Compelled to Can

Asian pear tree

I don’t know why I do it.  The cupboard is stocked with jars of preserves, apple butter from last year, wild plum jam from years ago.  I don’t even eat much in the way of jam.

But I’ve got a kettle full of Asian pears bubbling on the stove as I right.  The tree is ripe, and yesterday I picked a couple of boxes full.  It took most of the evening—two and a half episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to chop them up.  It’s a new way to measure time:  “Yep, that was three-Buffy job, all right, shelling all the walnuts.  But not as bad as the five-Buffy night when we did the acorns.” 

Today I’m boiling them down.  It gives a nice rhythm to the morning—write for a while, then jump up in panic—are they burning?  Stir, then write.  Eventually, when the pears are soft and the juice has boiled down, I’ll let them cool, then run them through the cuisinart.  That’s cheating—but it saves me having to peel them.  I do the same with apples when I make apple butter.  Tastes great, and keeps in the pectic from the skins and such vitamins as survive the Long Boildown.

Then I’ll unearth my canning equipment, sterilize jars and hunt up lids, and can it up.  It will probably make a good dozen jars of Asian Pear Butter, some of which I’ll give away, some of which we’ll eat, and a lot of which I’ll hoard.  Yes, I confess, I’m a Jam Hoarder.  I make it, I put it in the cupboard, and then I find myself reluctant to use it.  What if we need it later?  What if civilization falls apart and these preserves are the last bit of sweetness we’ll ever know, as the waters rise and the trees bake to ash under the blazing sun of climate change? 

Maybe I can because I just can’t bear to waste food, to let all those pears and apples rot off the trees, although a lot of them do anyway.  Nature does not do moderation much.  When things produce, they do so in staggering abundance.  The Asian pear tree is drooping under the weight of the fruit.  There’s more than I can possibly eat, but not enough to go into business and sell.  I can’t help but hear the voice of my Jewish grandmother, who live up to every stereotype about Jewish grandmothers.  I could never leave a bit of food on my plate without her sighing, “Oy, people are starving in Europe.”  It was a great surprise to me when I finally went to Europe and discovered that people there ate far better than we did.  But of course she was still in reaction to World War Two—and perhaps to her own hungry childhood in what is now Ukraine but which she always called Russia.  When I tried her line, slightly updated to “People are starving in Biafra/Bangla Desh/Darfur” on my own stepdaughters they would just look at me as if I were out of my mind.  “So what am I supposed to do—box up my leftovers and send them to them?”  This may explain why they are slim and I am fat—aside from genetics, of course.

I’ll give away a lot of the fruit—but up here everyone has pears and apples now.  I’ll make Asian pear tarts (but what about that no-carb diet) and try to feed them to vegans who don’t eat the butter in the crust or sensitive souls who don’t eat wheat.  We’ll juice them, back in the city where we have a rather scary juicer.  Up here, I go over to my neighbors, Jim and Dave, and we make cider and bottle it.  We chop up pears and apples in their wood chipper and press the juice in their hydraulic press.  At the moment, I have twelve quarts left from last year—most of which have gone moldy somehow.  Will that stop me from making more this year?  I don’t think so. 

I’m letting the juice boil out of the pears as much as possible before I run them through the food processor, because afterwards they turn into a thick and viscous substance that bubbles and spits on the stove like volcanic lava, occasionally shooting out hot drops that hit me in the eye or spurts that dry on the enamel into a hard substance impervious to all know cleaning products.  I do have a round screen to cover the pot with, but cleaning that is not exactly easy in the time of maximum water frugality.

The European pears are also ready to be picked.  Those pears need to be picked green—if they ripen on the tree they get mushy and rot in the center.  When you push up on a pear and the stem snaps off, it’s ready to pick.  Then you put them in paper bags to ripen—and if you don’t forget that they are there in the paper bags and let them rot, you end up with perfect pears.

Today I intend to slice some of them and put them into my hanging dryer, to make dried pears which can join the jars of dried cherries and the dessicated apple slices I’m still hoarding from previous years.

Damn—I think the pears are burning.  Got to stir—goodbye now.

14 comments to Compelled to Can

  • Love your post. My mom, Goddess guard her, was a consumate “jammer.” We had these goddessawful wild cherry trees in the way back of our yard, each cherry about the size of a sunflower seed. She’d give us coffee cans and tell us not to come in until the can was full. I watch the figs on my fig trees go to birds and squirrels and the soil and know it would drive her nuts. Foodbanks, and ask for the tax receipt; that’s the only advice I can give you.

  • Tammy

    My mouth is watering now for a pear. I love that you use Buffy to tell time….what a fabulous idea!

  • Barbara Bartel

    dang. I hoard jam too. In case of the end-of-the-world.

    My husband doesn’t like rhubarb, but I tell him, “After The Change, you’ll love rhubarb…it comes so nice and early in the spring~!” yum. rhubarb.

    At the moment, it’s peaches, for me. Keep up the good work.

  • Thanks for that, Starhawk!

    We have a dozen heritage pear trees here that you’ll see when you visit October 1.

    If someone wants a dozen pear trees these days, they go to a nursery and get all the same variety. Then BOOM! — they all ripen at once, and you either hire brown-skinned people who don’t live here to pick them, or they rot.

