The Bends

Yesterday my friend Eric invited me over to make Ginger Pear Preserves and Tangy Cranberry Butter. He and his wife do this every year to make gifts for their families. After the Peach Preserves they gave us last winter, I wanted to see the process up close. But the timing was tricky: we’d both been grading for days, with more still to come, and yet the pressure to get something done before the holidays was real.

I assured him when I got to their place in Oakland that I’m on the short bus to cooking school. It’s not exactly that I’m clueless when it comes to cooking, but some things are not exactly intuitive. Zesting a lime, for instance. How much zest do you zest? Is zest a verb? Do you scrape the poles or just the hemispheres? Does anyone enjoy the white bitter pieces I zested into the mix? I see.

It turns out, of course, that making preserves is extremely simple if someone else is an old hand at it. You start to listen for the language of canning, artful language mingled with science. For instance, you boil the chopped pears until the sauce thickens. How do you know when it’s ready for canning? When the sauce is thick enough to slide like a curtain from the back of a wooden spoon.

Eric seemed untroubled by the rookie mistakes that would get lesser cooks in trouble, especially regarding the problem of bacteria and one’s hands. It can ruin what’s in the jar, of course, if you touch the rim or the lid (but how hard it is to pour hot liquid fruit neatly into a glass jar!). Turns out, this is what hot wet handtowels are for, as well as a healthy dose of good enough.

We used red and black tongs to place each jar in boiling water; they’re not necessary, Eric assured me, but they look cool. Also helpful: a magnetized tool for plucking lids from their own hot saucepan (half-effective, as the lids hung by an edge).

And beer. It turns out that the final, time-honored technique for canning involves nursing a bottle of beer, as the pureed cranberries settle, while it rains outside and steam rises up from the neighbor’s white Christmas lights. The big old pot cradles four jars at a time, immersed in a slow roll of water.

I’ve been feeling the holiday melancholy lately. No doubt you have too. It’s not just the time of year, or the weather, or the commercialization of the season or the impending family obligations. For me, it’s a pressure so varied and firm that it accumulated over many weeks, many months. I feel unmoored here much of the time. My community, my sense of place and friendship and comraderie and yes, even a clarity of purpose feel less certain here. The pressure is self-generated. I am deciding what I am, week by week. Some weight lifts, through new friends, a new love, new connections, but the pressure shifts rather than dissipates. In some ways I am forced by the pressure itself to make choices that distill me to my essence.

Eric passes me another beer and we talk about politics and family.

Slowly, invisibly, the air in each jar escapes.

Canned Goods
(Greg Brown)

Well, let the wild winter wind bellow and blow.
I’m as warm as a July tomato.

Cho: There’s peaches on the shelf, potatoes in the bin.
Supper’s ready, everybody come on in.
Taste a little of the summer.
Taste a little of the summer.
Taste a little of the summer.
Grandma put it all in jars.

Well, there’s a root cellar, fruit cellar, down below.
Watch your head now, and down we go.

Well, maybe you are weary and you don’t give a damn.
I bet you never tasted her blackberry jam.

Oh, she got magic in her, you know what I mean.
She puts the sun and rain in with her beans.

What with the snow and the economy and everything,
I think I’ll just stay down here and eat until spring.

When I go down to see Grandma, I gain a lot a weight.
With her dear hands, she gives me plate after plate.

She cans the pickles, sweet and dill,
And the songs of the whip-or-will,
And the morning dew and the evening moon,
I really gotta go down and see her soon.

‘Cause the canned goods that I buy at the store
Ain’t got the summer in ’em anymore.
You bet, Grandma, as sure as you’re born,
I’ll take some more potatoes and a thunderstorm.

[As sung by Greg Brown on “One Night” (1983), “One More Goodnight Kiss” (1988),
and “The Live One” (1995).]

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