We picked strawberries this weekend, and of course Chloe ate more strawberries than she put into her basket. She popped them whole into her mouth: stem and leaves and dirt and all.
The rest of these strawberries are destined for the desert of winter, when I will open a jar of homemade jam and be instantly transported from the cold, dull gloom of January back to the sunny, sweet warmth of June, of picking strawberries under a bright blue sky with my little girl and her daddy.
Of course, I’ve never made jam before, ergo have never canned it before either. A healthy fear of botulism has kept me from venturing into the dark netherworld of home canning, a practice that seems so arcane, so foreign that I feel like I’m traveling back in time just by contemplating it. I don’t even think my maternal great-grandmother—a divorced, chain-smoking woman who sent her only child to live with nuns Monday-Friday so she could work full time—ever considered canning.
But I am more than contemplating it now. I am going to do it. The strawberries sit, untouched, in the fridge. They have a higher purpose than being added to something as mundane as my morning cereal. They are destined for greater things. Summer—and ingenuity—in a jar.
Since I am overly romantic about everything, I insist, then, on saying I am “puttin’ up” jam, like I am a homesteader living on the range, not a yuppie living in a condo. I wear a red cotton sundress and sandals, throw the windows wide open, and set about rinsing these newly picked strawberries—I am almost giddy with excitement. My jars and pectin (whatever the hell that is) are waiting at the ready.
Here I will pause to impart some canning wisdom.
Things I have learned about canning:
- Don’t wear sandals. Boiling jam is really fricken hot and hurts like a bitch when it splashes on top of your naked foot.
- Having one of those wide-mouth funnels really helps to get the jam into the jar. It’s not just something “fancy” that you don’t need. No matter how many times you mutter “motherfucker,” that jam will not make it off the counter and into your canning vessel.
- When attempting to process the filled cans, be sure your pot is tall enough to house both your jars and enough water to cover them by at least an inch. Displacing boiling water all over the stop top is an ugly turn of events. (Although jumping backward and screaming as the water scorches across the burner and onto the floor is a surefire way to get your husband’s attention).
- Canning tongs with rubber grips that curve around the jar’s rim are also essential, also not just another something “fancy.” Trying to extract heavy cans from boiling water using nothing but your wits and a ridiculously huge set of grilling tongs is no fun; no fun at all.
- There is little else as satisfying as the pop of a vacuum seal gone right.
- You might irritate your friends by sending text message pictures of your new jars of gorgeous jam. Do it anyway!
- You might have recurring dreams all night that your jam doesn’t “set up.” Resist the urge to run to the kitchen at 2:30 am to check on it. You’ll be rewarded in the morning with perfectly set jam and a happy toddler begging to eat it on toast, to which you will blissfully oblige.
Now that I have successfully done it once, I am obsessed with canning. I immediately order a canning kit online, complete with the correct tongs and funnel, and check the website 30 minutes later to see if it has shipped yet (it hasn’t). I obsessively take pictures of my gorgeous jars and scoff at my camera’s inability to capture their jewel-like beauty. I can’t wait for the blueberries and raspberries and blackberries to be ready for picking, and therefore jam making, and therefore canning. And although I am not anxious for the long days of summer to slip through my fingers like sand at the beach, a part of me can’t wait for January, for popping open that jar of June jam and smiling all over again at a job well done.