Monday, July 29, 2013


My house is a lot cleaner in the winter time. I came downstairs this morning, and it looked like a bomb had gone off. Now, that's not an unusual occurrence in a house with small children and lots of cats, but the difference this morning was that it was my stuff. How did that happen? I am usually quite a neat person, confining my detritus to the end table near my favorite chair, and never more stuff of mine hanging about than it takes a minute or so to straighten up. This morning there were cookbooks of many sorts strewn about on top of the ottoman and couch, cascading onto the floor, heaped in piles, pages sprawled in most undignified fashion. Really, did I do this? I should be arrested for book abuse. There are magazines and catalogs I haven't read yet, notebooks and legal pads filled with my hasty scrawl, scraps of paper that make me say, “Oooh, THAT'S important, gotta hang onto that!” and a two month old wedding invitation I haven't RSVP-ed yet (oops). That is to say nothing of the piles of laundry hanging about hither and yon, everything from a pair of dirt covered work jeans to a pile of berry-stained towels. Oh my goodness, who is responsible for all of this???? Oh... right... ahem.

Summer is frantic. Last summer we were running around like crazy people trying to get all the necessary repairs done to the house before winter. I didn't even think about food. This summer, my job seems entirely analogous to that of a little mommy squirrel. While Shawn spends all his extra time running around making all the repairs (who knew that a duck could get itself stuck INSIDE the walls of the duck house?), I am chained, CHAINED I tell you, to the kitchen. And it's only berry season. I've started making a list of what I want canned, dried, or frozen before the fall is over. It caused a hysterical giggle to escape me, I won't lie. And it's nowhere near as much as we'll actually eat over the winter.

Then there's the explaining, trying to convince children that they may not eat what I've just canned into jam and dried into fruit leather, nor may they have dried whole blueberries on their cereal in the morning. They must eat fresh while fresh is to be had. It is still amazing to me how quickly, over the course of human history, we have lost the knack of eating seasonally. That includes NOT eating preserved when you can eat fresh. Just a couple of weeks of being the only one preserving for a family of four has turned me into a jam hoarder. “This stuff is for the winter time. Go get a handful of blueberries out of the fridge if you want something sweet.” It totally baffles my children. The food is there, why can't they just eat it now? We can just buy jam at the store if we run out later, right?

Nope. If I'm going to be serious about growing or locally sourcing as much of my own food as possible, then I have to draw the line somewhere. And I'm not so foolish as to try and go all-in the first year. So this year it's jam. This one small luxury item I will provide for myself or go without. But even as little as that causes chaos in my house. How much jam do we go through in a year? We don't actually know, but we estimate it at something like 150 to 240 ounces. That works out to something like 19 to 30 half pint jars. Totally doable, right? So I made that first batch of jam-turned-syrup... and we went through an entire jar in a single sitting. Woah. That's when jam rationing began, because I'm really not sure that I can keep up with a jar of jam a week. Besides, that much sugar can't be good for us, no matter that there's no refined white sugar in the recipe. Between the blueberries and maple syrup, there's definitely quite a bit in there. The problem seems to be that no one anticipated how much better home made jam would taste. Even me, and I definitely grew up in the presence of real jam. The things you forget.

So, all of these revelations have sparked a furor of recipe reading. After all, who wants to eat nothing but blueberry jam for an entire year? No matter how yummy it is, it's bound to grow tiresome after a few months. So I'm thinking about peaches, pears, and apples, dreaming about pumpkin butter, and wondering if I can get plums locally. I even promised my husband that I would try my hand at some banana butter (I know, no such thing as local bananas, but they're his favorite), though I can't promise anything like success. All of this is in addition to the regular canning we had already discussed, tomatoes, relish, pickles, various stocks and soups. Almost none of which do I have recipes for which don't require modification. And that's to say nothing of the dehydrating, which I've never done before this year.

