Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Every summer when we're doing just about nothing in the North Woods, SJG comes up with exactly one culinary challenge for our doing just about everything life. This year, she said, "Let's make peach jam." We've canned pickles, stewed tomatoes, harvest mix (stewed tomatoes, peppers, and garlic), and cranberry chutney, but never jam. So last weekend, we went to our favorite cooperative grocery to buy peaches and pectin to do just that. The next afternoon, a cool drizzly Sunday, we put up four pints of peach jam (above), as lovely in its amber glow as it is sweet and delicate on the tongue. Below is a recipe cobbled together from a variety of sources. Follow instructions carefully and make only one small batch at a time. (Note that peach season is pretty much over, though the jam will be very tasty with less than perfect fruit.)
Peach Jam
3 pounds fresh peaches, peeled and pitted
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 packet pectin
5 cups white sugar
canning equipment (pint jars and screwtop lids and rings; kettles for cooking the peaches and sterilizing the jars; a metal canning ring for processing the jars after they've been filled; a plastic funnel; a ladle; tongs; a cooking fork; a rubber spatula)
1. Sterilize four or five pint jars in the dishwasher and leave them there until ready to use.
2. At the same time, set a large canning kettle full of water on the stove and bring to a boil. Bring a smaller kettle (8 quarts) of water to boil at the same time.
3. When the smaller kettle of water comes to a boil, set it in the sink and add the peaches. Let them sit in the water for a minute or two, then remove them, and while still warm, pull of the skins. It should slide right off.
4. Take out the pit of each peach and any brown or otherwise blemished sections. Remove the tough red fibers around the pits. Slice the peaches into chunks and place them in a large saucepan or 8-quart kettle. Mash the peaches with a potato masher, leaving some small chunks for texture. Add the lemon juice to the peaches and stir briefly.
5. Meanwhile, bring a small saucepan of water to a simmer and place the screwtop lids and rings in the water to allow them to sterilize while you're making the jam. The water in the large canning kettle should be boiling by now; place the pint jars in the boiling water and keep them there until ready to fill.
6. Add the pectin powder to the peaches and stir until dissolved over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and add the sugar, stirring constantly.
7. Continuing to stir, bring the mixture to a full boil and allow to boil at a rolling boil for one minute.
8. Remove from the heat and skim off any foam with a slotted spoon.
9. Use a ladle to spoon the hot peach jam through a canning funnel into the sterilized pint jars, one at a time, leaving about 1/4- to 1/2-inch space between the top of the jam and the top of the rim of each jar. Use a rubber spatula to press out any air bubbles. Place a sterilized lid on top of the jar after you've filled it and carefully screw the accompanying ring onto the jar until finger tight.
10. When the jars are filled and capped, place them in the large canning kettle of boiling water, cover it, and boil for 10 minutes exactly. This helps prevent spoilage.
11. When the 10 minutes are up, turn off the heat and remove the cover of the canning kettle. When the water is no longer boiling and bubbles are no longer rising to the top (about three minutes), processing is complete.
12. Remove the jars with a pair of canning tongs and set them upright to cool and set undisturbed for 24 hours.
13. The next day, place the jars somewhere cool and dark for storage. Best eaten within the first six or eight months, after which time the jam will begin to darken and get runny.
* for extremely helpful tips, photos, recipes, and other useful information about canning, go to

Friday, September 08, 2006

On behalf of my sister, I brought a length of braided sweetgrass to my Aunt V. in Milwaukee this past holiday weekend. For now, she's enlaced it with a heart of grapevine stems and berries (above) on her living room wall, but once it dries, V. will use the sweetgrass for smudging at drumming circles, which she hosts in her backyard. She and the women with whom she drums tie red prayer cloths around the slim trunk of the crabapple tree V. planted in memory of her older sister (my aunt) C., who died three years ago. The drummers invoke their higher spirits and say a prayer of honor and thanks before smudging the tree and the sacred circle around it in which they will drum. They learn rhythms together and then turn to silent meditation to the beat of their drums.
I came to know my Aunt V., who last month celebrated her eighty-first birthday, when I was about fourteen years old and she was the age I am now. My parents dropped off the three of us--my sister, my brother, and me--to spend a week with her (she is one of my father's older sisters) and our Uncle G. in the small house they shared with G's two older brothers and a large dalmatian. My parents were headed to an august medical facility many hours away where my mother underwent a battery of tests, which eventually ruled out cancer and determined her to be in robust physical health.
In those years, my aunt and uncle led a very private life, and in retrospect, I see that, in welcoming three children whom they barely knew--two teens and a three year old--my relatives had said yes to an intrusion into their privacy, and to a lot of work. As mistress of the house, V. kept us occupied all day and every day with activities we thought she undertook on a lark but that must have required much forethought, planning, and organization.
That summer, we learned to sew with Vogue patterns and to make pasta by hand, stringing lengths of hand-cut fettucine to dry on hangers before cooking. At some level, we recognized our aunt's efforts, for on her birthday, which arrived during our visit, we proclaimed her Queen for the Day. To start the morning, we served apricot sugar toast and coffee to her in bed and executed an ambitious dinner that evening, an undertaking that proved the wisdom of avoiding the temptation to prepare a new recipe as the centerpiece of a special meal. In tackling salmon croquettes, I discovered, too late, the difficulty of replicating neatly shaped and perfectly browned patties as displayed in lustrous glory in the pages of V's Bon Appetit magazine. No matter the meal's imperfections, the memory is one we still recall fondly, and the visit cemented a relationship that has endured for more than thirty years.
In remembering that week with her, and in learning more about her drumming this last visit, I admire more than ever V's willingness--and ability--to choose yes as a response to life, even when many and sometimes most of the variables are unknown. It's impossible for me to avoid contrasting her, now long widowed, with my mother who, though fearless in her imaginative life, was, unlike V., largely overwhelmed by the physical, tangible realities that come with being human. I hope I'm not deluded in imagining my own life as some mix of the best of the two approaches, and I like to envision that when I'm eighty-one, I'll still be saying yes to life and finding sacred possibilities in my own backyard.