Wednesday, June 18, 2008

We Be Jammin'

In preparation for being crushed by a mound of peaches, I've been studying the science of making jam.

Women old enough to remember having to preserve food discuss canning and preserves-making with only slightly less eye-rolling than childbirth. “All those tomatoes/strawberries/beans!” “It was so hot!” “It never set up!” I wondered -- was it true? Was canning really that mysterious, precise, and difficult? I wanted to see what the big deal was.

Bon Appetit
had a nice little bit in their June issue by Molly Wizenberg entitled Jam Session: The Simple Secret to Making Homemade Jam. She made canning sound downright cozy, sort of the fruity version of Proust's madelines -- infinitely doable. I went to the kitchen with two pounds of strawberries, her recipe, and three of those super-cute, eight ounce Ball jam jars that look like quilted glass.

And I promptly hit a wall. Two cups of sugar would be way too sweet for me and I knew it. However, in old-fashioned recipes for jam-making (the kind that don't require the addition of pectin), sugar is more than just a sweetener; it's hydrophilic properties are necessary for making the stuff jell. Without enough sugar, you get fruit soup. So never having done this before, I did what I usually do: threw away the recipe and went with my gut (This explains why MP does almost all the cooking).

Macerating the berries in one cup of sugar for two hours brought out more juice than I ever imagined strawberries possessed. Ms. Wizenberg's recipe notes that the jam mixture should jell after boiling for about 18-20 minutes. After an hour of boiling, I was feeling decidedly like Meg in Little Women (Part 2, Chapter 28 “Domestic Experiences”). The fact that the stuff wasn't jelling didn't particularly bother me, as clearly I'd deviated from the recipe, but being a literary heroine was wearing thin. I relied on my candy making skills (now those are some recipes you never, ever deviate from), watching the mixture sheet off a spoon to tell me where I was in the jelling process. It was a dicey wait, but after a full hour and twenty minutes of boiling, I had jam.

Ms. Wizenberg's directions for canning were fabulous and I had no trouble with the actual canning process. I finally got to use my antique kitchen utensils for their original purposes. The most nerve-wracking part was dipping the jars of jam into the pot of water and wondering how this was going to vacuum seal anything. But after the appointed boiling times the jar lids did indeed pop with a little vacuum sealing sound, and I felt very clever (Following directions can do that).

That was as good a time as any to sit down, lick out the jam pot, and survey my trashed kitchen while contemplating what I learned about making jam.

It wasn't that big a deal.

However... Our grandmothers were right to dread it. We have a few advantages that they never had. I only had two pounds of fruit, but what if you had ten or even twenty pounds of stuff? It's possible if you were harvesting from your garden and everything came in at once. Not like you can store it in the refrigerator. You'd need at least one other person to help you wash and prepare it. Moreover, fruit typically ripens in June or July, when it's hot. They didn't have air-conditioning or huge kitchens, and for a fact, where my one grandma grew up, they only had a wood stove. The jars have to be sterilized and kept hot. There's the pot containing the jam, which could easily boil for an hour, the pot with the jar lids, which needs to be simmered, and the canning pot, which contains 4-6 quarts of water and must be brought to a boil. And before self-sealing lids, the surface of the jam would have to be sealed with liquid paraffin, which also had to be melted on the stove. That's four burners going. By the way, paraffin is flammable. Keep those elbows in!

No AC, tiny kitchen, stuck in there with another person, up to your elbows in fruit? No way. Let them eat dry toast.

But oh, licking hot jam from the pot? Wow.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Now in TWO Locations!

This is great! We're a chain!

It turns out there really is a Café Tor now open for business at Park Mill, Helmshore in the UK. I have to say, it looks like my kind of place -- lots of space and light. They're also serving local foods, which makes for a tastier menu.

So if you're ever hanging out in Helmshore, you know where to get a cuppa tea or have a nosh!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Peachy Keen

I don't see how you can make something as fundamentally fascinating as a peach tree so boring. Listen to this: “For many years the use of 'flush cuts' has been recommended for pruning fruit trees to promote rapid wound closure. Recent research results with peach and other tree species indicate that flush pruning cuts are more susceptible to disease infection than cuts in which a portion of the lateral branch remains.”

