So in between my first month of employment back at the ranch, turning 27, planning a vacation with my friends, drinking entirely too much red wine, losing my wallet, not doing the laundry, frolicking in the hills, not mowing the lawn, making dried wreathes and crappy dinners for my husband, trying to get through a painfully boring book and painting my toenails bright pink, I have been canning.
And it turns out the age-old art it is nothing in real life like was is in my head.
As most of you know, this has been the summer of every North Dakotan’s dreams. The moisture and sunshine have been taking turns nicely, which has enticed the berries on every wild bush out here to grow big and bright. So husband and I decided that this bountiful, juicy, beautiful fruit simply could not go to waste and, between the two of us, we should be able to figure out how to get it into some syrupy, jelly, sugary delicious form. It couldn’t be that hard, could it?
It all started off innocently, like a scene from a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel (minus the prairie dresses and berry buckets and add cheap sunglasses, tank tops and plastic bags from Target). Husband and I, jelly on our minds, roamed the hills together scoping out the best place to pick chokecherries and plums, talking dreamily about the tips we have received from generous relatives and friends about the best way to make the jelly gel, the syrup sweet, the jars seal and how not to poison yourself and every innocent victim that receives our canned goods as a Christmas gift.
Our first berry hunt however, turned up nothing. We scoured all of my familiar places on the ranch…you know, where I used to pick plums and spit the pits at my sister, but it seemed the deer had the same idea we had about the sweet fruit–only a couple days before us. I am sure their jelly tastes good. Wonder if they have any tips.
Anyway, it didn’t matter much because with husband taking the rifle along for target practice and me with my camera obsession, we lost our focus somewhere between me taking photos of the last wildflowers and him shooting their heads off.
We tried again a few days later and did manage to come up with quite the crop, but that was after swatting away crow sized mosquitoes, a weird tan line, one lost husband (or maybe I was lost…that was never resolved really) and multiple bloody cuts on hands and elbows from the bushes that grow thorns as well as plums (which is, in my opinion, an unnecessary form of protection for a plant)
And so we trudged home with our loot, very gratified and very excited about the bounty that these little berries were about to produce.
I thought about really getting after it….
But there they sat, in the plastic bag for a good three to five days, while I procrastinated.
I wasn’t sure why I chose to wait so long to tackle an activity that I have always wanted to master. And as it turned out, I had all of the stuff. All of the required tools my grandmother used to can her world famous jellies and syrups and tomato soup and pickles was still packed neatly in a cupboard in the basement, waiting for the next canning season—a season that had been skipped in this house for nearly sixteen years.
So I was determined to break the streak, no matter how intimidating words like “pectin” and “pressure cooker” and “lid bands” were to me. I was going to figure this thing out. Without any help. Just like the old days!
And it was going to be so calming, this process. I visualized husband and I in our cozy kitchen, sorting through our crop, laughing and talking about our hopes and dreams. I imagined him stirring the juices in a big pot as I added the necessary ingredients–the kind of loving and cheese ball teamwork you see in between the covers of a Better Homes and Gardens Magazine.
That was the plan anyway. Until I realized that perhaps the Pod People in BHGM don’t have parties to plan, bills to pay, jobs and, you know, have probably done this sort of thing before.
So I Googled “Jelly Making” and shit hit the fan.
Because you know all those helpful people that were giving husband and I advice about something they have been doing for years and years with grammas and old aunts and sisters and maybe even a Betty Crocker style male role model? Yeah, well there are a lot of those helpful people on the Internet.
And they all have something different to say.
I started to sweat.
My berries were picked. They were sorted through. I had my pots and pans, I had my jars and lids, I had my pectin and sugar, I had my spoons and strainers. I had a good two hours to devote to this…
I had a nervous breakdown.
And after a good hour and a half (just short of my allotted time frame) of verbally abusing myself and husband, the loving man sent me to bed.
Like literally sent me to bed. No joke, he said “You. Go to bed. Now.”
So I did.
The next day, after a strong cup of coffee and an apology, I hunkered down and asked for advice from a trusted source.
And you know what that advice was? Just read the directions in the packet of Sure Jell.
So I did. When husband was gone, I turned off all forms of distraction, stood in the kitchen in my bare feet, prepared my lids, put the juice and sugar and pectin in a pot and stirred and stirred and stirred over my grandmother’s stove in my grandmother’s kitchen.
And she, my gramma, must have been in that house, in that kitchen with me that afternoon. She must have been balancing her berry strainer, holding the spoon, timing the boil, whispering in my ear when to remove it from the heat and letting me know just how much hot liquid to pour in the jars. She had to have been there, making up for lost time, because it came together somehow. I let go and she took over and it all came together (without injury) into sugary, sweet, perfectly purple plum jelly lined up on her counter in a neat little row.
I took a step back, hands on my hips after the work was done, and I was damn proud.
Then a little sad.
And in that moment it occurred to me why it has taken me so long, why this is an art I haven’t attempted.
Because there were people I could call, friends and family I could ask to come over and help me, really good cookbooks I could trust. But I didn’t want them–I didn’t want to trust those pages, those people. .
This was her art…her kitchen…her tools.
I wanted her.
And she had been there all along.