Gems for the Cellar

I like canning. The realization was a jolt. It came to me while I standing in a puddle of tomato juice, chopping the 14th onion for the cauldron of spaghetti sauce that bubbled on the stove. My eyes burned, tears streamed down my face, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was not enjoying this. I've been canning for 20 years.

Winter always finds our larder well stocked with the bounty of garden and orchard. And in winter, I love it.

It's a lot easier to overlook the toil and trouble, the heat and sweat of the job when the fire dances in the woodstove and the wind howls outside.

I rejoice in the colorful jars, row upon row of them on the wooden shelves beneath the kitchen. Jams, peach and apple chutney, green-tomato pickle, corn relish, soup seasoning, tomatoes, sweet cucumbers, watermelon rind, and hot peppers - flaming red spears in vinegar that add a piquant zest to the color scheme as well as to winter salsas. Together, they look like a Cezanne still life encased in glass.

But it isn't just the way they look. Opening a jar of homemade pickle when the sleet is tattooing the windows is a momentary return to the glorious lushness of summer. I am wrapped once again in the heady scent of basil as my arms brush across it while picking peppers. For a few moments, the fragrance of overripe peaches perfumes the air of my imagination.

I see in my mind's eye the mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables scattered in baskets around the porch and kitchen, their varied colors and shapes part of the wonder that emerges from the earth. I marvel that each sprang to life and grew to maturity at the bidding of a seed, the memory of its whole being locked inside that time case.

The filled mason jars represent more than my own memories. They connect me in spirit to generations of women who ``put by'' in an effort to nourish and nurture their families.

Despite the electric lights, the indoor plumbing, running water, and telephone, I feel a kinship with those women who lived here a hundred years ago, when convenience stores were the food that was kept in the downstairs pantry. I feel them moving rhythmically through their days, stringing beans as their grandmothers once did, making their lives rich with the satisfaction of work well done.

Canning calls up creativity in an effort to broaden the scope of the menu. Caught within the boundary of what is at hand and what my family will eat, I experiment - new combinations of spices and herbs, of fruits and vegetables.

The variety is not just for our sake, but also for those who receive something from our hearth. Spiced peach jam with almonds gets tucked into baskets for the teachers at Christmas. Herb vinegars and jars of preserves are gifts to friends, a token of thanks, the remembrance of a favor, or to lift a flagging spirit. Pickled peaches and watermelon rind are donations for the annual community fundraiser.

In the process of canning, our children learn that it is in their power to give regardless of the state of their finances.

Although they balk occasionally at what feels like the constancy of the picking, once they are standing in the branches of the plum tree enveloped in clusters of blue-purple plums, they become collaborative.

Objections cease and conversation settles down to murmured plans punctuated with quiet humor. It is a sharing of work. They are building their connection not only to the earth, but to each other. And when they lay a basket filled with homemade bread and damson jam on a teacher's desk, they know they have participated. It is truly their gift, too.

For 20 years, these joys have obscured the fact that I don't like the canning itself. Washing hundreds of canning jars, sterilizing them in a hot-water bath, filling them with boiling hot pickle or sauce, and stumbling down uneven boards into the cellar with them is sweaty work. The kitchen is usually 102 degrees and awash in something sticky.

At times, trying to keep up with the flood of produce makes me feel like the little Dutch boy - only the dike I'm plugging spurts tomatoes.

Every year, I wonder exactly how much is really needed and how much is the tyranny of the garden. I hate to waste. And even though I know that whatever goes into the compost will help nourish next year's garden, I feel guilt because of the accusing piles. Sometimes, in the midst, I want to give up and retire to the hammock with a book.

But canning roots me. It is part of a cycle of living that sets each moment apart, forcing us to take notice of the small miracles of creation. I am reminded daily, too, that unto everything there is a season. Knowing that there is a limit to the season also sustains me when keeping up with the squash becomes all but impossible.

The first frost will call an abrupt halt to production. Mercifully, canning season will be over.

I've just finished taking the spaghetti sauce out of the canner. One-quart jars are lined up by the sink, spewing little bits out of their overheated tops.

As they cool down, they will seal. They'll look like jewels when I set them beside the others on the cellar shelves.

I may not like canning. But I definitely like having canned.

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