As we enter the darkest days of winter, I find myself recalling past summers and the bounty of Andrew’s vegetable gardens. Having lived and worked on the only farm in Brookline as a boy (first learning to drive on a tractor), he has the wisdom and the work ethic of an old New Englander. Pete Hill, the manager of Allandale Farm, who after the Second World War was a GI-Bill graduate of Mass Aggie (before it became UMass Amherst), imparted to him not only his vast knowledge of farming but also his stoic approach to the vagaries of wind and weather; his mother Anna passed on to him her passion for gathering and gleaning and her horror of waste; but Andrew taught himself how to put food by. For years and years he not only grew much of our food in a series of large home gardens, but preserved it as well, freezing, drying, and mostly, canning it in dozens of Mason jars which we broke out through the winter like bursts of sunshine.
Andrew approached canning as he approaches everything else, scientifically. He read the instructions thoroughly and followed them meticulously, taking extra precautions so as to minimize the risk of spoilage. He washed and prepared the fruits or vegetables, selecting only the best specimens for preservation; unpacked, re-washed, and sterilized the previous year’s quart and pint jars; and got out our largest and heaviest stainless-steel saucepans: strictly stainless steel for canning, absolutely no cast iron or aluminum. Then he got the stove going, having laid in a good stock of both kindling and larger logs so as to be able to control the temperature; since for many of those years we were using a woodstove. (Andrew’s brilliant stove design using a 55-gallon drum is another story, especially its built-in griddle that could cook ten pancakes at a time.)
Our biggest pot was part of an old milking machine; it was massive and held several gallons. It did your eyes a treat to see the ripe red tomatoes simmering in it, their level rising as we added each new batch. Andrew was careful not to overcook them, and after they had cooked for their appointed time, he put them through the hand-cranked tomato mill to remove their skins and seeds. Then, using a heavy funnel (also stainless-steel, from that milking apparatus), he filled the jars to precisely the proper level, screwed the lids on, not too tight, and processed them in a pressure-canner or boiling-water bath, seven quarts at a time, for exactly the requisite number of minutes. He took them out to cool on a clean surface, and then we waited to hear the caps make that satisfying click, somewhere between the sound of a cricket and a bullfrog, which signified a successful vacuum-seal.
Besides the quarts of tomato sauce, Andrew would cook down some of the sauce into Andrew’s Special Ketchup, rich and dark and flavored with spices, which he stored in Grolsch beer bottles, the green ones with the ceramic stoppers. He also perfected a recipe from our old Penguin Indian Cookery (the Sardar-ji cookbook, my father called it, because it was written by one Dharamjit Singh) for brabarr tamattar chutney, made half-and-half with red and green tomatoes, and delicious on cheese sandwiches.
Tomatoes were easy to can, Andrew always said, because of their high acid content; he was even more meticulous, if that is conceivable, when preserving low-acid produce. He made jam, too, with raspberries, blueberries, and Concord grapes, sealing the tops with wax; a tricky procedure, but such was his care that not a single one ever spoiled. We all benefited from his insistence on erring on the safe side, because every time he wasn’t one hundred percent certain of the seal, we could start eating the jam right away.
I haven’t mentioned the drying oven that Andrew made, with a built-in thermostat-operated fan and stainless-steel mesh racks; in it we dried apples and pears, tomatoes, peppers, and even eggplant, which we stored in glass gallon jars and used in sauces and stews throughout the winter. And of course, we wouldn’t have had all that food to put by if he hadn’t grown it in the first place.
Nowadays we are members of a CSA (community-supported agriculture) at a local farm, and Andrew restricts his gardening to things we can’t get in sufficient quantities there: mostly blueberries and garlic. We now have a chest freezer and he washes the fruits and vegetables, blanching some before packing them in heavy plastic freezer bags, each one labeled by year and batch.
What has been my role in this process, you may ask? Over the years I have harvested, washed, chopped, stirred, followed instructions, waited impatiently for a chance to have a taste; and time and time again, in the deep dark of the winter, I have reached gratefully for another jar of Andrew’s bottled sunshine.