Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Canning dreams

Even in the midst of current and future upheaval, our late afternoon read aloud has remained constant. I think it is a big reason as to why the vast majority of the children around here have been navigating the changes better than I expected. Everyone needs constants in their lives.

The book we are currently reading is Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright. It is actually the last book of the Melendy Quartet, four stories about the four children in the Melendy family. I will admit to really only being familiar with the last two, this one and The Four-Story Mistake, which is one of my top favorite books from childhood. In The Four-Story Mistake, the family moves to the country into a delightfully odd house, where they find a hidden room, the door of which had been boarded over. This story fuelled house fantasies for me for years. I love these stories because I like the children. They were written and set before and during World War II, and I long for their uncomplicated existence.

Yesterday, we read about the children taking over the canning due to various circumstances. The victory garden had exploded and something had to be done with all the food. Here are some excerpts which tell the story.

"Mona slept an uneasy sleep that night, and her dreams were long dull dreams about tomatoes. She rose early for the next morning, got breakfast with Randy, and studied her canning book. By the time the boys and Willy began bringing the vegetables, she knew it almost by heart. She and Randy were enthusiastic about the first bushel-basketful of tomatoes, it seemed a treasure trove: an abundance of sleek vermillion fruit, still beaded with dew. The second bushel also looked very pretty, the third a little less so, and by the time the fourth one arrived she stared at it with an emotion of horror."

Ah, I know that feeling all too well... when the apples never seem to be done, or the peaches start exploding in a sticky mess all over the counter. The Melendy's first attempt at canning was a bit hit or miss, but then they were rescued by a neighbor who came to help.

"Daily at eight-thirty Mr. Titus arrived and presided over the culinary rites like an aproned Buddha. Randy and Mona, his handmaidens, peeled and washed vegetable after vegetable; hovered about the stove till their cheeks were crimson, opened the oven door and frowned in at the contents, lifted the lid of the enormous boiler on top of the stove releasing great steaming fogs; and gradually on every hand appeared the result of their labors. Jars upon jars of tomatoes, of tomato juice, and yellow tomato preserves. Jars of dill pickles and of India relish. While the fever was on them the girls spent their pocket money (and whatever they could wheedle out of Rush and Oliver) on crates of peaches and plums, and put up quarts of each. Intoxicated by the great sacks of extra canning sugar which Cuffy had stocked, they went even farther; experimenting with jams and conserves."

I love the line, 'when the fever was upon them' because it is so what it feels like, this madness to put food into jars for the winter. And the results are so satisfying.

"It was something. The quart jars were arranged on the shelves, and the window sills, where the light could best reveal their amber, purple, and vermillion splendor. In front of the quarts stood the pints, filled with pickles and preserves."

I love the look of row after row of canned fruits and vegetables. Summer before last, the summer of compulsive canning, yielded dozens of quarts and pints and half-pint jars to sit on my pantry shelves. Last summer? I think I may have made a little bit of something, and at this point, I don't even remember what that was. Last summer was a blur. It was a long and hard adjustment bringing home two new girls. It didn't leave much room, physically or emotionally, for doing much of anything. And now my pantry shelves are nearly empty. I can feel the madness starting to well up inside, but instead, I need to find some large boxes and start packing it all away. Canning supplies are not essential at the moment, and they will join all the other non-essentials upstairs in the pile of boxes.

And I'm back to the unknowns. Will I be able to unpack these boxes I'm about to pack this summer? I just don't know, and don't want to think about it too hard. If I can, then it would be a lot of angst for nothing, and if I can't, then I don't think I want to know ahead of time.

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