Homemade Jam

Most people think grape when you mention peanut butter and jelly. Me, I immediately conjure up images of peanut butter and marmelade. Or even peanut butter and raspberry preserves. It might sound weird, but there is sound reasoning behind it…

I just sat down with a peanut butter and marmelade sandwich. While I was spreading that tasty orange goodness onto one of the two slices of bread, I drifted back in time to my Mom’s homemade marmelade. She used to cook it up on the stove in those big black metal pots with the little white speckles all over them. She would cook all day and instead of canning it, like she would do when making other delicacies from her little backyard garden, she would pour it into square Tupperware containers and set it out to cool… to become jam. Most would wind up downstairs in the freezer but a few stayed upstairs for us to enjoy.

She probably learned those skills from her own mother… my grandmother Margaret Wright. Grandma Wright used to make the BEST raspberry preserves from a tiny little raspberry patch in her tiny little postage-stamp backyard in Alberta, Canada

I enjoyed flying up to Canada and hanging out with that side of the family — the grandparents, my cousins, Aunts and Uncles – and taking in a similar, but definitely different culture. Canada was a completely different country. Nobody knew me up there. They didn’t know if I was a dork or if I was the mayor of my hometown. I could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be because I was in a land that had no experience with my particular trials and tribulations. I was a stranger in a strange land and looked forward to it every year.

And like a bright crimson thread running through all the great stuff I got to experience in Canada was the sweet thought of my grandmother’s raspberry preserves on a fresh slice of toast painted with a few strokes of local dairy butter.

That’s a long way to go to get to this particular point, but it’s worth painting the picture. How many people do you know who actually make their own jellies and jams? (Friends who own restaurants don’t count.) How many people do you know who even know how to make their own preserves? I honestly don’t know any other than my own mother. Canning and putting up vegetables and fruits is a dying art. We count on Smuckers and Libby’s and the rest of the producers on the grocery aisle to provide our jams and our green beans without ever giving a thought to that generation of parents and grandparents who didn’t have that luxury and had to fill their pantries with what they could grow and preserve themselves. (Ever wonder why they’re called “preserves”? Well, there you go.)

It was a lot of hard work. I rarely helped, but I watched. (I guess that’s why I rarely helped — because I could see how tough it was.) A hot Georgia summer, sweating in the kitchen over giant pots of boiling fruits and veggies… and we didn’t even have air conditioning! But the end result would blow away anything on the shelves today. Nothing quite compares to real homemade.

I think that’s what makes homemade so special. The care that goes into creating it. Not just mixing ingredients together and following a recipe, but putting your energy and time and care into creating something that didn’t exist before you began. The love and tenderness that go into planting the garden, the careful watering and feeding of the garden to make sure it produces the best it can, the picking of the true “fruits of your labor” and the strain and pain that such hard work puts your body through. Then, finally, the hours slaving over a hot stove to turn those fruits into something entirely different. A product of Nature that your hard work transformed into a product of your own (or someone else’s) imagination.

It’s the ownership of all that’s involved in that transformation that makes homemade so wonderful. I recalled that ownership when I came upon a thicket of blackberries during a three day trip driving through Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest for a leg of my Vanishing America Project. I recalled how my Mom used to take my brother and I out into the country to pick blackberries when we were young (which was actually just down the road for us in the then sleepy town of Alpharetta). It was a continuation of our summer ritual of delivering newspapers in the morning and picking blackberries by the side of the road in the afternoon. When the delivery gig was over and the parents got busy with their new jobs, picking blackberries became less of a chore and more of an adventure to look forward to. I guess that’s how it is with a lot of things — if you’re forced to do it, it can seem like work. But if you get to choose to do it, all of a sudden it becomes fun. So, with no route to hold to anymore, we would just drive out to the nearest dirt road, park the car and get to pickin’. At the end of each sweaty, dusty afternoon, we would have enough blackberries to make a pot of preserves. But, rest assured, we paid the price. The heat and dirt were one thing, but the chiggers and thorns were quite another. Bramble scratches are minor and heal quickly, but chiggers get under your skin (literally!) and itch like hell. But, as the old saying goes, “Nothing in Life is Free”. So we shouldered our burden and toughed it out, supported by the promise of tasty delights farther down the proverbial road.

I must have picked two pounds of blackberries during that trip in the CNF. It was a wonderful treat. I would munch on them as I hiked, add them to my granola for breakfast and mix the juice into my water for a little “homemade koolaid”. And it wasn’t lost on me that those blackberry thickets held the essence of why I was out there in the first place. I was in search of things that our grandkids might never get a chance to see. I had found one of those things. Not the blackberries or the patches themselves, but rather those old memories of my Mom canning preserves in the kitchen and my grandmother with her little raspberry patch in her backyard. Those memories were brought back to me in a vivid rush by the simple manual task of picking berries on a dirt road in the forest. Memories that I (and I’m sure numerous others with similar memories) cherish, but memories that future generations simply won’t have. And it is my job to bring those memories out in the open to share. Not so that people can live vicariously through my experiences, but so that people will pay attention to the world around them, see the importance of such seemingly trivial events and learn to pay attention to and cherish those same events when they happen in their own lives.

Preserving the memories is the first step. Sometimes, it’s the only step. But I’ll get into that another time. For right now, I’m just going to enjoy my peanut butter and marmelade sandwich.

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