Piles of peaches and tomatoes lie on my kitchen counter waiting to be canned. Ears of corn and bright yellow squash are impatiently tapping their little green feet, expectantly anticipating their autumn makeovers. Today I dropped four pounds of peaches into hot water for a few moments, then plunged them in ice water, slipping their skins off in preparation for their final transformation. Tonight when I come home I’ll slice them, fill big mason jars with rosy peach quarters and syrup, and then store them up for peach pies baked in the gloom of midwinter.
It’s September and here in the Pacific North West we already feel a hint of fall weather approaching. Most days it’s still stinking hot outside, and we drop the blinds on our windows, and shut all the doors before the full heat of the day scrambles up the walls of the house. I’m trying desperately to cling to the last days of summer – I’m not yet ready for the drenching rains that set in for nearly 9 months here in southwest Washington.
Towards the middle of summer I started making jams and relishes. Although I’ve cooked all my life, starting with serious baking at the age of nine, I have never actually made jams and preserves. That was for formidable apron-wearing ladies who truly knew their stuff (not me!).
And then, somewhere in the third week of July, life got really scary. I received news that my mother was very ill. She’d suffered a bad stroke and lay in hospital, inadequately cared for, progressively getting worse, and I was unable to go to her.
Somewhere in that week I bought a huge quantity of berries – Marion berries and Black Butte blackberries – sugar, pectin and lots and lots of shiny jars. Without much fuss I started boiling up batch after batch of jam, and discovered how surprisingly easy it was to take something wonderful and capture it in a little glass jar. In the midst of all that uncertainty and fear, I found a little patch of life that I could throw myself at. When I was standing in the kitchen, picking over berries and stirring and pouring, I was able to hold off the uncertainty and pain for just a little while. By the end of the week, after we returned from church, I had finished wiping off the last of the ruby jars lined up in my kitchen, and I thought of making scones for us, serving them with cream and homemade jam. My husband is American and isn’t always familiar with some of my South African “English” rituals, so I thought it would be fun for him to taste and experience. As I was rubbing the butter into the flour, just as I remember my mother so carefully teaching me when I was nine, a call came from my best friend. My mother was dead.
I finished the scones, baked them, and gave them to my daughter and my husband. Red berry jam bleeding into the cream atop the light crumbs. Beautiful, simple, messy.