Monday, September 5, 2016

Flying Solo on Labor Day

Saturday I went to a local farmer’s market to buy produce, specifically Early Elberta peaches.  They are always on around Labor Day, and they are the best peaches for canning.  Firm, tart, and freestone, they are my favorites to bottle. Three boxes of peaches, two boxes of pears, two boxes of Gala apples, a bag of corn, and a melon later, my wallet was a lot thinner and my project list was growing. 

Today I am celebrating Labor Day by working.  Seems appropriate, doesn’t it?  While the pears will take a few more days to ripen, and the apples will hold for a little while, those peaches need attention.

Pears and peaches for canning.
In the fall, at harvest time, I like re-stocking my home with canned goods and bottled produce.  We fill pantry shelves with staples we use for cooking year round, and augment our storage with bottled salsa, green beans, pickles, peaches, pears, and more.  Canning season stretches from mid-spring (strawberry jam) to October (corn and salsa) for me.  Already this year I have put aside strawberry jam, zucchini relish, apricot jam, and green beans.  And today it is peaches.  Lots of peaches.

I have a love/hate relationship with canning.  It’s a lot of work.  Certainly it is easier to walk into a grocery store and buy a can of peaches.  But have you eaten commercially canned peaches?  Ick.  They are processed while still a little unripe, and therefore are overly firm and not as flavorful.  Home canned peaches, on the other hand, can be bottled at the peak of the season and when just ripe.  I can be my own quality control. 

My first memories of canning are vague.  A canning kitchen is not the safest place for a young child.  Boiling kettles and sharp knives can quickly lead to scalds and cuts.  I remember my mother and her sisters gathering in mom’s kitchen and canning.  As a child, I didn’t participate, but I remember long days, dozens of quarts of fruit, and my mother and aunts talking and working together.  My grandfather had an apricot tree.  My mother said he called apricots the “Queen of Fruit,” and that they were a personal favorite of his.  One summer,  I remember  my parents getting creative when inundated with bushels of apricots from Grandad’s tree.  Dad built screens to cover rows of apricots spread out on tables drying in the sun.  The screens let the sun in to dry the fruit, but kept the bugs out. My parents made apricot leather and apricot nectar.  We ate a lot of apricots that year. 

Another year, my folks invested in a pressure canner, and we children were enlisted to help prepare green beans for canning.  Their pressure canner now resides at my house.  My family and I grow green beans in the garden each summer, and my children work to pick, snip and wash the beans for canning.  Having more helping hands makes the work go faster.

Green beans from the garden.

Usually I head to my mom’s house on canning days when fruit is in season, but this year, I am processing peaches on my own.  I have canned enough that the solo journey today does not seem too daunting.  It has been a year since I last did peaches, and I scroll through the information stored in my memory banks to lay out the necessary supplies.  Preparation is important to the process. My counter holds clean quart jars and bands to go over the lids.  I have a bowl for scalded peaches and an old pie tin to hold skins and pits.  My knife rests on the island, waiting to be pressed into service.  On the stove are three pots:  one heating canning lids, one holding boiled syrup, and one with boiling water to scald the fruit.  Everything is at the ready; it’s time to begin.

Lids, syrup, and peaches on the stove.

I sort peaches and load the best ones into a mesh laundry bag (these laundry bags are perfect for scalding fruit, and they wash clean easily).  I dip the peaches into the boiling water for 30 seconds, then transfer them to the bowl.  When the peaches are ripe, the skins slip off easily after scalding.  I slice the peach in half, slip the skin, pluck out the pit, and place the halves in the bottles.  Once the bottle is filled, I pour in the syrup, check for air bubbles, wipe the rims, put on a lid, and screw it in place with a band.  Occasionally I stop to mix more syrup, and scald more peaches.  

Peeling peaches and filling jars.

I think about sitting in my mom’s kitchen with my grandmother and sisters and canning peaches.  My sister and I would grimace as the sticky peach juice drizzled from our hands down our forearms.  My grandma could out-pace us filling jars well into her nineties.  My mom would mix syrup on the stove and scald the peaches, bringing them to us at the table.  Canning was a social venture, and if a peach half didn’t fit in a bottle, I would pop it in my mouth and snack as I worked.  But today is quiet.  I put a CD in the player, and before long, Adele has me feeling nostalgic.  7 quarts later I move on to Christina Perri to add a little angst to the day.  Later I decide to perk things up with some Maroon 5.  Who knows?  I may be hitting the Guns N Roses before the day is through.

Once I have filled 21 quarts, I move on to a batch of jam.  Jam is all about precision and timing.  I measure the sugar and open the pectin.  My jars and lids are ready.  Once those crushed peaches are on the stove, things move quickly.  Bring to a boil, and while stirring constantly, add pectin and sugar.  Continue stirring while the mixture returns to a boil.  Set the timer with one hand while stirring, stirring, stirring.  Boil one minute, remove from the heat, skim off the foam and bottle.  My little half-pints are filled and ready to process. (And if you have never had the privilege of smearing that warm peach jam foam on a piece of toast, you are missing out!)

Two of my 21 bottles today.

Then it is on to processing in a water bath, 7 jars at a time. Once everything is out of the canners, I line the hot jars up on clean towels on the counter and listen for the satisfying “pop” each lid makes as it seals.  Things didn’t go perfectly smooth this year.  Some of the peaches were more blemished than usual, and my bottles leaked syrup out the top when I removed them from the canner. Worst case scenario is that some of the jars won’t seal.  Best case is the syrup will be a little low and I’ll have to wash off the sticky jars before putting them in the pantry.

My back aches from standing and canning for hours, but 21 quarts of fresh peaches and 7 half-pints of jam are worth it.  It is a satisfying effort.  This winter it will be so easy to serve peaches and cottage cheese with lunch or dinner, or have peach jam and whip cream on homemade waffles.  Flying solo this Labor Day was a success, but I confess I am glad my 2 boxes of apples are at my mom’s house, and that I will be making applesauce with my mom and sisters. I am also sure my husband will continue to lead out on salsa bottling day, and just let me be the helper.  I can check peaches off my list, so now only pears, applesauce, salsa, and corn remain.

 I think there are good reasons why people used to gather to raise a barn, bring in the harvest, or preserve the food.  Not only were the skills and traditions passed from generation to generation, but relationships were renewed and strengthened as people worked side by side. Canning with my family reminds me I am blessed with amazing people in my life, and for that, I am grateful. to tackle that mountain of squash!