I will say this again, it's only berry season, and my season is only just over two weeks old. I have made a gallon and a half of syrup, 128 servings of fruit leather, half a gallon of whole dried berries, and a gallon and a quarter of juice that will be part of a nice batch of blueberry mead. I have three gallons of jam worth of berries in the freezer (much better texture that way) that are slated for today. I have washed, sorted, frozen, chopped, juiced, picked, and pickled my way through over 50 pounds of berries, and 10 pounds of cucumbers (which are just getting started). That's to say nothing of all the things we've eaten fresh with nothing left over to preserve, like the peas, zucchini, and green beans. And all of these things require tending, weeding, watering and feeding, quite a few of them by me.

And some folks have a hard time adjusting to why I'm just not available. It's a hard thing to explain why you can't go to a party, or come for a visit because you're stuck in the kitchen. After all, if you have the money, why not just buy what you need? Why all this work? And I miss out. I'm at home when I'd much rather be off playing. I would much rather knit socks and watch TV than stand over the stove and stir hot jam, especially when it pops and I get burned. Sometimes principles are tough, but they're important, and they're mine. Even if they do leave little time for leisure, or even my regular chores. Knitting, weaving, spinning, ha! Laundry, ha! I'm lucky if we're scrounging clean unfolded laundry out of baskets in the bedroom. About the only thing staying clean is the kitchen.

This, folks, is me, practicing the fine art of letting go, because there are only so many hours in the day, and there is only one of me. So here I am, learning my own seasonal rhythms, learning to prioritize, to accept help, and delegating chores to my children. Not to mention learning to be ok with my own creative chaos. After all, everything is new to us this summer, eventually I will have standard go-to recipes, and experimentation will be reserved for just a few batches per year. I will not always be a book abuser. In the meantime, maybe I'll spend five minutes, and clean this stuff up.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Blueberry Syrup

This was an unintentional discovery. It started as an experiment in no-pectin jam, but morphed into something far better. Thin enough to spread on its own, but thick enough to stay on a piece of toast, my family went through an entire 8 oz jar over waffles in one morning. It was a universal hit. Pre-freeze even fresh seasonal berries for better texture.

16 generous cups frozen blueberries
5 cups Maple Syrup
½ cup Lemon Juice
2 tsp Cinnamon

Sterilize 12 half pint jars and lids.
Combine all ingredients in a stock pot over medium high heat.
Stir constantly until berries break down, leaving only a few chunks.
Once syrup sticks to the back of the spoon, it is ready to go into jars.
Fill jars, leaving ¼ inch head space, wipe rims, put lids on, and finger tighten bands.
Process in hot water bath for 15 minutes, turn off heat, and let sit in the canner for 5 more minutes.
Remove from bath, and set on wire rack to cool.
Leave undisturbed for at least 12 hours.
Check seals before storage, and before opening stored jars.
Remember, preserve at your own risk.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blueberry Season

The smell of dehydrating blueberries is something magical and hard to describe. It's rich, and sweet, and tantalizing; the kind of thing that wafts through the house, and makes children and guests stop what they're doing and ask, “Are you cooking something?” and “What is that amazing smell?”

It started with a case of blueberries from the farmer's market. You see, though we definitely grow lots of our own, they usually get eaten fresh, gobbled by big juicy handfuls while my back is turned, leaving only a purple smear on an all too innocent face. And then there's the kids. So this year, I decided that if I wanted jam, I was just going to have to supplement. It's not a hardship. Our friends Jess and David Ripley over at MapleCorner Farm grow plenty every year, and their family has been farming that same rich patch of earth for 200 years. It's just down the road a ways. If you're going to have to buy berries, in my opinion, that's the way to go. They're also responsible for every drop of maple syrup we use, and I've never tasted finer.

I sent Shawn to the market to buy me at least 10 pounds of blueberries. That plus what we picked off our own bushes, I figured, would be plenty to last me the whole year. A batch of jam, and a little fruit leather. Perfect. He returned with an entire case of blueberries. 12 pounds of sweet, thin-skinned, floral-smelling, juicy delectableness, like a hoard of edible treasure. And let me tell you, I was like a mother dragon guarding those little purple gems. “No, you may NOT have any of these blueberries. Have some of THOSE blueberries we picked this morning. THESE are for jam and fruit leather.”

