A few months ago I was putzing around on Medium when I came across this article about canning/preserving. I was a little bit intrigued, to say the least — I have so many memories of my Grandma Flora putting up jars and jars of apricots and peaches. I remember the time my grandpa took me across town and had me climb a tree to pick plums for her (to this day, I have no idea whether we had permission). When the apricot tree in my grandparents’ backyard actually produced fruit, it was a wondrous summer of warm empanadas. But she would pull down a huge mason jar of peaches in thick syrup in the fall and winter and delight us with a cobbler every now and then as well.
There are so many things I wish I could ask my grandparents now, and it seems almost petty that so often my thoughts dwell on food. They all lived pretty remarkable lives, though I did actually spend quite a bit of time asking them growing up in the Depression and raising their families. In high school, I recorded an interview with my Grandpa Gary about his time as a medic in World War II, though he wasn’t really forthcoming on many points (likely to my benefit). My Grandma Marie and I often spoke about her childhood in northern New Mexico, of her washing clothes for money and neighborhood kids being caught in the arroyos during floods.
But more than anything, especially with my grandmothers, I think of food. Food was the thing that brought us together most often in my childhood and — naturally — the same held true in my adolescence and as an adult. Until we were about 10, we spent our days and most evenings at Grandma Flora’s house, where my favorites were chicken dumplings or a piece of catfish my grandpa had caught that afternoon, fried in cornmeal. For lunch in high school I’d often take my friends to my Grandma Marie’s for bean tostadas, and when I was a reporter at the Daily Press I’d save a few bucks when I could by grabbing a bean burrito at her house for lunch (followed by a nap on her couch).
When it comes to cooking, I don’t know that anyone will ever match the simple flavors my Grandma Marie perfected over decades in front of the stove. She’d be up at 4 a.m. (or earlier) making a batch of tortillas, and she’d make papas that were crisp on the outside but perfectly tender inside. Her frijoles were amazing, and that was before they were refried — I maintain to this day that there will never be anything so delicious as a spoonful of those beans on a tortilla with some cheese.
My Grandma Flora, on the other hand, could hold her own while cooking, but her true talents were in baking. In that regard, I can claim some small (miniscule, really) measure of parity. But there are things I never learned from her: the secrets to her cobbler crust (which didn’t really need a filling at all), her recipe for pineapple upsidedown cake, or how she “put up” her peaches and apricots.
I’d thought about doing some home canning in the past, since the farmers’ markets in Baltimore have the variety and quality of fruits and vegetables that could make it worthwhile. And my friends are doing it as well: Leah does her jams and jellies and Dominique puts up a few (50 or so, if I recall) cans of tomatoes every year.
But after reading this article about Kevin West, and his desire to reconnect with his roots via canning, I added his book Saving the Season (trust me, get the hardcover) to my wishlist and awaited its publication. Finally, a couple of weeks back, Meredith returned from a trip to Missouri and told me she wanted to make some bread-and-butter pickles. And I knew that I wanted to do some canning of my own. I’ve started easy, with the six jars of pickled beans seen above. But I’ve been stalking the peaches at the Farmers’ Market as well — they’re next. Who knows: maybe there’s a cobbler in my future.