Four years back I had an opportunity to plant a new tree in the front yard. I wanted a tree that would do something – flower, or provide fruit, or attract flamingos, whatever – and be different from the endless Bradford pears and water maples dotting this planned urban landscape. My parents suggested a peach tree, which right there should have stopped me cold. Accept parental advice? To this day I'm not sure why I planted a peach and not a nectarine, because I infinitely prefer nectarines. Biting into a peach is like eating a kitten. But like a sap, I thought having a peach tree would be “fun,” so in the spring of 2004 the nursery sent me a five foot “Elberta” peach stick. I flipped a coin to determine which end was up.

The first year it put out leaves. In October all the leaves turned yellow and dropped off. I freaked until I remembered the concept of “Fall.”

The second year it bloomed but had no peaches. I wondered if maybe I had a male peach (don't laugh – some fruit trees are male and female).

The third year it bloomed and produced a gazilliion tiny peaches, which proceeded to drop off one by one, leaving only one peach remaining. I petted that peach from spring halfway through July, until a mockingbird savaged it and knocked it off the tree. I cut out the beak slashes, peeled off the black spotted skin, and cautiously had a slice.

It was the best peach I've ever had in my life.

So here we are on the fourth year. It occurred to me that, in order to set more than one peach, I might actually have to do a few things, like prune and spray and study what actually makes a peach tree peach. Spraying proves to be key. For example, last year I noticed a running sore in the trunk two inches above the ground. I took pictures and went to a local nursery.

“Waaal... It's either canker or a borer,” the gentleman stated calmly. “If hits canker, hits gonna die and there's nothin' you can do. If hits a borer, waaal... you spray. But you'll have to call the county extension.”

Die? Where's the phone?

“It sounds like the Greater Peach Tree Borer,” the Master Gardner said in a slow round accent. “I'll send you the spray schedule for stone fruits developed at Tech.” The chemical recommended was so toxic it required a license to purchase in Australia. It also came in a one gallon container, which was enough to cover 1,000 acres. Hello? I am not a farmer, I just have a pet peach. In the end I unfolded a paper clip and stuck it into the wound, hopefully ramming the borer's backside into his brain. Farming can be cruel.

Last fall I found Gardens Alive, a catalog specializing in natural/organic pest control for the home grower, so I bought the Perfect Fruit Spray Kit for fruit trees for this year. I also pruned as best I could, but despite having multiple degrees, I still could not understand the notes from the Cooperative Extension (“Moderately vigorous shoots have a high proportion of nodes with 2 flower buds. The leaf buds at most nodes develop into lateral shoots that may be fruitful in subsequent years.”) The wound is closed now and the tree seems fine. As a matter of fact, this spring, the tree set tens of hundreds of thousands of little green peaches. So I thinned them. Four times.

In doing this, I noticed other things. The tips of the new growth were slowly dying back. I split open a few and found a tiny white worm with a black brown head. Digging around on the Internet I was able to identify it as an oriental fruit moth -- probably. “Use a hand lens to detect the presence of an anal comb under the last abdominal sclerite, which helps distinguish oriental fruit moth from other white or pink worms, such as codling moth, that may be found in stone fruits.”

You see what I mean? Fascinating.

I delivered some samples to the County Extension Office. I gave them a copy of my organic spray schedule, but they didn't care. They sent the samples off to Tech. Tech sent back pages printed from the Internet about oriental fruit moths -- the same as the ones I used to make my analysis. However, according to Tech, I not only have oriental fruit moths, but also plum curculios! So Tech sent me... A spray schedule. Same as before. For grins, I looked up the sprays. One was a nerve toxin and the other was an endocrine disrupter (Peaches, by the way, absorb the most pesticides of any fruit).

So I'm thinking that when you get down to it, these curculio guys, they're kind of cute, what with their funny noses. A lot of character.

We shall see what happens. I have plenty of fruit. I now see how pruning and thinning are crucial not only for the development of fruit, but also for natural deterrence of insects -- curculios burrow into fruit where two fruits touch. Let's face it, nobody in their right mind would go to all this trouble just to grow the same traditionally farmed peaches you can get at the store for $1.99 a pound. I'd rather eat a tasty ugly peach than a beautiful one that will slowly poison me. But I also understand the farmer's need to spray. If I had known what I was getting into I would never have planted a peach tree. It really is a lot of work and worry.

Endlessly fascinating. I'm having the time of my life.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Like a Pizza Bagel

It was inevitable.

Wandering the aisles of the grocery store I suddenly realized that the background “elevator music” playing to inspire me to buy frozen fish sticks was actually a song from my high school days, and it hit me: I had officially entered that shady period known as “middle age.”

But it wasn’t just any song. It was Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” For me, hearing this song wasn’t just about getting older. It was about something far more sinister: pizza bagels.

