Pain makes you think. Thinking makes you wise. Wisdom makes life endurable.
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
From The Garden to the Heart: The Mason Jar Social.
When the only things stirring on those damp-scorching, windless days are mosquitoes and fools, another Southern summer has arrived. It's a great irony, this season. For kids, no school, yet summertime also meant greater personal availability to keep the wildly proliferating lawn under control, weeding flower beds, and helping with barn and kitchen garden tasks. The okra, beans, cucumbers, squash, purple hulls, corn, and tomatoes were coming ripe just as the final school bell rang, and the cicadas started their nightly singing. The next several weeks meant getting up early, wearing work boots, and trampling to the garden with mother and brother, each carrying two giant buckets apiece, to fill with whatever was ready to "bring in". Squash and cucumbers were the favorites: bigger vegetables filled buckets faster and allowed a sooner trip up to the house to indulge in ice water and the comfort of inside. Okra and the others were another story. The prickly leaves and stalks of the African gumbo veg never gave up their pods easily, and the harvester usually required a knife to cut off the over sized specimens from the stalks. Beans and purple hulls demanded a strong back and a keen eye. Had shorts and tshirts been feasible to complete the garden day, the tasks may have been easier and the perspiration less. But gardens are micro-environments. Creatures live in them. It might well be family land, but come picking time, we were really just visitors. Garden work required garden armour. Flying insects, long sleeves. Snakes and rodents, sturdy footwear. Pounding sun, wide-brimmed straw hats and something to wipe away the sweat. Out in the rows, the length of the day was not determined by a clock, but by the column of expanding mercury in the thermometer mounted on the fence post between the field gate and manure pile. When the buckets were full a few times, and the sun had warmed the air to nearly one hundred, it was time to return to the mud room, peel off the heavy denim and cotton to get ready for the "putting up".
Beans, okra, and purple hulls are prepared at leisure: sitting in company slicing okra in coarse segments, paring beans into snips, or hulling long pea pods until your fingers turn the color of eggplants. The purple stains are the badges of the most diligent, along with tiny cuts on the thumb incised by a tiny knife. Cucumbers, tomatoes, and sometimes even squash and beans never enter the living room for hours-long preparation. They land at the kitchen sink as the dusty Mason jars saved from last year and stored in flimsy cardboard after their contents had been consumed, receive a soapy preliminary wash. While the Okra and beans and such would be frozen for wintertime use, these others will be canned and shelved in traditional glass containers. Dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, mustard pickles, chow-chow, mixed veg, canned tomatoes. Pretty soon, the indoor humidity matches that in the backyard. Atop one stove burner, a tall pot filled with water almost to the edge will seal the jars: water bath method. On another perches the pressure cooker for other things reputed an ability to pop lids while on the shelf and thus poisoning whole generations of family in one unfortunate meal, these stories re-told each harvest time while hulling and shucking: "a few years back, there was a family in Florida..." The other burners ready the brine for pickles and in a small enameled pot, a nest of lids rustles and glides in boiling water, further safeguarding us all from the fate of those Floridians whose demise mother had read in some 1974 back issue of Reader's Digest. Brine. It's a smell as memory-filled as watermelon sliced up with Dad's pocket knife and eaten outside from pink-soaked newsprint at dusk, a freshly-cut yard jumping with crickets, or the thick electric-yellow humidity that precedes a thunderstorm. It's the acrid blend of water, vinegar and herbs that makes the air heavy, pungent. Summer air. Kitchen timers clack, pacing the bathing and cooking times of the pots. Nearby, a legion of empty jars retrieved from their boiling bath stand ready to receive their cold weather provisions. Pickle Masons stuffed with cucumbers, dill weed, some with horseradish, others with sweet brine for milder tastes. The wide-mouthed canning funnel hops from jar to jar as the steaming preservation liquid splashes in and fogs the glass. Steaming wide mouths. One lid, one screw ring: a careful hand seals the jars and lowers them into the boiling pot. An empty Mason jar clanks in the water. A full one thuds. Sounds and smells of summer jars. The keepers of the kingdom's bounty when the garden lies frozen in ice and covered with snow. Comfort and hospitality are held here in suspension until later, when the heavy smell explodes again from the jar in late December to remind us of those days when the kitchen billowed with dill and horseradish, and of the sense of community we shared as the jars collided with the aluminum sides of a seething pot.
Putting up a summer day's picking involves a series of tasks that no one person can possibly undertake alone. Some work the garden, others clean the jars, still others prepare the haul. It's a community effort, coordinated among family, often also with friends. It's a practical activity to preserve the summer throughout the year. Mason jars are, in fact, time capsules of that day: so much a day of work as a day of story telling. A day of memory making. Once the jars are cooled and ready to be stored, they find their places in the storehouse usually according to the year they were filled, an organized collection of memories. In the South, food is not only sustenance, it's a reason to gather, to re-live, re-tell, recall, and report. Mason jars contain abundance in variety kept for special times. When we all assemble for a meal, it's a time to share, enjoy fine company in a community as diverse as the family store itself. Each glass offers something new, something different, something good, that nurtures body and soul. This is the essence of our Southern supper club: the Mason Jar Social. We are that colorful, abundant store of carefully filled glasses, and when we come together at table, we celebrate ourselves and each other in that same colorful abundance!
The Mason Jar Social meets at a different eating establishment each month selected by one of the members in rotation. Membership in the Social is by invitation.