So I started what was to be a surprisingly long adventure. I filled the sink with cold water, and poured a good healthy slug of white vinegar in it (to remove mold spores and any residues), stirred, and in went 12 beautiful pounds of blueberries. A few minutes to soak, a couple of gentle swirls of the hand, and they were ready to pick through. Do you know how many berries there are in 12 pounds? Thousands. Maybe tens of thousands. I know it sure seemed like it, because I picked over every one of them. It took hours, and when I started to flag, Shawn jumped in and started to sort with me. We filled 3 bowls; one for the best berries, one for those that had to be used today, and one for duck food. Normally, most of what went into the duck food bowl could have been used for jam, but because of my mold allergies, I have to be a bit more careful. Anything with broken skin goes to the birds, but it's not a waste, because we just eat them as eggs. After everything was washed and sorted, all the berries were rinsed, and the best berries were spread out on towels to dry before being frozen for jam. They took up every square inch of counter space in the kitchen.

The second quality blueberries, once rinsed, went straight into the food processor, along with some maple syrup, lemon juice, and a little cinnamon. Then I spread them out on non-stick sheets, and put them in the dehydrator. Oh my goodness, the smell. That fruit leather slow roasted under my bedroom window all night. I'm pretty sure I drooled on my pillow. When I got up in the morning, my trusty dehydrator had worked its magic, and there were 4 sheets of finished leather, waiting to be cut up and put away. 784 square inches of oh-my-goodness. And I can say right now, the grocery store has nothing like this. Sweet, intense blueberry with a hint of lemon, the smoky backnote of the maple syrup, and the delightful tiny crunch of the blueberry seeds. Yum. I have to admit it, it set off a kind of blueberry mania in my house. And I wasn't immune.

Unfortunately, like much of the Northeast, we had a heatwave last week, and so my lovely blueberries languished for six more days in the freezer, waiting for more humane jam-making conditions. I swear, I was twitching, and that twitching fed the mania building within me. The following Saturday, I sent Shawn back to the farmer's market with instructions to buy two more cases of blueberries, despite the fact that I still hadn't managed to make jam.

Now, I'm no stranger to jam making. I grew up picking wild raspberries in Northern Maine with my aunt every year, and coming home to transmute them into pies, jam, and anything else we could think of. But you see, that was traditional jam, made with cane sugar and traditional pectin. The kids and I are allergic to cane sugar and all of its derivatives, so honey and maple syrup are the order of the day. The problem is, traditional pectin requires a lot of sugar in order to jell. A LOT. Traditional jams can often be 85% sugar, which is just ridiculous even to contemplate with honey or maple syrup. So I was going to have to use Pomona Pectin, or do without. Ever a fan of simplicity, I decided to try my hand at a low sugar, no-pectin jam.

Sunday dawned, cool and clear. Jam day. And the fiasco began. The kitchen was naturally a bit of a mess. The canner was in the basement, the berries still in the freezer, and there seemed to be three times as many kids underfoot as I had given birth to. It was 10 o'clock before I even got started. My waterbath canner had been used by persons who will remain nameless to dye leather, so I hauled my enormous aluminum pressure canner up onto the stove, filled it with water, and started the jars to sterilize. I poured the frozen berries, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cinnamon into a heavy bottomed pan (are you sensing a flavor theme here?), and set it on the stove to cook. And cook. And cook. And cook. Using a liquid sweetener significantly extends the time it takes jam to cook down as it turns out, and by 11 o'clock my kitchen was a fabulous smelling steam oven, and I was working hard not to drip into the pot as I stirred. When the jam finally stuck to the back of the spoon, I did a little dance of joy right there in the kitchen, spoon in hand. Out came the jars, one by one, to be filled with beautiful dark purple... jam? Because you see, it didn't really jam. I know that no-pectin jams are soft, but this, well, this was more like really thick syrup. Syrup with chunks. I shrugged my shoulders, and thought, “Ok, fine, it's not like we won't enjoy syrup just as much as jam.” So I filled the jars, measuring head space, and wiping rims, carefully putting the lid and band on each jar. Then I put them back into the canner, put the lid on, and started bringing it to a boil. Almost done.

