Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer in full swing

Tomorrow is the first day of August, and my canning and freezing season has officially begun! I've already made strawberry jam, as detailed below, and am about to embark on my vegetable preserving. My garden beans never germinated this year (though I plan to re-plant and hope for a fall crop), but yesterday I stopped by the home of Mellick family in Danvers, IL, to see how their sweet corn was coming along. I placed an order for 8 dozen ears to freeze, to pick up next Monday, and mentioned that my beans were non-existent this year. Mrs. Mellick lit up, and said, "Well, I just picked a huge batch this morning! Are you interested?" Five minutes later, I was on my way home with 7 lbs. of green beans on the seat beside me. I plan to can about 2/3 of them, eat a few, and freeze the rest. I prefer them frozen, but Dave and the boys like them better canned, and I will do whatever is necessary to get them to eat their veggies!

I also picked a nice batch of broccoli this week, which I will freeze. Broccoli is just not something I like to eat soggy! I am so thankful that I accepted the offer of broccoli plants from Keith & LeaAnn, Dave's brother & his wife, as the 5 that I planted earlier have thus far produced nothing but really lovely foliage! If not for those two last plants from Keith and LeaAnn, I wouldn't have had any broccoli to eat at all. Dave and Justin won't even LOOK at broccoli, but Matthew and I will enjoy it!

Next week, I'll blanch and freeze the corn, to enjoy all year long. There is seriously nothing so good as home-frozen corn, picked young and frozen the same day. It is sweeter, milkier, and oh, so tender! I do have to say, freezing corn is one of the messier preserving tasks. Somehow I end up with cuts on my hands from the husks, and the silks go absolutely everywhere! It is so easy, though, it is hard to believe more people don't do it. Just boil the corn for 3-5 minutes, put into a sink of ice water, and slice the corn off the cob. You can either spoon it into freezer bags or pint freezing boxes, and you're done! Well, except for finding room for them in the freezer. . .

My tomatoes are still green and firm, and my peppers are growing larger by the day. Hopefully they will both hold out until we return from vacation! I did much prefer it when we were able to go on vacation in early July, so we weren't gone right when the garden was most in need of being tended, but with Dave's job, that is the way it works out. I got my tomatoes in late this year, and am also growing onions to use in the sauce, so perhaps the harvest will come at a better time this year.

So many people have asked me why I go to all the trouble of canning and freezing my own vegetables and jams, when they are so easy to get at the store. I COULD say I am being environmentally conscious, buying or growing locally, and preserving in re-usable containers instead of contributing to the pile of cans and jars to be recycled. But somehow, that seems more like a nice perk, rather than the reason. There is , of course, the fact that I know exactly how they were grown, and where, and that the flavor and quality is unsurpassable. Both nice benefits, to be sure. But deep down, the real reason I can and freeze is the emotional connection it gives me to my mother and grandmothers. They were all avid gardeners (Mom still is!), and preserved food for their families throughout their growing years. I remember riding the old elevator down to my Grandma Gladys' basement, and seeing all the jars lined up on shelves, full of the colors and flavors of summer. I remember going to the field to pick sweet corn, planted in the very center with coon dogs tethered nearby to scare off the masked invaders. I remember my cousins and I spending nearly a week husking and blanching, cutting and packing, and laughing and making wonderful memories at Grandma's house. It was hard work, but we had such fun with Grandma and each other that it was like a week-long slumber party, with all the hot, buttered corn we could eat!

I also remember my Grandpa Hill showing us his cider press, and watching him climb the old ladder, the wood grayed with the years, to pluck an apple for us to taste. Grandma always had a vegetable garden near Grandpa's woodshed, the rows straight and orderly, the tomatoes neatly staked, each row carefully mulched. Shiny pie pans hung at the corners to scare away raiders, and Grandma's hoe was always within reach, just inside the door, its handle worn smooth from years of use. It was Grandma Hill that introduced me to cucumbers sliced in a creamy sauce, and to new potatoes and peas, and tender new asparagus. The food was always hot and plentiful, with a basket of the piping hot rolls that she was so famous for, and we never went home without an offering of food, whether rolls, or cookies, or pints of her frozen applesauce. My favorite snack as a school child was to pull out a pint box of frozen applesauce, thaw it just slightly in the microwave, and eat it while it was still full of slushy crystals.

