During the winter, when soups and stews are the mainstays for dinnertime meals, the baguette that inevitably accompanies these meals arrives at the table with summer strawberry jelly. Even when there is a foot of snow on the ground, the strawberry jelly lusciously spread over warm bread reminds us of long summer days and that summer will come again.
I always feel a bit nostalgic when canning. Bursting markets, a hot kitchen, and the smell of vinegar, sugar, garlic, ripe peaches, and strawberries remind me of the canning my family has been doing forever. Peaches with my grandparents, pickles with my Mom, and my solo strawberry operation.
Canning feels nostalgic because it feels like an old-fashioned thing to do, especially when everything I can is available at any grocery store. It feels nostalgic because I am carrying on a family tradition.
Canning is sweaty work. You can in the middle of summer when it’s hot, when produce is homegrown, when the temps in my kitchen easily reach 90 plus degrees. Stove top burners cranked high for boiling brine, the stove hot for sterilizing jars, and my own movement to clean and load jars, tighten lids, and pour the boiling liquid without singeing any bare skin add weight to the outside heat. Canning is not easy work.
My grandparents canned because they didn’t have access to food the way we do now. Their canned green beans were the only green bean option in the winter. The rows of peaches, pears, jam, sauerkraut, and fish fed their large family all winter.
I can for my family too, but I also can to create homemade gifts. Strawberry jelly is famous at my kids’ school, pickles are a coworker’s treasure hidden in the back of the fridge so his kids can’t find them, and peaches are my youngest’s end of the day bowl of sheer delight in the dark winter months.
I usually pick the strawberries myself. I like the early morning trek to a local strawberry farm before the berries are literally picked out. Picking 7-10 quarts takes a couple of hours. I like the process of sitting between the rows, going plant to plant, lifting the leaves to discover ripe berries.
I love the strawberry smell that permeates my clothes and skin, my red stained post picking fingers, and I especially like sampling the berries as I go.
Strawberries right off the plant, still earth-warmed and unwashed are the most sublime breakfast. Because picking season is short, sometimes I miss it, and when that happens, I purchase strawberries from a farmer’s market. The cost of farmer’s market berries is usually about a dollar more a quart. I choose to buy from farmers who prefer to pick bugs off rather than use pesticides.
Jelly berries don’t have to be big and beautiful; often they are very small, not very picture perfect, and so ripe they are on the verge of spoiling.
When I pull the last batch of strawberry jelly from the boiling water I clean the counters and floor to remove the strawberry juice, sugar, and pulp that coats every surface. After the clean up, I treat myself to a first taste of the year’s jelly, imagining how much more I will appreciate the sweet taste of summer come February.
Umami’s Canning Section