing my family some shelter from the storm. Strawberry fields forever, indeed.


Camassia said...

Hey Russell, have you ever scene Teresa Nielsen Hayden's set of recipes from "la cuisine de Nouvelle Zion"? I've always wondered how representative it was of Mormon cooking. If it is, sounds like your eating habits have definitely stepped up.


Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the link, Camassia. I thought I might have read that post before, but I wasn't sure until a clicked on it. And I would say that her list is a pretty accurate representation of, well, if not "Mormon cooking" in general, than at least of "Intermountain West Mormon Cooking," particular mid-century through about 1985 or so. I think over the past 20 or 30 years enough of the diversity and global changes which rocked American society in 60s and 70s have finally trickled down to middle-class American Mormon practices so as to result in a real improvement in your typical ward (that is, congregation) potluck dinner. But that being said, I can vouch for the Mormon obsession with Jello. And Teresa's "classic" funeral potatoes recipe? That's almost exactly how I make them, the only differences being that I use green onions, slightly more cheese, and slightly less sour cream. Oh, and I call them "Lion House Potatoes", because that's what my grandmother called them.

And yes, my eating habits, and those of my wife (she can tell you all about hot dog and Cheez Whiz recipes...), have taken a definite step up.

Matt said...

Well, she's missing shreded carrot jello salad, something that was a classic growing up. And we thought that putting a canned pear slice (or some peaches) on a leaf of lettuce, maybe w/ some cottage cheese, was high-class stuff. We would also make the "bishop's desert" in dutch ovens, where it was then called "cobbler". If you didn't have enough liquid for this it stayed dry cake mix in parts, as we found out on one particularly poorly lead boyscout backpacking trip. (On this trip people also managed to ruin spaghetti by using so little water it turned into hard logs.)

Teresa Nielsen Hayden said...

Russell, green onions, more cheese, and less sour cream would all be improvements to that recipe.

Matt, I figured grated carrot salad went without saying. I don't believe anybody makes that stuff. I think it's mined in industrial quantities.

I'm impressed, in a way, that whoever organized your scout trip managed to mess up bishop's dessert, which is normally foolproof.

I have to wonder whether the real culprit was too little heat. It's hard to get the liquid wrong when you don't add any. It takes a high baking temperature to melt, fuse, and brown the sugar in the cake mix, and make the pie filling liquid enough to fuse to the topping. Too low, it'll all just sit there, just as you describe.


Russell Arben Fox said...

Wow--Teresa Nielsen Hayden commented on my blog! I'm a happy man.