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.

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