    But our pear trees were planted contemporaneous with the house, built in the 1880’s. They were planted so that a single family could deal with them. There are at least four varieties, each ripening at a different time. The sekels, not much bigger than a crab apple, but sweet as honey, ripen first in August. Then about the time you’ve picked them clean, the bartlets ripen. Then finally, the “cold cellar pears” get picked in November, although they are still hard and bitter. When stored on a dry bed of sand at just above freezing, they get ready to eat by January through April, with no energy-intensive canning or freezing required.

    Want to see the future? Look to the past.

  • Ann C

    Your post about canning brings me back to me childhood. My mother, born during the depression and the mother of six children, always had an enormous garden, and canned at least half of what she grew. I spent many long hours toiling in those gardens, which I didn’t particularly enjoy.

    I did enjoy all the fresh greens, squash, corn and tomatoes, and later the canned tomatoes, green beans and sauces, but I especially loved the pickles. To this day, the smell of bread & butter pickles cooking on the stove transports me to my mother’s kitchen.

    I probably should try my hand at gardening again.

  • Sara Ceres Boore

    Ponies……..apples! The one thought that took care of my guilt last year about the ignored 2nd box of apples on my porch (the first one ended up as a dozen jars of applesauce). This year’s crop will be ready around the end of September…..Hmmm….

  • Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

  • Donnieboy

    Just wanted to drop you a line to say, I enjoy reading your site. I thought about starting a blog myself but don’t have the time.
    Oh well maybe one day…. 🙂

  • Ode to Canning,
    By Mari Powers
    What I like best about canning is the full jars right out of the pot. The colors are so intense. They are beautiful. You feel an absolutely sensual and personal connection to the food in the jars, and to the jars themselves, all bright lined up in rows on old newspaper.
    Canning is deeply communal. You are doing the work with family and friends. Even alone, you will share the fruits of your labor at meals with close family and friends, and give away brightly wrapped jars in baskets come holidays.
    When I can I use mostly renewable resources. What better way to recycle than to reuse your own food jars?
    It also connects me to my ancestors. The jars I use came from my mother and aunts, and my grandmother before them. Even ones given to me by friends were likely used by someone’s grandmother, or by a grandmother to be who passed them to their daughters or sons. Jars are frequently used one, two or three generations of families related by kinship or love.
    Even some men can. My husband “helps” me make salsa and cut beans. My father cuts and skins right along side my mother. My husband particularly likes to take the jars out of the steaming pots and line them up in neat rows on the dining room table. The next day, (or two or three later), he dutifully unscrews the rings, wipes them clean and lugs them to the basement pantry shelves.
    Your own food out of your garden, out of your jars, tastes better. You cannot buy my bread and butter pickles anywhere. My salsa is intense and passionate. The store bought version only hints of what mine delivers in rich blending and fresh garden flavor in the heart of winter.
    My tomatoes are simply beautiful; yellow plums, intense reds, orange or rose they mingle in clear wide mouth quart jars. They patiently wait to grace a winter stew or become the heart of rich chili or fresh pasta sauce.
    Some prefer frozen, but I am ever the convert of canned green beans. The flavor is subtle, the texture firmer than store bought cans, yet not chewy like frozen beans are prone to getting. They require no energy to store in a freezer, though I do freeze a few for stir fry dishes. My canned beans, yellow or green, are last to go in a steaming crock pot of winter vegetable stew.
    When I give jars in baskets at holiday time, eyes light up and people thank me months later for the taste of my garden in February.
    Canning is practical and saves money. At least I think it does. It feels like money saved to line the larder with the abundance that comes from handfuls of seeds. I haven’t really calculated it out – and if you figure in my labor …. who knows? Yet it makes me feel richer. And with the price of organic food so high, I am sure there is some savings.
    There is also a genetic call to stock up the larder and a joy rooted in ancient satisfaction in the urge to provide. There is nothing that makes me feel like I have enough, than to see shelves full of bright jars in the pantry.
    And the work of it is mostly a labor of love, at least most of the time. Yes, it can sometimes be tedious to do, and occasionally tiring, but the work of canning itself can lend itself to the gentle practice of mindfulness and eases you into the enjoyment of the now. It can also be exhilarating and as good a way as any to spend a late summer or early fall day.
    In the midst of stocking foods for the future, there is a time you are wholly involved with the now. Canning intensely involves your attention and quiets the internal dialogue, giving you a break from the ordinary stream of chatter that occupies much of our minds on many of our days.
    Canning is magical. It is deeply rooted in the life cycle of the garden and in mine.. The food I can today came from a tiny seed planted only six moons ago. When I finish canning the wheel has turned a half a year, from May Day to Halloween. It is the end of a season of summer and heralds the completion of a cycle.
    Even the canning jars remind me of circles and cycles. They are so perfectly round as are the silver pots, golden colored lids and wheels to tighten the lids down. They are filled and emptied in a round of fine eating with family and community, through the seasons of life, for generation after generation.
    We can our descent into the darkness of the year, and share in our bounty in the cold and bundled up days of show to shovel and short light. In the spring, they are empty, and we begin to plan again, with seeds in our hands for the filling of the jars once more.

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