That, that very moment, is when disaster struck. Sparks shot out of the stove from beneath my fully loaded canner. I'll admit it, I jumped and squealed. Shawn ran to the basement and shut off the breaker, as I tried not to cry, as I stared at my canner, loaded with syrup and hot water, now too heavy to move by myself. Syrup that there was now no room for in the freezer, that had taken me hours to wash, sort, and boil down. Shawn came upstairs and helped me move the canner to the other side of the stove. We checked the burner and decided, under the circumstances, to risk turning the breaker back on. No sparks. So I finished processing my syrup jars on the other burner, and turned off the stove. I pulled each jar out of the hot water, and set them gently on a cooling rack on the island. I had done it. 12 whole jars of yumminess. Three quarters of a gallon, in all.

But why was my kitchen still so hot? I started to move the canner off the stove and realized – the scary burner was hot, despite not being turned on. I panicked, just a little, and very quietly. Shawn ran back down to the basement, and turned off the breaker. Further investigation revealed that one of the hot leads in my electric coil burner was fused on, and the other was arcing to ground. And it wasn't tripping the breaker. I had to sit down for a few minutes. The worst of it is that this was the second time this burner had fused and shot sparks. We had repaired it the first time, but this time I decided I was just done. I wasn't willing to risk a third try. We would just have to get a new stove. After all, I knew what I wanted, we had just been trying to keep this one limping along for one more year. It was not to be.

So Monday morning, bright and early, I called up my appliance guy and ordered my new stove. Induction cooktop, double oven (one of them convection) that can be set anywhere from 85 to 550 degrees, and more bells and whistles than you can shake a stick at, including a setting to proof bread. Score. I'm psyched. But wait, I've got that big aluminum pressure canner, right? No big, I'll just order one of those steel interface disk things, and be just fine. Only, as it turns out, reviewers were complaining that the disks got so hot the stove shut itself off, and a few folks said that it cracked their cooktop. Ouch! After my recent adventures, I want nothing to do with an unreliable and possibly damaged stove. But what's a girl to do? There's no such thing as an induction ready pressure canner, and I have to have a way to can soup, stock, and veggies. Eek! This realization set off another panic, this time full-blown. I've just ordered and paid thousands of dollars for a stove that I can't can with... and I've still got 24 pounds of fresh blueberries sitting neatly in their pints on the counter. Precious little room in the freezer too. Now I'm sick to my stomach. What have I done? Shawn to the rescue once more. He found a 30,000 BTU single burner propane camp stove at L.L.Bean. Not only can I still can, I can can OUTSIDE. Brilliant. However, naturally it is backordered, and not due to ship out until Thursday at the very earliest. Sigh.

So, here I am, 24 pounds of fresh berries, no stove until Thursday, and once it gets here, no way to can the jam I can then cook. In the meantime, my schedule for Monday was already shot. I was supposed to wash, sort, and store the blueberries, make a batch of baked beans (which had been soaking quietly on the counter for WAY too long), get a batch of cucumbers in the pickle crock (which would involve cleaning out the fridge), and get a batch of blueberry leather into the dehydrator. I also had the regular farm chores of picking, weeding, and tending the flock, and I had to clean the house and do laundry to get ready for our regular Tuesday playdate. Queue circus music.

Time to reassess. The berries and the beans wouldn't wait. Every day the berries didn't get washed, there would be more spoilage, and the beans were already starting to bubble. So I rinsed and picked through the beans, the sink was filled again, and the berries went in to soak. The beans went into the crockpot, and I went to get my bean recipe out of my cookbook. The recipe was nowhere to be found. “Well, ok,” I thought, “I'll just check my typed copy, it's probably in there.” I will skip the now predictable complexity involved in getting to the electronic copy of my recipe book, because my laptop is dead (which is why there are no pictures). Suffice it to say it took me almost an hour to realize that I had never written my baked bean recipe down, and had to now start over from scratch. Ugh. So I made my best guess, and threw it in the crockpot.

