My grandparents had, and still have in their 80’s, a love of the outdoors. Not the kind of outdoors with steep rock faces and rushing rapids that seem to be more in vogue today. They love the back yard, with its lush soft beds of St. Augustine grass, neatly edged beds full of beautiful blooming impatiens, vinca, ziennas, the new plants Mama Dot had found at the nursery to experiment with this year, and always a well tended beautifully productive garden. These were never monotonous, boring vegetable gardens. We were always allowed to choose new things from the seed catalog to try out new types of tomatoes, new “burpless” cucumbers, beans growing on trellises, and occasionally my optimistic grandparents would plant strawberries or watermelon seeds from our afternoon snack. Sometimes Mama Dot and Grandpa’s rows were perfectly weeded dirt rows with mulch running down them and in other years the rows were narrow strips of dirt with grass runners to walk down so that our feet didn’t get so dirty. All aspects of the back yard had to be watered, weeded, mowed and groomed to perfection in the morning. That way, by the time the heat of the day combined with the high humidity and made those wonderful afternoon thundershowers, we could sit on the cleanly swept backporch in the swing, lower those big rolled up bamboo blinds so the rain didn’t come up on the porch, and enjoy the cool breeze that came with the rain.
Now I am grown, I have children that I feel need to have memories like this, things that we as modern consumers with more disposable income seem to delegate away. We buy “homemade” preserves at the grocery and farmers markets, we have landscape services that rush in in a flurry and clean up the yard so fast my children may never know what a weed looks like, and sprinkler systems set on automatic timers. But sometime in January when the cold is creeping into your bones and the days seem gray and it seems like spring will never come, the satisfaction that comes from pulling a Mason jar out of the cabinet full of summertime cannot be bought or marketed. I got to help pick the cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans from the garden and was carefully and patiently tutored on the best size cucumber to pickle and when things looked their ripest. At the height of summer, we collected so many vegetables that they had creeped into bowls on the kitchen table, countertops and every meal. It became common at my grandmother’s house to have sliced tomatoe with breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is when the “giving phase” of the garden began, it becomes a practice like sending Christmas cards. Anyone that has shown you a kindness or generosity you repay by gifting the fruits from the garden. Some southerners only lock their cars to keep neighbors from leaving them more tomatoes. After we had eaten and gifted our fill, we canned.
Cucumbers would soak in water with alum for 2 days, everything had to be perfectly prepared, and then the hard, hot(even in the air conditioning) job would begin. Jars needed to be sterilized, pickles cooked with pickling spices, figs with sugar and lemon boiled till the sauce thickens, green beans and tomatoes blanched, and then the intricate pressure cooker, whose purpose remains a mystery to me, and you leave them to cool. Leaving the tired cooks hoping and praying that when we returned, all the dots in the lids would be popped down(sealed).
I recently started canning, part hobby, part necessity because my family’s whole share at our local organic farm co-op was more than we could eat week to week and my sister in law bought a house with a rather large fig tree. It is funny how things like hot, boiling water sterilizing Mason jars and the pungent smell of vinegar and pickling spices are bringing comfort to my kitchen and for me, are making my house more of a home.