Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Little hands pack pretty jars.

Canning notes. © Ryan Schierling
When I was small, we had a huge garden behind our house. It was actually more like a giant community pea-patch, maybe two or three acres large and shared by roughly 20 homes that backed to it all the way around. There was plenty of room for a family to plant 10 rows of corn and six or eight large squash mounds, plus rows of green beans, peas, beets and carrots.

I really don't remember a summer or fall when there wasn't something being frozen or dried or canned or eaten straight from the garden. And whether it was snapping green beans, shelling peas, or shucking corn – I was perfectly capable of helping so long as a knife wasn't involved.

And when the annual fruit delivery arrived, there was more for me to do than just eat. In those days, our modest little eastern Washington community would get together and order pallets full of peaches, pears, apples, apricots and cherries. Flat upon flat of ripe fruit would cover the floor in our garage – some to eat now, some to dehydrate or freeze. But most was for canning, which was an event unto its own – all hands on deck, and little hands were no exception.

It was hot steamy work, but the rhythm of the process and teamwork made it fun. The quantities we put up in those years are a little bit staggering to think about now. To give you an idea of the amount of fruit involved, here is a list of one seasons purchases taken from pages of my mother's copious notes: 

 75 lbs of Cherries (39 quarts + 5 pints canned)
 150 lbs of Apricots (18 quarts + 2 pints canned)
 250 lbs of Peaches (88 quarts canned)
 160 lbs of Pears (46 quarts canned) 

There was nothing fancy about the formula, simply beautiful fruit put up in a light syrup – generally just a couple of tablespoons of sugar per quart. 

With so many boxes of peaches and pears to can, the kitchen was turned into an efficient little production facility; sterilizing jars and lids, blanching and peeling fruit, and carefully packing it into jars. I remember slipping the skins off of the blanched peaches and particularly enjoying using the special tool we had to remove the core from the pear halves – there was a wonderful rhythm to the motion, and the core looked so clean and professional. 

When it was time to can halved peaches or pears, my special skill was packing jars. I had to stand on a stool in order to reach down into them. My little hands were just the right size for packing delicate peach or pear halves into the bottoms, even the narrow mouth jars, and gently nestling the fruit in efficient layers. 

Perfect peaches. © Ryan Schierling
I've outgrown my "special skill," but the tradeoff is that now I can wield a chef's knife and don't need a stool to stand on in the kitchen. The tended garden continues to be a source of wonder and rewards, which occasionally still yields itself to the pleasant popping of sealing lids.

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