In the past few years, perhaps because we have a subscription to The New Yorker — on an educator’s discount — we’ve been getting high-end, decidedly upscale catalogs. For $298, plus sales tax and shipping, a pair of cotton pants; $228 for a pair of corduroys, even more for a pair of jeans.
Forty bucks for three pounds of artfully crafted ground beef. “Treat your guests and grill only the best.” Aside from the price, serving hamburger that has passed through the U.S. Postal Service at a stately pace sounds like providing your guests with considerably more than a treat. Twenty dollars for a package of labels and tags for jam. Fifteen dollars for 12 embroidered labels, two of each design.
But what really caught my eye was the invitation to can, pickle and preserve. A stainless steel jam pan was only $100. Funnel, tongs and lid lifter will only cost you around $21, plus tax — and shipping; a 50-gallon pickling crock will set you back about $80.
The glossy pages brought nostalgia.
And scorn: Whatever happened to the hardware store? That useful depot of household needs sold you the graniteware pot, tongs, funnel and lid lifter, all together with jars and lids, for around $35. Shipping not included; you schlepped it home yourself.
At my house, canning, pickling and preserving began in mid-August, for that’s when the fall harvest begins. Peaches, pears, cucumbers the right size for pickles, watermelon rinds to save up, chili peppers in all their fire, at maximum impact. Everything oozing sweetness and juice, except for those chili peppers, so smooth, so green or red, and so lethal to the touch.
Handling chili peppers, cutting them, cleaning out the seeds and dicing them for chili sauce leaves your hands aching, unless you’re smart enough to handle them under cold water. But you need your grandmother to remind you of that.
I was the useless teenager, good for paring and slicing or washing the jars and scalding; but the sweat shining on the faces of my mother and grandmother on a stifling August morning, their hair wet with the steam of all that boiling and scalding — I will never forget. For canning season is always August; that’s when the fruit and tomatoes are ripe. Bushel baskets of them, half-bushels and pecks, ripe and easily bruised, heavy with juice and tender from the relentless August sun.
Up before dawn and down to the wholesale market, where the men were arriving in dusty pick-ups with the just-picked crop. Of course, it was just picked, so fresh that dew still clung in moist drops. They all said that. And if it were not, you had a bargain, if you went straight home and put it up.
Putting up was what my grandmother called it. Putting up against a long winter. Storing sustenance against disaster, for winter or calamity or plain bad luck could turn life hard. Threaten survival. In good times, you stored your abundance against your ruin.
For my grandmother, it was a duty as automatic as redding out the ashes in the coal stove; for my mother it was the necessity of eking out a schoolteacher’s pay — particularly after World War II, when prices soared and teachers’ salaries did not.
For both of them it was fellowship, working together, speaking little, each involved with her part of the job and, at the end, the satisfaction. Rows and rows of bright jars, still warm from the water bath, seals popping satisfactorily as they should as the boiling mixtures cooled. Sustenance and victory at the end of serious work.
I would hope that current-day novices, unfamiliar with these joys but about to delve into these labors, and possibly innocent enough to patronize high-end catalogs selling nostalgia at a ridiculous price, find a similar satisfaction.
Canning, preserving and pickling will always occur in humid, suffocating, most miserable August, for that’s when the produce is ripe. You can’t alter nature. Some things are not under our control. But taking care of a family, hoarding the products of the sun and Earth against hard times, in the company of those you love, will ever be a good, exhausting and memorable occasion.
Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.