We have settled into winter here in Virginia. The salty white streets blend right into the chalky horizon. Cold cloaks our home and seeps in through the cracks. We’re expecting snow tonight. But fragrant on my stovetop is the scent of summertime. And if I close my eyes and stand in the warm steam rising from the pot, I can remember the sultry day when the children and I canned this soup. The laughter rang loudly that afternoon, and the tomatoes splattered all over the kitchen. Months gone now, yet still I find remnants stuck to the cabinets. And I smile. Canning food is a messy, measured, raucous process and I love it.
I’ve often tried to put a finger on all the reasons why this particular act of creativity thrills me so. It’s not part of my personal history — I wasn’t raised in a farming family. My mother didn’t teach me this art. I’m a suburban hockey mom. I wear lipstick and spend a lot of time sitting in traffic. I’ve always been a cook, though. I enjoy the nurturing aspect of food — the preparing, the sharing, the tasting. I also love the sensuality of fruits and vegetables, their endless colors, textures, scents. I’ve tried my hand at gardening, longing to be rooted to the earth in that way. But the process of preparing food for preservation by canning is simply something that never crossed my mind for much of my life.
Two things happened that caused a shift in my thoughts, and in my kitchen. A friend gave me a summertime gift — a jar of homemade raspberry preserves, harvested and canned by her own hand, shared in love. I was taken by the crimson color of the berries, refracted in the prisms of the jar. So simple. So lovely. So unexpected in my drive-thru life.
Shortly after receiving that gift, my family and I were plucked by God’s hand out of our suburban Starbucks mayhem and whisked away to a life in the hills of Pennsylvania where my coffee came from a can at the grocery, and my vegetables came from the farmer down the road. I found myself uprooted from the life I knew — and, to my great surprise, at home with myself in ways I’d never known I craved. I bought jars of sweet pickles from Farmer John’s sister, asked earnest but ignorant questions about their harvest, and tried my hand at canning elegant things like caramel and fudge sauce, free hand, whimsically avoiding any recipes. Months later when I found out they had arrived, moldy, under all my relative’s Christmas trees, I decided I needed to learn from an expert. To my amazement, there are classes for such things! I signed up at a Local Agricultural Extension office to take a course on home canning and preserving. Who knew such things were even possible?
I immediately fell in love with the process, beginning to end. I listened and learned from country women with lined faces who had learned from their mothers. I took notes on acidity ratios and sugar and was enthralled. I practiced. It worked! With great sadness, we left the green hills and returned to suburbia, but I knew I had become a farm girl at heart. I had learned things women have known for centuries, and I was not about to leave this behind.
To this day, I crave the friendly banter with rugged farmers at our citified farmers’ market, wheedling them to save me their most ugly fruit. I love that it is the uglies — the fruit that wouldn’t pass the supermarket perfection test — which comes the cheapest and often tastes the best. I embrace the rebellion of harvesting wineberries with my children — this berry deemed a useless weed by local experts, but one that makes the sweetest sauce you could ever put on ice cream. I inhale the rushing sound of sugar pouring into hot fruit, and the fragrance of its boiling sweetness. I marvel at the colors the heat produces in soup tomatoes, and the fact that I can capture this exact moment of brightness and seal it in a jar to savor, lo these dark months later on a day when I need to feel their warmth.
There is a tangible sense of co-creation to this process. I didn’t make the fruit and vegetables. God did. I didn’t even grow them myself, except for the weedy ones. But I took them from one form: fresh, dirty, and ready and turned them into another, one that brings color and flavor and serves as a ready gift to those with whom I share this life.
It’s also a form that will last a little longer than most things in these mothering days. The kitchen will be dirty again tomorrow, but those jars will be glistening on my shelf for months to come — something visibly good, that God and I made together as a reminder of His constant provision of my most basic needs. Knowing this full well, I worship in my kitchen on a sticky Midsummer's Eve more authentically than I do at the height of a candlelit Christmas Eve service. I know that my stained hands are making honest use of that which the Lord has made, and I trust that this makes Him glad.
Bishop Kallistos Ware captures this feeling in a most eloquent way. In his Through the Creation to the Creator he reminds me that “ … in the Eucharist we offer to God the fruits of the earth, not in their initial state, but reshaped through our human skills; we bring to the altar not grains of wheat but bread, not bunches of grapes but wine. And so it is throughout all human life … ” And so it is in my fruit-splattered kitchen, high summer and dark winter alike.
With the food, I am offering God’s own creation back to him as a tithe of labor and love. And in the jars I use for canning, I offer Him my fragile self. Oh, the jars. I think I may love them even more than the food. I feel a sense of solidarity with them, and with a strong tribe of women who have used them generations past. I have beloved jars from my husband’s grandmother, gorgeous antique jars I’ve received as gifts, junky jars from the Salvation Army store, homogenous jars from Wal-Mart.
I love them all, but most especially the oldest ones, because they represent to me the kind of woman I long to be. They have endured. They are fragile. They are glass, after all, and only glass will work for this particular canning process. They are imperfect. Little bubbles are suspended in their sides. The color of their glass has changed with age. They withstand great heat and pressure without breaking. They are transparent. One can see straight through them into their brazen emptiness, or to the fullness of their beauty. The Atlas Strong Shoulder jars are my favorites. They bear this name because of their resistance to cracking under extreme conditions. I want to be just this — a woman of fragile transparency, but one with great strength. I am a vessel of potential — waiting to be filled with holy goodness, only to be poured out for others, and then refilled. And this is what I am reminded of every time I set about canning the peaches we shook from their trees. I sense the faithful wisdom of the older generations leaning over my shoulders. I taste the eagerness of a young girl, making something new and different every time. I am taking something good, remaking it into something also good, and God is doing this in me as well. This is my everyday Eucharist.
Allison writes beneath a window inside a snug closet in her Virginia home. She is the author of several books, including 31 Days of Prayer for My Child. Allison is mom to five small chefs and wife to one patient husband. She is a lover of beauty in its most simple forms, and a collector of words.