A couple of months ago I did something I’ve rarely had to do in my lifetime: I bought a jar of jelly.
Growing up, my mother put up an awful lot of the food we ate, as did her mother and so on back into the distant past. Putting up food (drying, canning, freezing) for your family to eat during the non-growing season is still something many members of my family do, and it’s not limited to jelly. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my mother would take us to her mother’s every weekend, and we would help string and can beans, freeze corn, fry sausage for canning, prepare other meats for freezing or curing, and put by a whole host of other foods: vegetable soup, grape juice, applesauce, dried apples (for pies and cakes), peaches, potatoes, tomatoes (for soup, chili, and stew), tomato juice…
Y’all, there is nothing like home-canned sausage served with hot biscuits, fresh churned butter, and home-canned applesauce, particularly on the coldest days in winter. Warms me right up just thinking about it, and makes me miss my mother’s cooking like crazy. That was a frequent weekend treat for us kids and a sign that Christmas or snow was on the way, one or the other.
In spite of media reports to the contrary, canning is not a dying art. At least, not around here. In fact, many urbanites are rediscovering putting by their own food due to a growing concern over food safety and origins (and, in some cases, the growing instability of our federal government). But those people don’t can like rural folk do, particularly when the nearest store is not just miles away, but hours away, as it is in some places out west.
I live in Northeast Georgia, so “out west” covers a lot of territory.
In my family, it’s very near a mortal sin to use store-bought jelly. My schedule over the past few years has been such that I haven’t had a lot of time left over for canning, so we’ve had to make do with store-bought jelly, store-bought frozen corn, store-bought beans, and a whole lot of other store-bought food that I’m ashamed to admit to using. But a family’s got to eat, and if you don’t have time to do it yourself, relying on others to produce your food is the only option.
During the summer before my mother died, she canned and froze and dried like crazy. I reckon she knew her death was coming. (She’d been sick for a while, and that’s all I can bring myself to say about that.) Now, she died in October 2009, and we still have the fruits of her labor in the pantry and the freezer, but it’s dwindling to the point that this summer, I will be canning, whether I want to or not. We’re in desperate need of jelly of all kinds, from the grape jelly my son prefers (totally out!) to the blackberry jelly my brother and nephew enjoy (thanks, Aunt Bonnie, for keeping them supplied!) to the strawberry freezer jam that is a perennial favorite with everyone, family member and visitor alike. We also need canned beans, peaches, applesauce, and vegetable soup, frozen corn, and dried apples, just to name a few.
This year, though, I won’t be alone. I’m roping “the grandkids” (my son, niece, and nephew) into helping, just like the members of my generation helped when we were growing up. As soon as we could handle it, my mother would drag chairs over to the sink and have me, my sister, and my cousin, Virginia, washing jars in hot, soapy water to prepare them to receive food. Our hands were little (we were young), so it was an easier job for us than for the adults. Plus, it kept us occupied with a useful chore. (Everyone contributes in a family. It’s an idea our society has forgotten in the last generation or two.)
So while the kids’ hands aren’t as little as mine were when I first started helping put by food, they are certainly big enough to string and clean beans, shuck corn, and cut up apples. I’m actually looking forward to the work (and it is work) because I’ll not just be overseeing a necessary chore, but continuing a family tradition and helping build memories for the kids to pass along to their children.