Thursday, August 16, 2012

Jam Don't Shake Like That

The alchemy of jelly is deceptively simple: combine nearly equal parts fruit and sugar, add pectin, heat, and put the hot syrup in jars. Days, sometimes weeks, later it will set into a sweet treat. If it fails to gel, which it sometimes does, the cook can boil again; if not, the liquid still can be used as a topping on pancakes.

At holiday get-togethers and after Christmas dinner this year I will casually hand out jars of spiced grape jelly, cherry jam, apple butter, mountain currant jelly, and fig confiture with honey, lemon, and thyme. Most will be eaten just as casually. Some jars will sit on pantry shelves for years. In rare cases a friend will return an empty jar, holding it like a chalice and asking for more of the same. No matter which scenario plays out, making and giving these goods is a ritual that brings me great pleasure.
My first jelly was Mamoo's spiced grape. The recipe came from my great-grandmother, and I copied it by hand from my grandmother's hand-written copy. My grandmother must have learned from her mother-in-law. I like to imagine the two of them forging a friendship over a sticky sweet boiling pot in a hot summer kitchen. My grandmother taught my mother, who then passed the knowledge to me. I don't remember learning, although I do remember my mother's warnings as she melted paraffin on the gas stove - the wax could ignite and engulf the kitchen in flames. She would pour a thin layer on top to seal each jar, and months later I would pry them open, then chew the grape-flavored wax. Today I use a boiling water bath to preserve, but the rest is mostly the same. I've now made spiced grape so many times I can do it mostly from memory, although I occasionally review the original recipe in case I'm missing anything. I usually am, but my variations have made it my own, so I don't go back. Like language, recipes evolve through the generations.
I can make spiced grape any time because the primary ingredient is store-bought juice. Fresh fruit, however, dictates its own schedule. This year I discovered that my uncle had a cherry tree with a good crop, and I was given permission to pick both his tree and the neighbor's.  Montmorency cherries are a rare treat since my mother's tree split along a fault line and was turned into sweet firewood. For many years the last week of July was harvest time, and I would clamber on the low moss-covered fence underneath, or ascend awkwardly placed ladders reaching for the ripest fruit, too tart to eat off the tree but unequalled for pies and jam. My uncle's tree ripened early, in mid-June, so while my children were at camp I spent a week's worth of mornings circling the tree. Looking up through the trees the sun was so bright that the fruit was translucent, glowing red against the deep blue sky. Sticky juice ran down my arms to my elbows and squirrels chittered at me from a nearby tree while robins scolded from another. There were so many that even after taking more than two gallons the tree looked as if I hadn't touched it. At home I commenced preparing the fruit. I washed and pitted and chopped, boiled and canned. After three days I had twelve jars of jam, and two pies in the freezer. My house smelled of sugar and cherries for days.
Apples ripen later, in September and October. I get mine through a school fundraiser, so the spicy scent of apple butter has become synonymous with the start of school. Apple butter is an exercise in patience. Forty pounds of apples take a while to prepare - washing, peeling, coring, chopping. The peels and cores go into the mix, too, for their pectin, but they are contained in a muslin bag to be removed later. When ready the apples are set to simmer over low heat for days, until they break down just enough. The scent of the harvest drifts through the house, growing stronger as the hours pass. Falling steam coats the counter with evaporated sugar, and the essence of cinnamon and cloves imbue every meal until the chocolate-colored mixture is pressed through a fine sieve, scooped into jars, and the aroma is sealed in.
The rarest, most precious, jelly comes from the currants that grow at Wellington Lake. The bushes are waist high; the berries smaller than the nail on my pinkie finger. An hour of picking might yield eight ounces of berries, and it takes 16 cups to make one batch of six jars. The arithmetic is daunting. Yet there's a certain satisfaction to the first dry plink of fruit hitting the bottom of a paper cup, then the deepening sound as the cup fills to silence. 
Last weekend I stood on a low hill, dry grasses scratching and tickling my calves as I picked, ducking to discover orange-red berries under tiny green fan-shaped leaves. The breeze came from the south, curving around the shoulders of Castle Mountain and gusting pieces of conversation from the campers across the lake to me. "Don't worry about . . ." "Did you . . .?" Dogs barked and radios sang intermittent love songs to me. It was comforting. This sun lowered itself as I hunted for fruit, and my fingers became increasingly sticky with the piney cologne of currant resin. I remembered walking the dusty road with my mother and grandmother, each with our own collecting cup, remarking on good bushes and chatting amiably as we worked them over, or relaxing into companionable silence, moving individually to the next spot. Other days we slipped down the rough gravel of the dam, looking for disturbed earth where raspberries grow best. When we found a patch we would wind our arms between thorns to find tiny magenta thimbles that fell into our hands. Ostensibly for mixed wild berry jelly, my raspberries usually were a snack instead. Entire afternoons slid by as we attained a meditative state of grace, the reward a full measuring cup in the refrigerator and the knowledge that this year we would have jelly.
This is a good year for currants, and my children helped with the harvest. S, as usual, chattered away. Miss Awesome -- like three generations of women before her -- focused on picking. During the week I left them at the cabin with their grandmother while I returned to the city for two days to work. When I returned there were quarts of currants in bags in the refrigerator. My mother should be able to make two batches this year.
The alchemy of jelly is deceptively simple: combine the fruits of my labor with generations of tradition, flavor with love, and share.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Reunion Redux: Once More, With Feeling!

