I have always loved putting up for winter. When I was young, it was always jam. Blackberry jam from hand-picked berries ripened inland from the coastal fog that swallowed the headlands in the summer – creeping up the craggy ocean cliffs and settling in the branches of the redwoods. We would drive east toward the sun, through the dappled light of the dense forests; on roads that curved and ambled under giant redwoods on pavement slick from the damp. We would reach the sunlight and, in the dry Mediterranean heat, would sweat under our sunhats as thorns stabbed our fingers and the regular sound of berries dropping in the buckets filled the air. All the scents of summer were amplified in the close heat. The cool damp scent of creek bottoms floated up on the breeze and mingled with the rich, earthy aroma of cows. Pungent mint crushed underfoot spiced the dusty air.
Once we made it home with what wasn’t consumed en route, we would rinse the berries and boil them down with sugar. Jars clinked in the boiling water as they sterilized and country music on the FM radio crackled through the speakers as Vince Gill, George Strait, and Leann Rimes serenaded us from the living room stereo. Sometimes, when the fog had receded and was sulking somewhere on the ocean horizon, we would open the top of the dutch door in the kitchen and the scent of lavender from the planter boxes on the deck would waft in on the breeze. The jam jars were filled and we would retire to the porch with ice in our drinks and listen for the ping of sealing lids.
Since growing up and moving out on my own, I get an itch deep down in my memory that starts in August. Most years, the produce to do my own canning comes from the farmers market, but this year I have my own garden. I started six tomato plants indoors from seed last spring and watched them slowly mature as snow blanketed the world. The learning curve for tomatoes in my area has been quite steep, but trial and error (actually, quite a few successes) has yielded a total of 14 pounds of tomatoes – minus the ones eaten in hand as I stand between the plants with juices dripping down my forearm. And they’re still flowering.
For fear of losing my crop of harvested tomatoes, I canned my first batch of tomatoes this evening. How ironic that preparing for the frigid days of winter must start in the heat of an Indian summer. A stove full of boiling water on a hot summer afternoon will be a distant memory as I make lasagna, sauces, and casseroles or fill my Crockpot with canned tomatoes from my summer garden as the snow hurls itself against the windows. The same can be said for gathering and stacking firewood. The American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “If you chop your own wood, it will warm you twice.”
Canning this evening was only part of what is to come from my garden, but was a good start with two pints and three half pints of chopped tomatoes. The color and aroma of a garden fresh tomato is unlike anything else and I look forward to the lingering taste of summer as I listen to the January wind and the bubbling sounds of dinner.
As I listen to the ping of my jars sealing in the kitchen, I am so thankful for the bounty coming forth from my garden. Thankful, also, for the childhood experiences etched into my soul that cause me to reach into my cupboards for jars and lids as the days begin to shorten an the leaves begin to change. Perhaps it is something deeper than my own experiences – an evolutionary draw from an ancestral past that is passed down from generation to generation, sometimes suppressed, but nevertheless present in each of us.