How Much Is Too Much?

katart Recently, I was reading a 50+-year-old British cookbook Summer Cooking by Elizabeth David on food preservation. I had great fun imagining the accent of Ms. David, who wrote in such florid language. No doubt, with her upper-class pedigree and as a food preservationist, she spoke in pear-shaped tones.

Turning to her recipe for apricot jam, my long-since-deceased guide assured me that the secret to really flavorful apricot jam is in the kernel held within the pit. Break open the pit, she instructed, and one will find a soft kernel full of flavor. Add a few of these to the pot of bubbling jam and, voilà! A depth of flavor, reminiscent of almond blossoms will be imparted to the jam. Who else but foodies, of this or any other century, can wax so poetic about the wonders of a fruit pit? But I digress.

Taking to heart the advice of my guide, I picked out what appeared to be the most beautiful apricot pits of the seven pounds I had already pitted for my jam. Heading to the garage I went in search of a hammer or other blunt object. I felt like Michelangelo releasing the sculpture from the marble. I was transported by the fact my apricot kernels were just as anxious to be free, to feel the sunshine and breeze on their little faces. Now, you must understand that my husband has a place for everything when it comes to his tools but I rarely know where those places are. After a search of about 10 minutes, I found a yellow-handled heavyweight with the name Stanley emblazoned across its handle. I would not have cared if it had been called Livingstone - I needed to get on with it! Carrying the hammer to the back sidewalk, I crouched down to break open the apricot pits. That is about the time my right knee locked up and started singing its own version of Swanee River: “Way down upon the back stoop sidewalk, that’s where I hurt!” The pain was so sharp and so instant and I was sure I could not stand up and was just as was sure I could not lower my kneecap on the cement. I was frozen somewhere between.

Bearing a strong resemblance to a stork, I decided to quickly whack the pits, grab the kernels, and hoist myself up. This worked fine for the first two pits. They each opened nicely to reveal a buttery yellow kernel just ready for a suicide mission in a pot of superheated boiling fruit. However, when I hit the 3rd pit, it ricocheted off the sidewalk. The pit seemed to say, as it hit my aching knee and proceeded to gouge a hole in my skin, “I’m not going back to the BIG HOUSE!” Needless to say, the cut hurt worse than the knee joint pain, so I sprang up immediately and hopped around cursing my English cooking guide in tones that were more thorn-shaped than a pear.

I returned to the house and spent a few minutes wiping the blood that had gone south on my leg and plugging the hole from the pit with a wad of cotton and an adhesive strip. Settling myself once more, I washed my hands and returned to jam making. I placed two kernels in a little bag of culinary cheesecloth and boiled them with the jam. When it was done, I removed the kernels and tasted the jam. True to her word, the jam had a lovely woodsy undertone. Into the jars, it went. I was thrilled. . . for about a nanosecond.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered reading that some folks thought apricot pits or kernels were medicinal, especially in the treatment of cancer. I headed to the computer and began to search the Web. The more I read, the more alarmed I became. My Internet search had informed me that stone fruits like apricots, cherries, and peaches contain amygdalin, a cyanide derivative. It is used very often as a favorite poison of murder mysteries. Cyanide is colorless and tasteless, there is no antidote, and death takes place within minutes when ingested in large doses. Think of the capsule that spies chomp on when they are caught behind enemy lines. Fortunately, my Internet search also assured me that there are a large number of apricot varieties the kernels of which are considered to be completely harmless.

I returned to sanity if a foodie like me can ever be called sane when it comes to food. I glanced up from my laptop and saw that a sunbeam had shone in the kitchen window and landed on the jam jars. The color of the apricots was the color of the morning sun. My yield of seven jars equaled about 48 ounces of jam and only two kernels in all of that.

That being said, the near loss of a knee cap notwithstanding, the improved flavor and brilliant color of my latest batch seemed to assure me that there really is such a thing as just enough cyanide. I put my jam pot to soak in the sink and made myself a cup of English tea. I spread a little cream cheese on toast and slathered it with apricot jam. Ms. David lived to be 83, even using her secret ingredient. I guess that makes me good for at least a few more decades.

Editor’s note: using kernels from sweet apricots is considered safe in jam-making because they have negligible amounts of cyanide. On the other hand, kernels from bitter apricots contain significant amounts of cyanide and should be approached with extreme caution.

CAA contributor Cynthia Dare O’Connor writes from Northeastern, Ohio. She learned to can from her mother’s southwestern Virginia relatives who “put up” everything from chicken soup to chow. She also learned from her paternal aunts who, as Eastern European women, wanted not only fruits and vegetables in the jar but also wonderful jams and jellies for their exquisite Christmas and Easter pastries. This summer, she is joining friends in starting a community Farmer's Market where she will sell her wares. Her husband is a graduate of the Ohio State Extension Master Gardener program, so she has lots of produce this summer for canning!

Comments (5)

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    It was in Summer Cooking. I read cookbooks like novels! Mrs. David talked about the “secret ingredient” in her general comments about jam making. Happy canning!


    Nothing makes a humor writing canner happier than to hear that someone laughed! Thanks!

    I must say, it’s been a while but I laughed so hard, and yes I’m going to give it a try with the next apricot jams I make!

    The recipe sounds intriguing, especially since Blenheim apricot season is now upon us in Northern California. Which of Elizabeth David’s cookbooks is it in? I think I have them all.

    This post made me feel so much better. Apricots ran me ragged yesterday and I was sure no one else would be goofy enough to let a fruit drive them to such total distraction. Now I know I’m not alone.

    As part of my apricot insanity, I read in Linda Ziedrich’s jam book that roasting or boiling the kernels before use destroys the cyanide — or “prussic acid.” Her apricot jam recipe calls for blanching the kernels in simmering water for 20 minutes before adding them to the spice bag/cheesecloth. And I have a friend who roasts them to get the same results. I made my jam without the kernels, but will probably use this boil or roast technique next time. Opinions, anyone?

    Hope the knee’s okay!