Riding the Preservation Train

Pantry Spring

I arrived at the food preservation reservation on a very slow train and my first stop was strawberry jam sealed with paraffin wax. There’s an irrepressible memory of my 2-year-old daughter feasting on berries she picked by herself, entirely covered in red juice, and then the next morning, seeing my first jars of homemade jam gleaming brightly on the kitchen countertop. I was hooked but the rest of my life threw me back on the slow train. There were no more stops for years, only reading and dreaming, but the longing grew. Every time a jar of homemade fruit or jam arrived as a gift, I promised myself, "Soon." Decades passed and my daughter grew up and climbed on her own life’s train, but we always remembered the strawberries.

Then one day, after I retired, my neighbor, Jake, stopped by for a chat. "It’s over for me, Sue," he said quietly. "I just want to go." I didn’t know Jake well but I knew he’d lost his wife and that, as a former baker, he was the neighborhood’s mystery man whose rhubarb pies mysteriously appeared on our doorsteps. I knew he was lonely and estranged from his family. And I knew he wasn’t going to give up, not on my train! So we talked about his loneliness and began to spend a lot of time together.

He grew up in Cle Elum and had lived a life that didn’t remotely resemble my suburban upbringing. In Jake’s family, everything was preserved. They made their own wines and hooch; hunted, sometimes desperately; and used the earth as a deep freeze during winter. They canned everything edible. They picked wild berries; fished in the lakes; and even set up a butcher shop in the barn. I couldn’t get enough of the stories and Jake’s happy quotient began to pick up. My food preservation train was in full gear. I asked him if he’d teach me how to can and he said yes.

For the next two summers, we canned everything we could lay hands on. He became closer to his sister after he called to ask for his mom's old recipes for bread and butter pickles and piccalilli. An old friend of his return for the summer from Arizona and we threw in together to can a hundred pounds of freshly-caught tuna at the beach. Jake and I went to Eastern WA to the orchards and came home with carloads of slightly unripe fruit. His shed became a canning pantry. The fruits and vegetables we ripened out there made dozens of jars of pears, plums, pickles, peaches–it began to seem that if some food started with the letter ‘p’ I could expect that we would can it. The food preservation train was going full speed ahead now.

In my citified manner, I began to collect books and made good use of the library system to read all I could find about preserving. I was delighted to find the Harvest Forum on GardenWeb, where I knew I could gather reassurance or warnings about whether my new-found skills and whether Jake’s old recipes were safe. Interestingly, Jake’s skills were everything you might hope. There wasn’t a thing that he didn’t know, except that his arthritic fingers struggled with the jar rings and so he left those on. He also insisted on using ALL of his old jars and that made for some messy canning water a few times. We never had enough of our garden’s heirloom tomatoes to can and I wouldn’t can the hybrids, but I made peach chutney from my new Ball Blue Book one day. Fig preserves with Meyer Lemon were next and I couldn’t keep up with the demand from friends and family members. Jake’s health began to fail, but his spirits were high and his sister became very close to him. Near the end of his life, she managed to bring him back entirely within the folds of his family and he died a happy man surrounded by those he loved and who loved him back.

I went on with canning and preserving, determined to continue forging ahead with the gift of Jake’s lessons and loving the culture around food preservation at least as much as the work itself. People who preserve are focused on the food; wanting to be sure it’s as delicious as possible in the months to come, concerned about health and safety, and usually generous. Jake’s sister had some landlocked baby salmon they caught by the hundreds and canned each year that she was remarkably stingy with–one year I got a jar and it was just enough to fall head over heels in love with them, but clearly, unless I learn to catch them myself, they will remain a once-in-a-lifetime treat!

Time is still an issue for me and I learned that there are things I don’t care to can. We don’t eat a lot of sugar and we tend to buy organic fruits and vegetables in season. There isn’t much room to garden on our little quarter-acre because the old garden rose collection and the rest of the ornamentals take up most of the space. But I worry about the state of foods we can buy and I plan for our future, continuing to build skills and learn as I go. I love the ‘ping’ of jars sealing; the giving of gifts; the knowledge that what we eat has identified ingredients; and that the methods are safe. I love the rainbow of colors shining in the light when the pantry door opens.

It helped so much to have Jake teach me. There really is nothing like a friend to work with you to put food aside. Every time I make a jam, which is mostly what I preserve these days, I imagine Jake sitting at the kitchen table, readying the towels, and making me laugh with his stories. And one day, at the last stop, I hope the train will bring me back to my friend. Until then, show me pretty new jars, a recipe book with beautiful photographs of preserved goods, or a flat of perfect boysenberries, and I’m ready to go.

CAA Contributor Sue Hopkins lives near the Cedar River in Washington state on a shy quarter-acre with her partner, three cats, and two standard poodles named Kelsey Glamour and Gwyneth Ball throw. In between raising heirloom tomatoes and heritage roses in her organic garden, she reads, paints, and writes to excess. If you have a blog, she’s probably visited you and because you’re so entertaining to read, she has no time for a blog of her own.

Comments (2)

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    Stumbled on this post through Mother Earth News, I think. I loved it! This story goes beyond just canning – it reminds me that we need each other – that even in the most simple ways we can help another human being feel needed, and be needed in return. Thank you so much for sharing this. It made my day.

    I’m just starting my own personal canning train, with some sweet memories of the jams my Grandma used to make when I was a child, but no more. Your story really moves me and in a way, you and Jake will be riding my train too, somewhere near Paris, France. Thank you for sharing.