Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Strawberry Jam

I remember being little in my mother’s kitchen in the summertime while she made jam. It was hot out and hotter in the small room painted with a 60’s orange and yellow gloss. But the house smelled sweetly of strawberries. The bright red berry is the perfect metaphor for the season. Fruit that takes so sweet and so good and whose time passes too quickly, and then is gone again. It’s fitting that it blooms only for the longest days of the year, and then fades into a memory of what freshly ripened strawberry tastes like.

It’s a blessing that store-bought jelly was new to me (It’s also amusing that in my college days I stood in the grocery store not sure what the difference between “jam” and “jelly” was). I loved the shelves of canned goods gathering dust from where they sat in the basement workshop. Our dirt and gravel basement was a liminal space in my childhood, still part of the house but also part of the earth beneath us. It was the place my father built things and the space that held our pantry, and the way the centipedes and mice got into our home.

As a child, when asked to retrieve tomato sauce, applesauce, or jam from the basement, I was always caught between terror at creeping down where the centipedes lived, where the 10’ to the shelves momentarily became a vast expanse, and the gratitude for the temporary reprieve from the heat. It was always cool down there, where the centipedes lived, in the basement that smelled of gravel dust and wood.

I work at deepening my connection to the natural world with my practice. Every year I make plans for the things I want to do that are not currently part of my normal life- like gardening and canning. While most of my relationship with the natural world has taught me to slow down, when it comes to growing your own food you have to be patient, yes, but you have to be prepared for your own burst of energy and dedication when the crops are ready for harvest,

Summer is a busy time for me and each year, it has long passed before I have realized my window to make fresh jam has also passed. It’s a common excuse I find myself saying when I don’t get around to doing things by hand, that I was too busy and time got away from me. If I were a nomadic caveman and I wanted to eat, finding food would be a priority. The fast pace world we live in is no excuse for not taking care of basic needs.

It might be more convenient to buy jam in the grocery store but that jam would have been picked by my hand, chosen by my hand, cleaned and hulled in my kitchen and then cooked on my stove. I know the ancestry of my jam, from the farmer I met who planted the seeds and nurtured the plants, to my hands, to the bellies of my family and friends. How great a gift is that?

I carved out a two-day window for strawberry picking at a local farm, amused with the thunderstorms that poured down before and after, and the black cloud that sat above us during. Thanks for the shade, Mother Nature. It was overcast and wet, but clear as we drove in.

Crows lifted out of the field in a small cloud of feather and air, dangling plump red strawberries from their beaks as they flew for the tree line and the river just beyond. The rows of berries were brilliant with crimson color as far down the row as you could see. I barely had to move, there were so many, which allowed me to be more selective. Lifting up stalks of fruit, it was easy to pull them off the stem with a gratifying and crisp snap. We made quick work and came home with much more than the 2 quarts I needed for jam.

I hulled and mashed what I needed for the recipe and barely made a dent in the berries I had cleaned. It was easy to take another half-hour and hull a bunch of strawberries to be frozen, so that if the jam came out well, I could make another batch later this summer with our fresh/frozen berries.
I have never made jam before, and it might bear mentioning that I am not the most competent cook, but I am learning. Being in the kitchen is like being in a foreign land where everyone speaks a language I have no translation for: “quart” and “blanche” and “rapid boil,” etc. It seems unnatural that I struggle so hard to learn to provide my body with nourishment, which is why it has become a large part of my ancestor work. I used the recipe on the Pectin box and followed it exactly.

You know what, mom? You were right. Making jam was far easier than I anticipated. Jars and bands were washed and waited in a steam bath in the sink so they would still be hot when I needed them. Actually cooking the jam only took 20 minutes. The aroma wafting through the house was delicious, like the best quality of a hot sticky summer day. I used a water-canner I scored at a thrift store and 10 minutes later, pulled out the jars to hear them sealing with a metallic ping.

After only an hour and a half of cooking, I have enough jam to get my family through six months. Another batch of jam made with the strawberries I froze means we can have enough homemade jam to last us until next summer, when the strawberries will be ripe again. And I will be waiting. Waiting to make jam again.


  1. Too true about the dirt basements. I can still smell ours! I have never seen such a great strawberry year, they have been jumping off the plants and into the basket as I walk down the rows. I love how much time things like this take, it makes time for stories about family like you have told and for those stories to be passed down. :-)

  2. Hey nice to know once in a while I can be right. I knew you would be hooked. Nothing like the smell in your house from making jam. Nice story. Love you mom

  3. Maggie, I think you're right more often than you think... I love this story, Sarah. I can relate to some aspects of it, having grown up in a seemingly similar kitchen with the magic of homemade strawberry jam. (To date, I still do not care for most store-bought jams and jellies.) I'd be interested to hear how your batch turned out.


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