Then we started in on the berries. And I mean WE. I had a short heart to heart with my eldest, which involved phrases like, “Do you intend to eat any of these berries this winter?” because after the first case, I realized that this simply has to be a family venture. It is otherwise entirely too time consuming. So over the course of the day, all of us at one point or another sat down at the table to sort berries, with me as the constant participant. It took all day, and by the end of it, at about 2 o'clock in the morning, I looked at my husband and I said, “I never want to see another blueberry as long as I live.” But we sorted them into bowls for drying whole, fruit leather, and measured baggies for jam. The jam berries were shoe-horned into the freezer, the bags for fruit leather went into the fridge, and on Tuesday morning the whole berries went into the dehydrator. Where they still are. On Wednesday. Yeah, I just want to say, 135 degrees for 8-10 hours my Great Aunt Fanny. We're at more than 24 hours, and some of those little suckers are still squishier than raisins. But still, it makes the house smell divine, and I'm going to have something on the order of 3 quarts of dried whole blueberries for my cereal this winter. It felt really really good to fill that first quart jar, I imagine much the way a squirrel does about nuts in the fall.

So the two cases bought last Saturday have been dealt with to the best of my current ability. Though I cannot yet breathe a sigh of relief until the blueberry leather is in the dehydrator. The first of the blackberries started coming in yesterday, and I started to mentally switch gears and think about how I wanted to use them. And then my husband (curse the man) asked, “So how many of these blueberries are you saving for blueberry mead?” and my head just about exploded. Of course, how could I forget to make blueberry mead??? Well, I thought, I wouldn't really have to pick through them, just wash them and pull out any that were really bad. Then I could just run them through the juicer and throw them in the carboy with honey, water, and yeast. Maybe we'll get just one more case...

Friday, July 19, 2013

Judgment and Catharsis

I spent this evening looking through old High School year books. The why doesn't really matter, but suffice it to say it was not my own curiosity that prompted this trip down memory lane. And I realized something. Not something new, not a revelation, but a piece of information that I had before took up new understanding in my gut this evening.

High School was something I survived.

Now I know that a lot of people say that, but I looked back at pages and pages of smiling faces, of children spreading their wings, and trying on personae. Pages and pages of the perennial teenage search for identity, and there was one glaring thing that struck me. I was nowhere. Not one of those shining hopeful faces in my senior year book was my own, and when it came to those cute little boxes with pictures and words that a child used to tell the world who they were... I had not one word to say for myself. Nothing but the required school portrait to mark my passing.

No one who met me as an adult would believe it. At 31 years old, I am a shining, passionate, well-educated, well-spoken, thoughtful, wise, kind-hearted, honest, skilled, and logical woman. I am also humble enough to feel really really uncomfortable with that last sentence. So, where is that girl who I see smirking up at me from that page? I remember being so bitter, hostile, and depressed during those years. I remember feeling so alone, so unloved. Unlovable. I closed the book, and stowed it back on its shelf, the feelings still washing over me, my world wobbling on its axis. “Am I still that lonely, unlovable, inadequate girl?” whispered my insides, “Is this... thing... called my life just some sort of elaborate fantasy?”

I came downstairs out of the library, shaken. And as I did, something amazing happened. Just an ordinary, everyday miracle. Milo and Tiny got up off the library floor, where they had been sleeping, and followed me down the stairs. At the bottom, I was greeted with tails curling and wagging, with licks and nibbles, with the rub of fur on outstretched fingers. And I realized something profound. I am the bedrock of these lives. I am the bedrock that they build their very existence around. And I realized that that is also true for most of the animals and people who live here. My husband, children, and animals rely on those very uncomfortably listed qualities. They build the rhythms of their lives on the certainty of my strength, and they learn compassion, kindness, and patience in the face of my weaknesses.

And so I sit here and ask myself, how did that angry, confused, lonely little girl become the bedrock of some 23 other lives? I mean, wow. When you look at my life following High School, on paper, it doesn't really improve. I dropped out of college after my grandmother died. I moved hundreds of miles away from my family. There was a string of low-paid jobs, drugs, a debilitating car accident which left me unable to walk for months and did permanent damage to my back. Chronic pain, addiction, poverty. And just when I started to pull my life together, there was a miscarriage. And the amazing thing is that, though I continued to suffer from anxiety and depression, the thing I most remember about my life at that time... is being happy. Sure, I remember hating my job, and feeling miserable. I remember feeling sometimes like I just couldn't face another day. But I also remember shining moments of simple pleasure. The first time I ate a tomato so fresh it was still warm from the sun in our garden. I remember being in love so fresh, so new, so potent that I was sure it couldn't last forever. I remember the utter decadence of date night, which would cost us all of $5 for two second-run movie tickets. I remember the glowing pride of our first pumpkin, and the love and gratitude I felt when a neighbor took it into his garage to save it from an unexpected frost.

