Josna Rege

86. Bottled Sunshine

In 1970s, 1980s, Food, Stories, United States on December 14, 2010 at 11:58 am

the tradition continues: Eric’s harvest 2010

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.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. Jojo
    Saw your e-mail about a new Story, so I took a look before heading home from work to work on Holiday preparations, more specifically getting the Package ready to ship out to Maine. I truly enjoyed this Story as it so well portrays Andrew’s approach to whatever, which has always been an inspiration, and instructional. It also brings back the memories of canned Green Beans, a personal favorite, and Bread and Butter Pickles that seemed to be an annual task to assist with and then going to the basement or the pantry to select another ‘bottle of Sunshine’ as you so aptly call them. A
    Love
    Michael

    • Canned green beans! Yes, I was talking with Andrew and he remembered getting that recipe from your mother. I seem to remember their low acidity being a potential problem, the question being whether we needed to add vinegar, and if so, how much. I have your mom’s bread-and-butter pickle recipe in her own handwriting, though I’m not sure that we ever ventured to make it ourselves. No doubt you’ve been roped into helping with canning operations many a time, both at our house and your own. By the way, did you ever taste Dan’s famous canned jalapeños?

  2. What a lovely story tribute to Andrew! This is the first time I have heard all the details and it is just like my Rodale book on preserving nature’s bounty! It is interesting to note that we may be coming back to some of these time-honored preserving methods as things seem to get tighter in the economy. It is especially good to have preserved the memory of those wonderful, useful methods which helped preserve your relationship as well. Thank you again!

    • Dear Marianne, I’m tickled by the image of our relationship preserved in a jar! it reminds me of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, where he packs each chapter into a jar to preserve “the pickles of history.” Thank you, though, I do know what you mean! And yes, we did have a distinct, even an urgent sense back then, that although what we were doing was not strictly necessary yet, someday quite soon it would be. More pragmatically, we had a ton of produce all coming ripe at once, and we had to do something with it before it spoiled!

  3. What a treat to finally get back to your blog and read this lovely piece. And yes, it may be not only a useful, but a necessary skill some day, in which case I hope you’ll have room for me at your table now and then! I’m doing more cooking now that I live alone, so perhaps I’ll do a bit of canning some day, if I get ambitious. My mother used to make jam from the sour cherries in the back yard. She’d also dip some in chocolate, which were fabulous.

    • Always welcome, Sarah. I hope that one side effect of the coming times of scarcity may be that we get more communal again. And my mouth is watering at the thought of your mother’s sour-cherry jam. Looking forward to catching up over tea and scones sometime soon.

  4. So warmed by the voice in this piece, Josna, and by the word pictures. Canning, Pickling, Bottling, Preserving….all labors of love and what a testament to the true New England spirit in its compassion and conscientiousness. I savored every delicious detail in this taste of the contents of that bottle, that you have heaped with such shared diligence. Communal farming is returning, you know….I see more of it now, even in Texas.

    • Urmi, On this bitterly cold December night it is I who am warmed, by your response. Our Mason jars have sat idle on their shelving in the basement these five years or more, now that we have the freezer (and inexpensive Trader Joe’s organic canned tomatoes). But what if the electric supply became unreliable? All the food in the freezer would spoil. And what if food prices soared along with gas prices? Suddenly canning would have to make a comeback. And aside from necessity, it’s a lot of fun.

  5. loved reading this, Josna. the voice glows and I wish I knew how to do half the things you and andrew do…

    xo

    • Thank you, Sejal, for your sweet response, Wish I knew how to do half the yoga positions you do, let alone with the effortless elegance you do them with! I miss you calling me up to go with you on Saturday mornings. x J

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