Like Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate, I snapped.

I made it through the wilderness/Somehow I made it through
It is 1985, my sophomore year of high school, two days after Christmas. There is a huge ice storm and we are awakened in the dead of night by my father, who fears the heavy ice will cause tree branches to crash through the roof while we sleep. He herds us like bleary-eyed sheep, my mother, sister and I, into the living room. My father’s logic dictates that as long as his frantic pacing keeps us awake we cannot possibly be killed in our sleep.

We are at the end of the power grid in the middle of nowhere, so the electricity is gone and we know we will not see it again for some time. We have a small generator, but it can only run a few lights or the refrigerator or the water pump. My father does not even consider running the furnace; we will build a fire instead. Except for a twice daily toilet flushing, the generator runs the refrigerator, despite the fact that there is ice everywhere. Two gallons of milk and five pounds of frozen chuck must be preserved.

Didn’t know how lost I was/Until I found you
The days that follow are pared down to a surprising simplicity: we gather wood, we tend the fire, and we make pizza bagels.

The pizza bagels are my mother’s inspiration and I blame her for them entirely. She was able to get the ingredients into a cooler before my father put the refrigerator on lockdown. The stove and oven are gas, so by candlelight we make tomato sauce and toast bagel halves covered in a tablespoon of cheese and four slices of pepperoni. Well, warm them up, anyway – the broiler doesn’t quite work. But the bagels get hot enough to bring the grease up to the surface of the pepperoni quite nicely. This will be our only food for the next six days.

My sister and I are glad to get out of the house to haul split wood in our sleds even though each trip outside means we have to endure a lecture from my father. His warnings touch on points like, “Don’t walk under trees because the weight of the ice will send heavy limbs crashing down on your head” (which is good advice, but we live in a forest. Where does he think all this wood we’re hauling comes from?) and “You two have to stop fighting so that you can gather wood to heat the house” (my sister and I both instinctively know that nothing warms the blood like a good spat, and we are happy to keep one another from freezing to death).

But it’s worth this lecture to get away from his more paranoid ruminations, which all seem to begin, “People die in situations like this!” My father’s greatest fear, just edging out the “Tree Branch to the Head” scenario, is that we will have to defend our 2200 watt generator against the neighbors or a mob from Detroit (which is an hour away on a clear day). However, unless the Horde drives a Zamboni machine, nobody will make it down our winding gravel road coated in three inches of solid ice anytime soon.

I was beat/Incomplete/I’d been had/I was sad and blue
At first I pretend that I am Laura Ingalls trying to make it through the Hard Winter, but the pizza bagels are anachronistic. I try reading, but this requires light. This also seems to annoy my father, who feels I am not taking the situation seriously enough. I try to take my father seriously without succumbing to his sense of doom, but as the days pass I realize that all I can do is lay low and keep warm. Paranoia, like pizza bagels, becomes monotonous.

The real question is, can I survive listening to Madonna? Because while we desperately scan the radio dial for weather reports (if another storm comes and we don’t take it seriously we could all die!) and news about when Consumers Power will restore electricity, every station between Detroit and Flint plays “Like a Virgin,” at least four times an hour.

But you made me feel/Yeah, you made me feel/Shiny and new
The contrast between Madonna wearing a fishnet tank-top and me wearing the same five pound yellow-orange sweater for six days straight does not escape me. But after hearing “Like a Virgin” over and over, I at last achieve the kind of mental clarity only a diet of pizza bagels can bring. I see beyond the vulgar lyrics, beyond the images of the Material Girl acting slutty on a gondola to the true meaning of the song: you’ve already lived through Hell, so hold out for the one that keeps your dream alive. In the meantime, get on the boat and start dancing!

Like a Virgin/Touched for the very first time/Like a Virgin/When your heart beats/Next to mine
I came to in my shopping cart, surrounded by more than a dozen 8-packs of D-cell batteries, countless boxes of frozen pizza bagels, and a carton of Ohio blue tip matches clutched against my chest. My head was pounding in time to the chorus, a sort of mnemonic hangover from a week lost twenty years ago.

Yes, the power lines were put back on the grid and the ice melted. I went on to have my senior picture taken wearing the five pound yellow-orange sweater and a pair of enormous gold earrings. And in the highs and lows of the years that followed, no matter how bad things got, there was always one question I could ask myself that put everything into perspective: Have you had any pizza bagels lately?

As long as the answer is “no,” I know I will be okay. You can’t stop aging, but you don’t have to give in to it. Get on the boat and start dancing.