BY JUDITH WALCUTT, Oct. 4, 2013
If you haven’t seen much of me around the island this past summer, it’s because I was making jam. I know that sounds like a nice, quaint homey thing to do, accomplished by people who have nothing else on their plates and so, along with cleaning the dust bunnies from behind the washing machine, or organizing the sock drawer by color and texture, these unbusy persons make jam. How lucky they are to have nothing more pressing to do!
For me, however, busy is as busy does and the practice of making jam is not the superfluous, extra-curricular activity that it sounds. It falls into the category of sine qua non ─ vital to my mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.
“Really?” you are now asking, with some incredulity, “Mental? Physical? Spiritual? JAM!!!?”
The physical part begins with watching the trees and bushes along Honeymoon Bay Road as I walk up and down it every day. Season in, season out, I do this daily routine at a good, brisk pace with the hope that at the end of the race, I’ll walk just that way, across the finish line, into the hereafter.
If I miss even one day of this walking practice, which gives me ample opportunity to mind the sky and the evidence of moment-by-moment change in the natural world, I get “Billy Elliot” feet ─ feet that just want to jump up and down and be out under the holy blue heavens. In my treks, I have noticed how the blackberries transform from the scrappy, dead brush of winter to the tentative, green stuff of spring, to the fairy-like flowers of May. The petals drop at the start of true summer sometime after the 4th of July, revealing green fruit that darkens day-by-day as the sun moves across the sky, flushing pink and then mauve, arriving on one fine August day at the black and shining fruit that surprises me every time I taste its many flavors; each berry a new and different taste, sweetened in the shifting afternoon sun.
For my mental health, I have watched the wild cherry plums that have grown bravely, lusciously on volunteer trees along the road. One such tree was so laden with fruit the size of half-dollars and the color of a rosy, gold-tinted Vermeer, that the branches were bowed down and became entwined with the vines of blackberries that grew on the ground beneath it. To help it out, I took my garden shears with me one day and clipped the tangle of berry thorns back so that the plums could ripen unencumbered, the easier to pick for the jam pot.
I have known these plums since they were blossoms ─ like frosting on birthday cake and full of the gasping beauty of the spring. I have witnessed them drop petals like pale lavender snow, leaving just memories of their former delicious beauty to blow about in the later March breezes. Their nuggets of green fruit were hard and more like green rocks from the beach, back then. Bit by bit, one beautiful day after another, in the most beautiful summer in recent memory, they turned into fruit that was both sweet and sour, and tasted of the sun, of the blue sky, of the sound of wind and water and white caps, of morning bird song, of crows’ caws, of raven’s cackle, of silver leaves moving in a breeze, of moonrises over Holmes Harbor ─ these plums tasted like it all ─ of everything wonderful that happened last summer.
When I gather the fruit at it’s perfect ripeness, and then preserve it in a jar with a modicum of sugar and lemon, I feel I’ve captured a piece of that ephemeral beauty, which will succor me and those I love through the dark, grey days of winter to come. I feel better about the falling of fall for having stored up such resources as the memory of summer days spent climbing trees for fruit or reaching for the most perfect berries across the thorny arms of it rangy branches.
That accounts for a number of the physical and mental benefits of making jam, but the enlightening aspects of the process are in a class of their own.
As an example, when I make the jam itself, I am thinking, “Here is beauty in a jar; here is the love I can make of it, sweet and sour, ruby-red or tawny-gold or a blackberry-blue, which is the color of moonless nights. And yes, there is something else I do when I stir my pots of bubbling brews, mixtures of rhubarb and raspberries, or just plain wild cherry plums dropped from a tree that grew, like a free spirit, on Rabbit Hill above Sunlight Beach. I do what I do with a glad intention. All these fruits gleaned in the golden days of summer are picked with a happy hand, knowing that the tree is grateful to be relieved of its fruit, since to be left unharvested must break a tree’s heart, if not its limbs, when winter snows throw down their weight of whiteness.
Then there is an ingredient added in the cooking process, which is the deeper spice of this recipe. The secret is this: I practice mantras over my jam as I stir and stir; I speak ancient syllables for compassion, for courage, for healing, for joy, for kindness. The jam accepts this recitative of loving thoughts, like a flavor it is longing to absorb. Somehow, in this way, the fruit and sugar combine and seem to shine the better together for it.
In August, when I was at the height of jamming, I discussed this aspect of the process with a friend of my son’s who was visiting. He had noticed my “cooking” technique of mumbling over the rattling pots and shared with me that his Italian Catholic grandmother used to make spaghetti sauce over which she did her rosary and, he admitted, he’s never had a better tasting marinara since. That’s my point exactly ─ the food we prepare with positive intentions, with kindness, with whatever spiritual light or just plain love we carry within us ─ food made with kind intentions ─ just tastes better than the kind made without a thought or worse ─ in anger, sadness, distress, or bewilderment. I try to practice this mindfulness whenever I cook, but sometimes it works out better than others. I have burned a few batches of cookies in my time, and prepared my fair share of grumpy food.
When I make jam, I become absorbed in a kind of infatuated love for these transient artifacts of nature’s innate, spontaneous generosity, and that gives me the joyful perseverance to carry through the whole process ─ from picking and washing the fruit, measuring out proper proportions of fruit to sugar, stirring it all on low until it bubbles with enough heat to gel. Filling the boiled jars still hot from their water bath until, one by one, batch by batch, I capture the summer in its prime and hold it in a jar on a shelf in the pantry, until gift-giving season comes around.
For the artistic piece, if making the stuff with attention to detail weren’t enough to qualify it for “artwork” status on its own, I make my own labels, with watercolors joyfully applied and with hand-lettering of inscribed names such as “Last Sunset of Summer,” and “Smooth Water, Early Morning.”
Call it what you will, I call it an emotionally satisfying and uplifting experience ─ just like art by any other name.
If you missed making jam this summer, there is still time to catch the stragglers of the harvest season, to turn apples and pears to sauce and spiced condiments, make jelly with the end of the mint, or grab the last peaches from Eastern Washington for chutney. I even saw a blackberry patch on a recent walk that was still making fruit ─ enough for a jam pot or two. If you get out there and look, you might find some, too.
Locally, the Bayview, South Whidbey Tilth and Coupeville farmer’s markets will be open until the end of October for your shopping and gleaning pleasure, and Maggie’s Organic U-pick patch on Bailey Road on the South End still has rhubarb. Harvest what you can and preserve it in your own style. At Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, you and those you pass it on to will be grateful for the bounty you saved.
It’s really very easy. Anyone can do it. Get some fruit, stir in some love, and give it away!
Judith Walcutt is a writer living and jamming on Whidbey Island. She made over 300 jars of jam this summer, is working on a book on the relationship of fruit in a jar and peaceful mind inside. She hopes to finish one of three novels already in process.
Simple Recipe for Jam:
- 4 cups fruit
- 3 cups sugar
- Lemon peel or green apple peel.
Simmer fruit on low until it bubbles. Gradually Stir in sugar. Add a strip of lemon peel or green apple peel to add pectin.
Continue cooking on low, stirring from time to time, while preparing jars to be filled. Read directions on the Ball jar box for how to do this properly.
When fruit and sugar reach 220 degrees F, ladle into hot, sterile jars, put on clean, warm tops, hand tighten, await the satisfying “thunk” sound of the lid making a vacuum, as jam cools.
Date it, label it, and save for a cold winter day.