I remember other things too. Things that make me realize that the journey here was made with small steps, each one potent, each one distinct, yet utterly necessary. I remember the moment I realized I might never walk again, and I remember the feeling of my core hardening, as utter determination took the place of fear. I would walk, because no other outcome was possible. I remember that dawning moment of horror, in which I realized that I was addicted to the pain medication, no matter that it was prescribed by my doctor, who should have known better. I remember the steely will that formed inside me as I flushed the rest of the pills down the toilet, and I remember my husband's enduring patience, understanding, and love as I raged, begged, shook, vomited, cried, and lifetimes later, became finally clean and whole again. To this day, he will not talk about it, but he stood by me. I remember the day I lost my daughter. I remember begging the doctors to help me, because I was having a miscarriage, and I remember them refusing to believe me. I remember taking her back to that same hospital, wrapped in tissues, and laying her in the hands of the man who had refused to help me. I remember taking my sorrow to bed, and wallowing in it for days, longer probably. I remember wanting to die, feeling like I could not live with the uncertainty of guilt. And I remember the day I sighed a deep sigh, and got out of bed, and took a shower. We named her Hope.

I remember too, the flame that was born inside me the day I found I was pregnant again. This baby I would not lose, I would protect the life within me with every fiber of my being, and no doctor was going to stand in my way. And neither would I allow my own character flaws to endanger the life perched so precariously within me. I would speak my mind, trust my instincts, and never take “no” or “just because” for an answer. 42 weeks later, I spent 64 hours struggling to bring another daughter into the world, surrounded by friends and family who loved me, completely devoid of pain killers. And I succeeded.

I have since dealt with struggle and loss, and brought my son through a very complicated and dangerous pregnancy, birthing him without pain medication, at full term. What followed included more joys and hardships, brain damage so bad I had to learn to walk yet again, illness, broken bones, heartache, and pleasures both simple and sybaritic.

Why write this? Partly catharsis, I think, but also because of this – so much has been made lately of the danger of isolated teens, of angry, depressed, struggling children. And what, in my childhood, was addressed out of a sense of compassion, now seems to take on a note of fear. There is a force moving within our culture that seems to think that struggle is to be avoided, especially for children and teens. That our early lives should be entirely free from emotional hardship. That's a fine viewpoint on the surface, no parent wants to see their child in pain, myself included. But where it begins to make me question, is this notion that unhappy teens are inherently dangerous, as though at any moment one of us will take a turn and seek violence to still the pain inside. And I find myself wondering, where does this fear come from? Looking through that book this evening, I can tell you that I wasn't the only child in there who didn't have anything to say for herself. I know for a fact that I wasn't the only child to struggle in High School, or even the only child that year. And those that struggled so hard then, that I know now as adults? Well, as it turns out, they turned into pretty amazing human beings. The bedrock of the lives in their care, every one of them.

I am an addict. I am disabled. I do not earn a monetary income. I have lived in poverty, and I have dropped out of college. By the standards of modern American culture, I am one of life's great losers. And yet, looking at me on the street today, you would never know it. I am the bedrock of 23 souls beyond my own. I am loved by my extended family and my friends, and I have roots in my community. Some of those roots are tender and new, but some are old and strong. I know who I am.

Does it take adversity to know the core of yourself? I don't know. I do know that my own struggles bring me closer to living a life of the heart every single day. Today I held someone while they sobbed, every gut-wrenching cry sounding like it was being dragged out over broken bones. I still don't know what the crying was about. I don't need to. I remember crying like that, more than once. So I knew that all I needed to do was open my heart, and hold on, rocking and making soothing noises. If I had lived a life free of pain and struggle, I would have made the grave error of trying to stop the crying. So even now, my pain and struggle are transmuted into love and kindness. My pain allows me to offer succor to my fellow being. I don't believe there is any higher calling than that.