Monday, July 10, 2006

Putting food by

My mother taught me to put food by.

In the Michigan summers of my youth, for about a month, she was always putting something by -— freezing strawberries, blueberries, peaches, green beans, making pickles and relishes, even one or two years canning tomatoes. One year we called it her “drunken corn relish” because the two of us drank wine, laughing and singing, while we cut to corn off the cobs and cooked the sweet summer harvest in cider vinegar and spices. I can still remeber how the kitchen smelled making that relish, and how I felt ushered into adulthood that year.

I haven’t put much food by in recent years: about the only provision I would make for winter was freezing blueberries. Something about this move to Ann Arbor awakened in me a desire to do it again.

I am quite grateful to California growers for the strawberries we get all year long. But there is simply nothing like a Michigan berry. The perennial plant must need the rest of our harsher winters to produce the little gems. The only way to pick them is ripe: they can’t be picked ahead and then ripened for market. Bright red, and small, with more seeds than the California berry we’ve grown used to, when you first see them your heart leaps. Summer is really here at last, and nothing will do but to cart some home and have shortcake for dinner.

I knew I’d have to put some by this year.

So yesterday Ben and I went to the market and bought 20 pounds of blueberries and 16 quarts of strawberries. When I found the berry vendor and asked for 16 quarts, he said, recognizing the quantity meant I was going to do more than eat a meal, “It’s a good thing you got here, young lady, this is the last day.” By the tremor in his hands, he'd been farming many years, and I was young to him.

For the next three or four hours, I washed, topped, sliced, sugared and bagged, eating a few with each newly washed batch. Ben ate quite a few too. My hands were stained red and wrinkled, my fingers cramped from the cutting. Even the sugar was Michigan sugar, made from sugar beets grown in the thumb. I did the strawberries first, because blueberries are easier.

Today my hands are still stained, but the bright red has faded to a darker color, and only where my fingers were nicked and around the edges of my nails. And in the freezer, I have a whole Michigan winter’s worth of summer.

When Ben and I open that first bag, probably sometime in late November, I will remember again how the first of my mother’s watermelon pickles tasted, or the sweetness of that first taste of her corn relish. You pop that summer bounty into your mouth and the snow outside disappears. All you know is the sweet and tart of your own labor. Maybe more of us should put food by: who knows? It could change the world, one sweet bite at a time.

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