I made strawberry jam yesterday. Well, technically, my friend Linda made strawberry jam, and I helped. It was so much fun. SO much fun. We made the and canned the jam (a process which technically involves jars), talking about a dozen other things the whole time. I felt so relaxed in her tiny kitchen, and I just wanted to make batch after batch and drag the project out for several hours.
Some of my best childhood memories are of helping my Mom in the kitchen. She was the kind of parent who made her small assistants feel genuinely wanted, who always had a job that was just my size, even when she was doing something huge like canning vegetables.
Not that I was the world’s greatest helper, I’m sure. I had a tiny attention span and a tendency to walk away in the middle of tasks. But I still remember the feel of a tomato skin peeling easily away after boiling. Of dropping the skinned tomato into the jar while it was still so hot it was liable to scald my fingers. I still remember waiting for those jar lids to “pop” and then flipping the uncooperative ones upside down to see if they could be coaxed into preservation that way.
Mom used a pressure canner, this giant metal pot best heated when balanced between the two back burners. The pressure part terrified me, since the much smaller pressure cooker had exploded on me as an infant. I was about a year old, still scooting, rather than walking, and I happened to be in front of the stove. Mom had walked away while letting the vegetable soup come up to pressure, but had forgotten it. She realized what she’d done in the instant before it exploded, spraying boiling liquid everywhere.
Somehow in that moment between realization and explosion, she got her body between me and the spray. She couldn’t have had a whole second, but she saved me. Here is what I remember. I remember standing naked in the bathtub while she held my scalded hand under the cold water. I remember how it burned. I remember her saying, over and over, “Just keep it under the water until it feels better.”
Here’s what I don’t remember.
Mom had second degree burns over half of her own body. She should have been in the hospital. One of our few family videos is from Christmas just after the pressure cooker explosion. You can see me scooting around on the floor, completely oblivious to the trauma of a few days prior. And you can see my Mom, swathed in bandages from the shoulder down. It was years before I realized that the whole time she was soothing me, holding my hand under the water and assuring me it would feel better, she must have been in agony herself. I remember that her voice was tight, maybe a little impatient, but I’m sure I didn’t understand why.
She was just that kind of parent.
I’m pretty sure I’d be able to throw myself in front of the blast for my own children. But someone else would have to soothe them after, because I’d be dealing with my own pain.
It just about killed Mom when she had to go back to work when I was eight, and she still grew this enormous vegetable garden that we ate from all summer. Well. I hated vegetables at that age, but I still helped her can them, and make jellies and jams, which I also refused to eat. It was the process I enjoyed, especially filling the jars. I loved to balance the tin canning funnel over the opening, then spoon in the contents, tap out the air bubbles, clap on the flat vacuum tops and screw on the lids. By the time I was twelve, I was even proficient at the “pressure” part of the equation, with only lingering fears that the hissing steam was about to spray all over me. (For the record, the danger starts once you put the pressure gauge on top, not while the steam is exhausting the air inside the pan.
Linda doesn’t pressure can. She just boils the filled jars, but they still make that magical pop sound as the vacuum lid snaps out the last of the air. And yesterday, she let me hull, rinse, and puree the strawberries, using her Ninja motor-on-top blender. And she let me ladle the syrup into the canning funnel, hers blue plastic, on its way to being preserved as it gelled into strawberry jam. I felt like I was five years old again, working with Mom in the kitchen, creating something edible and lasting that we could pull out of the cabinet whenever it was needed.
It reminded me that I want to have a vegetable garden (even though I know I wouldn’t maintain it) and that I need to find an open U-pick for my kids before the strawberries have gone by this far South. Most of all, it reminded me that I loved growing up in the country, even though it would be very hard to coax me out of my city life now. Thanks for an awesome afternoon, Linda, and for promising to call me when the blueberries and peaches come in.