I received a package from my 84-year-old mother yesterday – six jars of homemade jam. My mother has been making jam since before I was born, a family skill passed down from the depths of the Great Depression. In a family of 9 children it made sense to pick berries when you could and “can” them for future use.
“Canning” is a misnomer as the jams went into glass mason jars. Early on I remember they were big jars with a rubber gasket you laid between the glass container and the glass cover, which was then clamped down tight with a rather clever folding and locking gizmo. The jars then went into the basement “canning closet” until needed. Today the jars are smaller, have replaceable metal lids with built-in rubber gaskets, and a screw top made of metal. Storage is in the garage, though mostly they go directly in to the refrigerator for immediate use.
The kinds of jams seemed limitless, at least to me as a kid. I have fond memories of our family collection trips picking strawberries, blueberries, black and red raspberries, blackberries, peaches, apples, grapes, apricots, and whatever else was handy. Currant jam showed up once in a while, and I’m happy to say the just-received shipment has rhubarb (and strawberry-rhubarb).
The canning closet of youth contained a lot more than jams. There were various fruits (peaches and pears were big) and several kinds of pickles (whole, dill, bread-and-butter, slices for sandwiches, spears for side-dishes, and more). Canned tomatoes were always on hand, as were jars and jars of piccalilli (a relish of chopped pickles, diced sweet peppers, and other pickled vegetables). Piccalilli was a required condiment for hamburgers and hot dogs back when I ate hamburgers and hot dogs.
Of course, next to the canning closet in the basement was the chest freezer, as big as our combined refrigerator/freezer in the kitchen. It was usually filled with frozen vegetables, cut up meat from our last run to the butcher, and ice cream by the half-gallon. In the event of an emergency, we wouldn’t starve for weeks. Assuming we had electricity.
I’ve lived away from home for many (many) years and receiving canned jams in the mail is not something that happens routinely. Normally I pick up a stash whenever I drive to my hometown to see my parents, which at 8 hours each way happens less than I would like. My mother is sprite for her age, and even for someone 20 years shy of her age. She still goes out to shovel snow, runs the house like an army camp, and runs the finances like a Victorian banker. And cooks – cakes, pies, casseroles, roasts, and, of course, jams.
Which is why I always have a secret stash of jam on my mind.
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.