I have posted a few (okay, several) times about my abiding sense of awkwardness and loneliness. This was particularly true at last year's UWC reunion. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to go again this year, largely because I wanted to see my first-year roommate, of whom I have fantastic warm memories. I am very glad I went. At the end of the weekend I said goodbye and embraced everyone, relishing the knowledge that twenty years and thousands of miles have not diminished our friendships. 

This year has been one of transformation for me. Having begun my personal fitness odyssey, I am no longer as overwhelmingly ashamed of my physical self. I have revisited my priorities, and am working to take care of my emotional health. I have learned to speak in the gibberish of self-help gurus.

Perhaps that's why with this group I didn't feel the need to try so very hard to impress. I was delighted to meet up with my roomie and several other people I really liked then, and still like now. We laughed, we wrote together, we reminisced. There were many hugs. It was good. I also spent time alone, enjoying the beautiful weather and some much-needed solitude. And I danced until my feet ached, joyous in the company of dear friends.

Like last year there were a number of scheduled activities, most of which I skipped this time around. One in which I did participate was a remembrance ceremony. Walking to the  garden felt like approaching a funeral, especially when I saw boxes of tissues at the end of each row of folding chairs. Still, there was a certain peacefulness sitting under the pine trees, listening to the low murmur of voices dulled by the wind in the top boughs.

Below the bright blue sky we honored benefactors I never knew, and mourned classmates I  wished I'd known better. Mourners spoke of the friendships forged at the school, and the lives changed by them. And, during a passionate speech in which he expressed his gratitude for the school, his now-deceased parents, and the twenty years of students he has taught, a marvelous teacher spoke about how honored he has been to love and be loved his students. One line rang through me like a bell: "it is easy to give love. It is difficult to receive it".

For more than twenty years I have mistrusted most affection I have been offered. Believing that I would be mocked or somehow humiliated if I responded, I practiced diffidence and deflection. I was fine offering myself, giving of myself, but I read sinister intent behind the most casual, unintentional slights. And I have missed out. I know now that my fear came from a lack of self-worth, and I am trying to change my thinking. I will continue to give. Now I must learn to receive.

This morning I woke from a dream in which I was hurrying to catch a bus for which I was desperately late. Instead of feeling frantic and guilty, though, I grinned and hurried and just managed -- awkwardly dragging a suitcase and stumbling through doors -- to make it on board. I looked around and saw dozens of people I have known (including those I'd just seen at the reunion), all smiling. In the past I would have understood them to be mocking my ineptitude. In my dream, though, as I searched for an open seat, everyone was gesturing eagerly for me to join them. As I flopped down in the nearest available space I laughed, filled with delight at the love and friendships that surrounded me.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

High Desert - A Word Picture

This is a shadowless land. There is an austere beauty here that demands respect, although to one accustomed to the lush greenery of a wet climate admiration comes slowly, tempered by the knowledge that there is no forgiveness.

The sky stretches taut from horizon to horizon, shading from a white that follows the sun to blue so deep it seems like space itself. Clouds are architectural wonders, stacked in brilliant towers that make unfulfilled promises of rain. The land shimmers in low waves of gold, touched by browns and greens subtly blended so that crests and hollows are defined by color, rising to pale yellow and darkened to dusty greens wherever water settles in minuscule amounts. Mountains slump on the western horizon, so confident in their grandeur that they have no need to stand tall. Buttes occasionally jut up lonesome in the plain as if they were misplaced when the mountains rose.

This landscape is defined by the absence of water. Travellers in times past mapped out tiny springs and moved between them like children on hopscotch boards. Missing one could mean death, scattered bones beside a trail the only marker. Some learned the thorny secret to pulling water from desert plants, but even the prickly pear is stingy; sage and grass give up nothing. The harshness of the plants is belied by the musicality of their names: ocotillo, agave, juniper, sage, broom, brush, yucca.

Waterways are hidden in gullies, arroyos, ravines, and gulches -- words that, like the clouds, evoke dreams of torrential rain. Rare creeks are scribed in dark green twists across the bright land: the brushy tops of trees that rise tentatively above the plain. There one can descend into the cool shade of hundred-year-old cottonwoods, unkempt grandfathers whose spring seeds fly like false snow. The moist air in a cottonwood grotto is perfumed by leaf mulch and the smell of ancient rain drawn up through ten million years of geology.

The asphalt bleaches to the light gray of old bones, running straight for a hundred miles. Telephone poles impose an angular regularity on the scene, the lines between rising and falling with meditative grace. Lordly hawks perch occasionally on the wires or swing in high circles on invisible thermal columns. Barbed wire fences -- no sharper than the cactus they separate -- line both sides, hemming in cattle in shades of brown, grazing industriously. Occasionally they are joined by startling black brethren that look like standing shadows. The same expanses sometimes conceal pronghorn, camouflaged with unpredictable bands of brown and white. They stand aloof from the domesticated beasts, masters of the land and dismissive of fences and human boundaries.

Occasionally thunderstorms sweep across the plain with cinematic drama. Clouds pile upon each other in a symphony of grays -- blue, green, pink, dove -- their shadows racing across the land faster than the swiftest of horses. Sheets of rain drop earthward, blown much like laundry on the line, concealing and revealing the land below. Lightning, jagged in every direction, highlights the landscape and brightens inside the clouds so that their glow is reminiscent of atomic blasts. The plains open up to the redemption of rain, and the water-carved channels fill quickly with roiling mud, racing as far as possible even as the liquid begins to sink into the sand below.

Within minutes the rain passes and again this antique land shines without shadow below the indifferent sun.