Preservation – More than Food

I have a friend who loves the “ping” sound of spring when baseballs begin to connect with bats. She looks forward to a good season of family fun, hot dogs and nachos, healthy competition, and sunshine-filled days at the ballpark. With college baseball season drawing to a close as the final and fortunate clubs head off to Omaha for the College World Series, I’m finding myself thrilled by another “ping” sound – a sound of summer. It is the snap and ping of canning jars sealing as they cool on the kitchen counter. Along with the hiss of pressure cookers and jiggling of boiling pots of various and sundry fresh produce items, this “ping” produces a pronounced sense of nostalgia for me.

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandma and mom preserving vegetables and fruits in the kitchen. When I was very young, my grandma still performed much of this function on a wood-fired cook stove in her rural north Idaho kitchen. Of course this process began in the garden plot, on a neighboring farm, or at the very least a community market. I did not have a full appreciation for the value of the process as a child. Gardening was hot, dirty work, and bugs and worms were involved, possibly even the occasional snake. Therefore, I was not the least bit interested in the beginnings of preservation — dirt and seed!

I grew up with gardening as an ordinary part of life, and some of my favorite childhood stories and memories stem from the ground of cultivating vegetables. The mundane deeds of growing food such as weeding and picking potato bugs off plants are not my best memories, but maturity now allows me to see the true treasure of such tedium. The joy of keeping my balance on the homemade harrow, (an agricultural implement with spikelike teeth or uprightdisks, drawn chiefly over veggiesplowed land to level it, break up clods, root up weeds, etc.) constructed by my dad, weighing it down while he acted as the “mule” to pull it over the ground, is something I remember fondly, although my father probably chose to forget the unusual labor. I also remember my parents, neither of which can swim much at all, shooting corn-stealing racoons out of cottonwood trees along the bank of the Shadowy St. Joe River — from a small boat — in the middle of the night! My mother raised what seemed the most gigantic of pumpkins, stacking the harvest at the end of our driveway next to the fence to be sold as hopeful jack-o-lanterns and Thanksgiving pies.  My maternal grandparents were also avid gardeners. Grandpa may have been one of the original subscribers to Organic Gardening when it was still a black and white newsprint publication. All-in-all, gardening — dirt and seed — provide the fertility necessary for me to understand the importance of the preservation of both food and tradition.

pot tomatoesThe long hours of communal labor associated with preserving food, from the plant to the plate, is the true value of what has become a lost art to many.

Yet, this remains a foundational element in my world as I remember the conversation and laughter which always accompanied the porch-sitting popping of pea pods and shucking of corn, whether with only our family or with neighbors. The sharing of tasks, the division of chores, is a fundamental of rural life which I am pleased to have experienced and to still perform, despite dwelling in an increasingly urban area. I consider it a privilege to be of my generation and still know and understand, and still WANT to know and understand, from where my food comes, its processing, and its content.

Yes! It is labor, whether I grow it from preservation’s conception in dirt and seed or not.

The work of hauling, chopping, lifting, boiling, straining, and trial-and-error all meld into something which is more than a mere product to be eaten by my family, a product in which I can take pride because my hands touched it from plant to plate. It becomes the preservation of traditions, of family values, of arts too easily forgotten, and the immeasurable wealth of the communal sharing of tasks and rewards. Even moreso, this labor is a loving way to provide the very best for my family (and save a little money) while preserving what is perhaps most important – the memory of those who taught us how to do it.

As my mother-in-law and I have processed four boxes of bell peppers, fifty pounds of onions, and well over 300 pounds of tomatoes in the past week, creating everything from drinkable juices to salsa, we have conversed, laughed, prayed and cried (over onions) together. We have shared our labor and our lives to do something that lasts, something that preserves family tradition and honors the memory of her grandmother as well as mine. We have brought together multiple generations, retaining the art of provision through preservation as we pass along the skills (and the joy) to younger members of the family and to some of our friends as well, involving them in the process in small ways — just as I was taught — just as she was taught.

We wax nostalgic at times, which causes us not only to remember but also to wish. I find myself wishing my mom was here with us, sharingbaseball the labor and laughter, wishing my grandma was still alive to see me continuing what she started teaching me many years ago, wishing/hoping my daughter will keep the tradition of preservation at the forefront for the generations yet to be born. The “ping” of sealing canning jars and the “ping” of bats hitting baseballs are both a way of preserving treasures, continuing traditions, particularly the treasures and traditions of rural America, both things I know my friend and her mom value — and it is always good to have friends with common values.

Happy summer! Now, I must get back to my bubbling pots…

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