My mom continued the canning tradition, and was especially known for her tomatoes. We grew them in the garden each year, and put up jars upon jars of her special "tomato mix." I remember how we used to carefully cut a shallow X in the bottom of each tomato, then dip it briefly in boiling water to remove the skin. It would go into the pan firmly attached, but when lifted from the hot water, the skin around that X would peel back like the petals of a flower, and it was easy to remove almost all the skin in four large sections. That was one of the first jobs Mom gave me, as her little helper. Later, she invested in a vegetable strainer for her mixer, which greatly simplified the job of peeling and skinning the tomatoes. It was great fun to put the chunks of tomato in the hopper at the top, press them down steadily with the plunger (if we pressed too hard or too suddenly, the juice would spray up, dousing our faces and sometimes the ceiling!), and watch the rich, pulpy red sauce ooze into a large bowl, while a thin, dry worm of skin and seeds would twist it's way out the end into another bowl. My friends would always request my mom's spaghetti when they came over, as the flavor was so much richer and fresher than the Prego their moms bought.

We also canned beans, and made jam together. I always loved to hear about how Mom built a display when she was in 4-H, for all the different jellies she made. She'd perfected how to make lovely clear jelly, and was entering a project to show all the different varieties she'd made. She made a display that would light the jars from behind to make them glow like stained glass. It went all the way to State Fair, where it won a purple ribbon. That's my mom for you--great in the kitchen, but equally at home in the wood shop!

I never questioned why we did so much canning when I was a kid. It was just what we did each summer. It never even occurred to me that my classmates might not be doing the same with their families. When my turn came, I took my own jars of green beans, jams, and tomato mix to the fair, and watched anxiously as the judge examined them, and popped off the top to sample the flavor. It seems I absorbed a lot more than tomato juice during all those hours in the kitchen, standing over a steaming pressure cooker. Now my kids help me hull strawberries, snap the beans, husk the corn, and pack the containers. It is more than a skill to pass on: it is their heritage.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Can it really be July already?

I had to write a check today at Farm 'n Fleet (went in for tomato cages, came out with shorts for Dave & the boys, a tank top, fungicide (for the plants, not me!), sandals, Sevin powder to get rid of the invasion of cabbage worms on my broccoli, dome lids and freezer boxes, and 8 bags of cedar mulch. No tomato cages--they were sold out of the big ones I wanted for my rambling indeterminates. Gaack!

Anyway, I think I glazed over for a minute when I wrote the check. Could June possibly be over already? Where has the summer GONE? I should be applying to schools, applying for jobs, making plans, setting goals. . .being much more motivated than I've been feeling, at any rate. I think that being turned down for the masters program in library science set me back a bit more than I realized. I feel a little hesitant to put myself out there again. I know I don't take criticism or rejection well at all, and tend to avoid it as much as I avoid confrontation. But at the same time, I am a planner by nature, and like to have a nice, neat road map of my life, and this period of limbo is anxiety-provoking. Kind of a catch-22.

I still feel like I have a few doubts about what I really want to do when I grow up, which is part of my reluctance to commit to a program of study in early childhood education. I DO love teaching, and I love preschoolers. But do I love it enough to do it long term? Will I go through 2-3 years of school, work for a while, and wish I'd done something different? Will I feel like I'm getting out of touch, as my own kids move further and further away from the preschool age themselves?

I think I need to commit myself to really praying about this, and making a firm decision. I don't want to be wishy-washy and indecisive. I want to know for sure what it is I want to do, and then do it 100% with no regrets.

Gardens are much easier than real life. If a plant doesn't thrive, you pull it and try something different, and usually no great expense has been wasted. Maybe I should go into horticulture. . .