Monday, May 31, 2010

Lessons, By Way of Strawberry Jam

Sometimes when Chef Matt works long hours, I have the urge to cook difficult foods that I could just as easily buy at the grocery store. Last Halloween, I was seduced by seasonal fruits and made my first homemade apple pie. Around Thanksgiving, I was desperate for the smell of baked goods and labored over cinnamon rolls for an entire evening.

Today, I saw a container of strawberries in our refrigerator and thought it might be nice to learn to make jam. I found a recipe online that required only three ingredients. I unearthed a huge Mason jar in our cupboards, and the boiling concoction of strawberries, sugar and lemon juice ultimately filled about an eighth of said jar.

It was a little anticlimactic. I had visions of spreading my homemade jam on crispy English muffins for weeks, and as it turns out, I made enough to last approximately one and a half breakfasts.

As I was pouring my several tablespoons of jam into the jar, I started to picture, as all good historians do, this process in a setting other than a modern kitchen on a quiet afternoon. I imagined rows of gleaming jars, filled with jams in varying shades of red, lined up next to canned tomatoes and a wealth of pickled foods. I could see a woman in an apron, standing next to a furious stove, stirring liquids in pots and wrangling a half-dozen children and refastening her escaping hair, and I felt a sudden admiration for the women of kitchens past.

On Memorial Day, I try to remember those serving on the homefront, as well as those on the front lines, and acknowledge their great sacrifices, too. As I envisioned a woman in another kitchen in another time, I was reminded that a spontaneous jam on a holiday weekend was a luxury that eluded these women, whose rationed meat, butter and sugar made for creative and frustrating cooking. A strawberry jam made from the fruits of a victory garden and a bit of precious sugar carried a different importance than mine made out of curiosity.

My jam settled into the texture of taffy, but the jar of Smucker's is waiting in the cabinet to cover up my experiment, and I have plenty of sugar to try again. But my perspective on flirting with homemade foods has widened, as I can see the other woman looking back at me, eyeing my sugar and four sticks of butter, and I watch as she turns back to make a pie for a husband who is away much longer than mine ever will be.

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