Do other families have a family fruit or vegetable, some sort of traditional crop that's with them across the years and generations? All I know is that for our family, it's strawberries. My grandfather's grown them for thirty-five years, and his father before that on the same plot of land: never for sale, just for themselves. When did he first plant them, I asked my grandfather.
More than eighty-five years of berry-rows, uninterrupted.
When I was little, I helped pick the berries on hot summer days, but don't ever recall making it to the end of a row. It was just too tempting to eat the warm sweet fruit plucked straight from the stem: so while my mother and grandmother filled quart after quart, I would trail behind in the dirt, stopping each step to pop berries into my mouth.
These days, my picking is more productive, but that's because I relish the next step: hauling those berries into the kitchen with my grandmother to turn them into jam. Depending on the year, she makes anywhere from three to six batches, each batch requiring two quarts of berries to fill eight 8 oz. jars so that they gleam like rubies.
I'd always assumed jamming was rather complicated. Folks rarely make jam from scratch anymore, there had to be a reason why. But I can only think of one: they don't have a someone to guide them through the first batch. For my grandmother, that time came during World War II. With my grandfather overseas, she would stay at her in-laws' during strawberry season to help with the picking. She learned then how to make jam from her mother-in-law, and together they kept making it in the years that followed, until my great-grandmother passed away, leaving my grandmother to carry on the tradition.
A few years ago came my turn to learn at her side: late June and no AC in the kitchen, sweat running down the inside of my shirt. On the table, two fresh quarts of berries; the skimmer, the masher, a bowl, and a fresh bag of sugar.
"Let's take a look at the recipe."
My grandmother walked to the cabinet and reached in. I expected to see an old yellowed piece of paper: the family jam recipe, handed down from generation to generation. Perhaps I'd recognize my great-grandmother's crabby hand. Perhaps it would be stained with juice from years gone by. Instead, she reached for the box of Certo pectin, pulled out the instruction sheet and scanned through the recipes on the back. That's it? I thought. All these years, and it's just the recipe out of the box?
We begin with the old wooden masher that's lived in the kitchen drawer for eons. The juice squirts as I press down on the ripe fruit, sometimes catching me in the eye. After a few minutes, the pile of heart-shaped berries has become a pulpy slop, and I stir in the sugar; then, with a pat of butter to reduce foaming, the mixture goes onto the stove. The old electric coils quickly turn bright orange and the soupy mixture begins to boil. Steam rises and scalds my forearm as I stir. The bubbles increase in frequency, sometimes spitting hot jam on my hand, and once it hits a full roiling boil, the pectin goes in.
The recipe is specific on this point: after adding the pectin, return the jam to a full boil and cook for one minute. Here we deviate for no good reason except my grandmother likes to, counting an extra fifteen seconds before removing the pan from the heat. We skim the foam, then pour the hot jam into the waiting jars. The tops are sealed, the jars turned upside-down, and the timer set for ten minutes. After the flurry of activity, a cool drink around the kitchen table refreshes us until the buzzer sounds and we right the jars. As we clean up, we hear pops from the lids. The seals have formed and our jam is done.
Between the first fruit in mid-June and the last ripening in early July, jam is only one part of strawberry season around the house. Most of the berries are eaten fresh, with plenty to go round: even the saddest of crops comes to fifty quarts or so, while a gangbuster's season can bring in six times that amount. During the few magical weeks the fruit is ripe, strawberries are served with every meal. For breakfast, strawberries and cream, or cereal with strawberries. Lunch finds another bowl of berries on the table, juicy and lightly sugared. After supper, dessert is strawberry shortcake, or another bowl of berries and cream. (For variety, we whip the cream some days!) Somehow I never tire of them. I savor each bite, knowing this moment won't return until next June.
Food traditions bind our family; I'm reminded of that every year when I drive to north-central Massachusetts to pick strawberries. When I get in that long row, and pluck that first berry of the year and immediately eat it, I'm part of a tradition of picking and jamming connecting me to my great-grandparents and all my relatives who've helped to pick berries and make jam each year. Each spoonful of jam in the winter and each fresh berry in the summer keep their memory alive. As my jam jars empty and I realize there are no more in my cabinet, I start to stretch those memories each morning on my toast. I start counting the days until I can make a new batch.
Lately I think about the inevitable summer when there will be no more freshly plucked berries from that garden. My grandparents are in their mid eighties, and the time will come when planting and picking is too much for them, no matter how many of us lend a hand. And then? There's no next generation waiting to take over that patch of land and grow the peas and potatoes, raspberries and strawberries.
Strawberries represent not just a moment in the year, but also moments across the years. I fear the day the strawberries will go the way of other family food tales: little grandpa's homemade root beer, for which we no longer have a recipe, or great-grandpa's homemade strawberry ice cream. All things we remember with pleasure, but only remember; no longer recreate or renew, turn into a story of our present.
This past weekend my grandmother and I sat in the kitchen, listening to our lids pop. We talked of my aunt's upcoming visit, my coming back over the Fourth of July, and about how many berries would ripen and need to be picked. This might be the last year for strawberries, she said. But when you've always grown berries, that's hard to imagine. My gramp's already ordered his plants for next year.