Caring for a parent

The Way We Were (Canning, continued)

Mama was a stay-at-home mom. But no one called it that then; it’s a term that implies an alternative, and every mother I knew was a “housewife.” (Thank God that title has gone out of fashion.) My mom worked hard at home, while my dad worked hard away from home. And maybe she had more of a relationship with the house than she did with him.

She certainly had an intimate relationship with the kitchen. Other than the dishes—which we girls did while she hovered and told us what we were doing wrong—I don’t remember spending much time there myself. I wonder now if the kitchen design that discourages more than one occupant at a time was deliberate. She did not and does not really like to share her fiefdom.

One of things she did was can food. The pantry in the basement was always full of home-canned peaches, plums, pears, cherries, applesauce, and tomatoes; and blackberry, strawberry, and plum jelly, jam, and preserves. Mama doesn’t remember when she stopped canning, but it has been at least a couple of decades.  (Later she tells me she didn’t can very much. One of us misremembers reality; and judging from the number of jars in the pantry, I don’t think it’s me.) Now she freezes food—lots of it, mostly soup and muffins and applesauce. And the freezer is the bane of my existence. She persists in using mismatched containers that don’t stack neatly—and weren’t intended for food storage—and they fall out of the freezer every time I open it. I drives me insane.

The one food resource currently on the property is apples. And Mama loves her applesauce. “It gets me through the winter,” she has said when Rebecca or I question her obsession with making it. I admit, warm homemade applesauce with Tillamook vanilla bean yogurt (the best yogurt on the planet, made in Oregon and only available in these parts), has been a highlight of my visits home in past years.

Last summer—and for years before, Rebecca assures me—applesauce has taken over the kitchen like the persistent misty-moisty PNW winter weather. It goes on day after day for weeks, as she has Dan the Man pick six apples off the tree and whoever is available help her destroy the kitchen for the day to make one container at a time. The mealy, thin-skinned Transparents have to be peeled and cored and the result is a runny product the consistency of soup. The Gravensteins ripen next—and are the ones I am using—and can be quartered and cooked, then put through the Foley Food Mill (a marvelous machine that has she has had for decades) to remove the skins. And, as it turns out, the core; which she never thought to use it for.

I am getting into this country living thing—sometimes pretending that it is mine to control, when it is so not—and I decide I am going to pull out the old canner and the jars with lids that indicate the way we were: “applesauce” or “plums” and “1978, “ ‘84,” or “ ’89.” Mama thinks I have lost my mind when it is apparent that I am going to follow through with my pronouncement; and maybe I had when I suggested doing it together (see last week’s post). I think when it is said and done, she is proud of me, but she is careful not to say so.

I pick the apples, a bucket’s worth, buy new lids, and gather up everything else we need from the basement. She washes apples while I quarter them. She is skeptical when I tell her they don’t need to be cored. I put a little water in the bottom of the pot (not a lot like she does) until the apples start to soften, saying that we will pour some liquid off when the apples begin to create their own. “But you will pour off the vitamins, won’t you?” she asks. “I’ll do it early in the process,” I reply, “when it’s still mostly the added water.” She keeps quiet, but I can see her struggle to reconcile that with her way.

I put the jars in the oven to warm, rather than her instruction to warm them with the water in the canner. She is, rightly, confused by my request that she teach me how to can—which, I confess, was rhetorical to get her buy-in—versus my use of instructions on the internet. (She did tell me last week she didn’t know if she remembered how, leading me to online prepping.) I tell her I do want her to teach me, but also perhaps there is some updated methodology that might be experimented with. I later decide her jar-warming method is a perfectly good one.

She does a few turns of the Foley while I stir pots, and then is tired and goes to rest while I finish cutting and cooking and stirring and straining and fill and immerse the jars: seven pints. There is a good bit left over, so I go back to the tree and fill another bucket to add to it and process during Mama’s afternoon nap. She is astounded. “There have never been that many apples on that tree!” she exclaims. I also pick a handful of Italian plums, and she says, “That tree has never had nice fruit. (She is big into always and never extremes.) I will, over the next week, pick several more large handfuls of plums and three more buckets of apples. Meanwhile, she gets some plums at the fruit and vegetable stand that “aren’t good,” while the homegrown plums sit in the refrigerator. I have stopped saving them for her, and am eating them myself.

Along with six jars of blackberry jelly (yes, after my applesauce success, I dove into the maligned Himalayan blackberry jungle along the road up the hill. Mama’s reaction was, “I don’t know why you pick them along the road.” Because that’s where they are?), we now have 21 pints of applesauce on the pantry shelf and seven more (at least) to come. And there are still the Chehalis apples in the neighbor’s orchard that they don’t like and that Mama has long used for still more applesauce. “But they are never very good.”

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6 thoughts on “The Way We Were (Canning, continued)”

  1. Would she know a good apple or plum if she ate one? I wonder what her imaginary ideal would be like. “On a scale of one to ten, where ten is died and gone to heaven, how good is this plum?”


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