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Bread And Butter: Preserving Food

When the bounty of summer comes, you put some aside for winter. It’s a concept and truth that has been instilled in my cells from birth. But I often didn’t see the purpose of making yourself miserable in those last sun stroked days of summer just to bottle the same green beans that grocery stores would often sell well under a dollar. I didn’t see the purpose of good reading or TV time being used sweating over boiling jams, jellies and relishes. It was so much work – thankless work, actually – and the rewards seemed slim.

Growing up, my parents and my grandparents before would take the extra from our gardens and turn it into jams, preserves, pickles and chow, canned beets, tomatoes, sauces and other veggies. In the heat of the New Mexican summer, the large water bath canner and pressure cookers would be pulled out and set up, glass jars full of colorful substance dipped one after another into one or the other, before placed on the table full of towels to cool. Days built upon days, as produce ripened and came in to be transformed. Berries and fruit into butters and jams. Carrots, beans jarred for later. Cucumbers and beets pickles a variety of ways.  Reds, oranges, yellows, purples. As they cooled on the towels, each set would be stored away except for the one or the extra, if any, that was left out for immediate use.


Once married, something pulled on this memory and I made a batch of homemade strawberry jam. I found the recipe in a local to us at the time paper and set out to busy myself while my husband studied during grad school. It was a rousing success. One I never repeated. I finally tossed the copied recipe during one of my clean outs when I decided that jam making, at least in large quantities, maybe wasn’t for me. Years later, I tried canning again. I bought the supplies, followed instructions and in the end had several jars of lovely food. But it was not something I loved or relished, pun intended, and put it aside. 


Around the same time, I felt a mighty pull toward local food and became passionate about feeding my family throughout the winter on food stuffs saved during the harvests of summer. Little by little I tried to find a way that made the most sense in my life. I didn’t want to slave away over a water bath canner all summer and miss time with my family. I also didn’t want to go back to those under one dollar cans of army colored green beans when we were surrounded by fresh. I would look at our garden and at our farmer’s market bounty and started making a plan. Every week I would buy extra produce.   started easy, with berries and fruit, and would load my canning jars with what we couldn’t eat that week and put them in the freezer.  Soon I was reading about freezing fresh vegetables and buying extra of those, as well. Green beans, carrots, broccoli, corn cut off the cob. All of them were blanched and frozen, as well.  It took a few years and lot of trial and error, but I started getting a system down. Buy enough for our needs during the week, plus a little extra (or, sometimes a lot of extra) and process and freeze. 


My freezer, at the end of the harvest season, is full. Local meat fills the drawers and the shelves are full of various sized jars. Reds, oranges, yellows, purples. The finished product is still a whisper, sitting in my freezer, instead of a roar of declaration on the dining room table full of towels in my youth. The peaches and blueberries wondering if they’ll be muffins, smoothies or jam come February, but this way seems to fit our life. The routine is solid, now, and we have our list of things that get eaten and things we probably shouldn’t try to freeze, again, down pat while quantity is still sometimes elusive and heartbreaking when the final jar of corn is dumped into a taco soup in March and I know it won’t be replaced for another six months. 


But as I’ve adapted this process and tradition, albeit differently from the impossible blue heat of New Mexican summers past, I finally have learned that the rewards are actually full – of flavor in the bleak midwinter, of freshness and nutrients that have become a personal value over time. But I also realize that those boiling jars of jams, jellies and relishes were building a future. It was both sacrament and promise of hope. I didn’t see the purpose. Until I did.