Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Oct. 8
- Community Blog
It takes forty minutes to bring jam to a boil. I watch the clock and stir, and it occurs to me that I may be the only one in the neighborhood who still “puts up” preserves.
Growing up in a Japanese neighborhood in Northern California, amidst the Dole and Del Monte factories, home canning was common. Grandma preserved Satsuma plums, and jars of strange brown pickles. An uncle routinely buried crocks of cabbage and garlic to ferment the days away. Their bounty was shared. The doorbell would ring and Uncle Stinky would be there. “Oh here,” he’d say, handing over a reeking jar of pickled, shredded cabbage. “I dug this up last Saturday. It should be ready by now.”
My take on the family canning gene is much more assimilated. I make jam. Boysenberry, to be exact. The canes in my backyard came by way of friends some fifteen years ago. Last year, I added jelly making to my list, when our pomegranate tree bore thirteen pomegranates. Oddly enough, thirteen pomegranates resulted in only two pints of jelly.
I wait for my jam to boil. My recipe comes from the pectin box – four cups of smashed boysenberries, seven cups of sugar and one pouch of liquid pectin. There was no family jam recipe passed down to me. We were not a PB&J family. We were more of a fish and rice ball family.
I’m not sure how I learned to make jam. Maybe it is because I have no Japanese neighbors to share brown pickles with. In the summertime, my neighbors do zucchini drive-bys where they leave brown paper sacks filled with zucchini on doorsteps, ring the bell, and run. I don't grow zucchini, I grow Boysenberries. My only defense is jam.
At some point before boiling, jam resembles a kind of chunky soup. The aroma is intoxicating, to the point where you might want to stick your face in it and inhale, but that would be wrong and painful. For jam to properly set-up, you must stir constantly and wait for it to come to a boil. Not any kind of a boil, but what jam people refer to as “a rolling boil.” This type of boil doesn’t stir down easily. It percolates for awhile, then it burbles and simmers, and finally comes to a full-on angry boil where it roils and churns, and that’s when you know it’s ready for the pectin to be added. Once the pectin goes in, the boiling settles down for a bit. You have to keep stirring, to encourage the jam to roil again. When it does, you set your timer for a minute and stir, and allow the jam to churn.
As I stir and beat down waves of jam, it occurs to me that I can’t recall ever meeting another Japanese person in my neighborhood, except for my gardener, Mr. Yamaguchi. He is not to be confused with my hair stylist, also named Mr. Yamaguchi. For a time, I tried to find a doctor and a dentist named Yamaguchi, because the symmetry of it all seemed to suit me, but in the end, I couldn’t go through with it. My dentist is fantastic, and I couldn’t throw him over for a Yamaguchi, DDS.
The timer beeps and I turn off the stove. The jam is ready to ladle into jars. I think the greatest modern invention as far as jamming is concerned is the dishwasher. You set your jars and lids into the dishwasher ahead of time and, if you time it correctly, everything is hot, sterilized and ready to go by the time the jam is cooked.
Some people use a big ladle and funnel in order to fill the jars, but I forego the funnel and use a petite ladle that exactly fits inside of a wide-mouthed canning jar. It takes longer to fill the jars, but it’s cleaner and neater and I don’t have to worry about botulistic air bubbles getting trapped in the middle of my jam. I fill each jar to within an eighth of an inch to the rims. I wipe my rims with a damp paper towel to clean off any stray bits of jam. I add the lids and tighten down the caps as tightly as I can.
I am conflicted about the next part. My friend Heidi tells me that jam no longer need be water-bath processed. I am shocked and horrified by this revelation. Apparently, the “modern” way to process the jam once it is jarred and capped is to simply turn the jars upside-down for five minutes, and then turn them right-side up. The lids form their vacuum seal and everything is fine.
Except that in my head, it is not fine. In my head, I recall my mother’s attempts at canning tomatoes, and the bulging jars lining the garage shelves. Childhood horrors simply can’t be ignored.
Call me old-fashioned, but I pop my filled and sealed jam jars into a boiling water bath. I set my timer for ten minutes and make a PB&J sandwich with the jam scrapings from the cook pot while I wait.
I use my jar tongs to lift the jars from the water bath. I set the jars onto a clean towel and let them cool. Over the next hour or two, happy “pings” from the lids as they form their vacuum seal fill the kitchen. When the jars are cool, I will label them with “Boysenberry, 04/04/2009.” I will put them into paper bags and set them out on my neighbors’ doorsteps. I will ring their doorbells, and run.