There is a pressure cooker at my grandmother’s house — an ancient one that belonged to her mother. The gauge on top has been broken for as long as I can remember, but Grandma doesn’t seem to need it. My mother, herself a paragon of domesticity, claims that at this point the pressure cooker actually belongs to her but that she is letting Grandma use it for now. I harbor dreams that it will one day be mine and that its history will be enough to carry me to canning proficiency.
I have sweet memories all over my grandparents’ house of sleepovers and stories and hide-and-seek gone awry, but of course the heart was — and is — in the kitchen. It has barely changed since my childhood: the same wooden cabinets, same refrigerator, same art by the sink. The family pictures that face the kitchen table have morphed as we have gotten older and added spouses and gray hair and the next generation of babies. Below those pictures: three stools, which are the same as they have always been.
I could measure out my life on those stools. When we stayed at Grandma’s house, we ate breakfast there — the countertop was green then, and the scrambled eggs were tougher than my mom’s. Grandpa made his familiar grunt as he ate them. My brother perched beside the stove, covered in flour, and helped Grandma make biscuits. I watched my mom and her sister make jam as my cousin and I ate freshly picked strawberries with a little bit of sugar poured over them. After school, Grandma listened to me rehash my day as she slid pizza rolls and sweet tea in front of me. My family spreads food on that counter for all the major holidays — deviled eggs are always in the top right corner.
Grandma’s house offered a different pace of life. It felt grounded, which is an appropriate word for anything related to my grandparents. At their house, we snapped beans and shucked corn while we watched “The Andy Griffith Show.” Grandma showed me how to walk behind her and cover up the seeds as she dropped them into the dirt. I was a product of a contemporary culture and a contemporary church, but those weeks with Grandma taught me where I came from.
Part of that heritage is the little country church on a hill that I know from years of VBS and family reunions, though I was never a member there myself. We played catch in the graveyard (though I deny any knowledge of how that tombstone got knocked over) and I pointed my toes to the trees as I soared on the swingset. Inside, I liked to run my fingers over the smooth dark shelves of books in the library.
These things were novelties to me, old-fashioned in a way that I knew from books but not in real life. My family went to a non-denominational church with praise choruses rather than hymns, chairs instead of pews, and a guitarist, not a piano. Grandma’s church was boring in comparison, but listening to her sing the old songs made me feel warm inside.
This was a different sort of faith, one that felt solid like the weight of the hymnal rather than fleeting like the words projected on the wall. As an adult, I have grasped for that connected feeling, a sense of heritage, rather than letting it settle naturally around me. This explains, at least in part, my failures as a homemaker. I shop at the farmers’ market to atone for my gardening sins, but I have had slightly more success with cooking.
It was the cooking that made me wonder if I could learn how to can my own produce. We use tomatoes all winter long in soups and stews, and I wanted a little bit of that sunshine in the winter. Perhaps, I thought, with some guidance, there could be another generation of women who use that pressure cooker. Grandma prefers to make tomato juice rather than can the tomatoes, but she agreed to help with one caveat: someone stole the tomatoes off her plants, so I would have to bring my own. The farmer was delighted by my purchase.
We lined the jars on the familiar countertop, but first things first: blanching and cutting the tomatoes. It takes some waiting, I discovered, but only after scalding my fingers — too impatient to let the water cool down. When I asked Grandma how she knew how much salt and sugar to add to the jars, she looked at me and said, “I do it that way because that’s what my mama always did.” There is no written recipe, only paying attention.
Part of my job as a middle school librarian is to bear witness to my students’ lives. I watch and listen, and I like to think I know a thing or two about paying attention. On good days, students make connections and get excited about books and there are may even be some test scores to show growth. Those things warm my heart, but there’s no physical evidence to take home, no glass jar on my shelf or in my hands. Grandma reminds me to make space and time for creating something more tangible.
These tomatoes will get us through the winter. We will warm ourselves with chili and soup and I will think about Grandma’s house, her kitchen, her presence. It feels like church, “How firm a foundation” and “Give us this day our daily bread.” It smells like sunshine and the salt of the earth. At this point, I could probably can tomatoes on my own, but I would rather make my pilgrimage to Grandma’s sink — the one on the old porch — and cut tomatoes there. Great-Grandma’s pressure cooker may or may not have magical properties, but time with it and with Grandma teach me where I come from and who I want to be.
Kari Baumann is a middle school librarian in North Carolina. She enjoys young adult literature, politics, and Connie Britton’s hair. She writes about seeing and being seen at www.throughaglass.net.