Preserving the gifts
While being forced to hold off working on the farm for 2021 has, in many ways, been frustrating, one thing is proving evident: the garden has benefitted from its fallow period and is now just going bananas. We planted a small garden really as a statement of intent on our behalf: soon this will be a functioning, producing farm again. In the meantime, let's grow some veggies.
We live an hour or so away from the farm and mostly have to confine our visits to the weekend or the occasional weekday off. The electricity to the main house was cut off several months ago and so there is no running water. Any garden we put in would have to be rainfed and resilient.
Thankfully the weather in the summer of 2021 has been on our side and the rows of butter and sugar corn, wax and green beans, potatoes, zucchini, crook neck squash, tomatoes, spaghetti and buttercup and Blue Hubbard squashes, have all been blessed by steady periodic rains in July.
And the garden is producing. True to all the clichés about it, the zucchini is extravagant in its output. I have memories from childhood of my dad walking around our neighborhood, giving footlong zucchini away to anyone who would chat with him. Or give him eye contact. I feared we would soon have to do the same here.
In addition to Bob's nostalgia about the farm and his grandfather, he had idealized memories of a zucchini relish his dad used to make. Seeing as we have a seemingly unlimited amount of zucchini, this seemed like the perfect way to conserve some of this bounty*. Unfortunately, the file with all of his favorite recipes seems to have been misplaced in the move and we were despairing. Thankfully, Bob's ex-wife still had the recipe- complete with excellent notes and tips gleaned from her experiences in the past- and so we have already made and distributed a batch of this sweet and tangy relish. By the looks of the growing stockpile of squash on our kitchen island, another bout of relish-making is in my near future.
I really like canning. I find it meditative and calming. It's a process of complete transformation, taking raw ingredients and through a lot of work chopping and mixing and boiling... you end up with a pretty jar of something new. Growing up, my mom made Bread and Butter pickles every summer and my sister made an excellent strawberry jam. Though it's been years since I put my hand to it, it has been coming back through trial and error. Canning makes me feel connected again to my childhood and my parents, as well as being a creative outlet I always seem to need, more than ever in this past turbulent year. While the science of canning is crucial- no one wants botulism- the art of it makes my soul sing. In addition to using the dill fronds in our dill pickles, we added the wispy, Queen Ann-like flowers to the canning jars and the results are ethereal. I rejoice when I hear the jars ping as the vacuum seal forms (if you can, you know this sound). And I get stupidly happy when I find a cache of wide-mouth Mason jars in a store. Score!
Part of the empowerment of canning is that water-bath canning is a skill set I now have and can do without issue or problem. I feel competent doing it. Unfortunately, the water-bath canning method can only be used with foods higher in acidity (strawberries are naturally acidic; the vinegar in pickles provides acid). And as much as I love fruit jams, relishes, pickles, and vinegar, one does get tired of those flavor profiles. I've been avoiding the reality for a while: we were going to have to expand our canning method portfolio. Yup, we were going to have to master....pressure canning (cue scary music).
Pressure canning requires a special canner that seals in steam as the pot heats, creating pressure that cooks and seals the jars. Pounds and pounds of pressure. and hissing steam. These things have a reputation for exploding when the directions have not been followed to the "T". I'm more of an artist than a direction-follower. And pressure canning seems like a dangerous way to prove this. Thankfully, Bob is a logical engineering type who looooooves to follow instructions. The riotous bounty of the garden forced our hand: we picked over 2 bushels of wax and green beans that we needed to conserve somehow, quickly.
We bought a pressure canner, read the instruction manual and watched two YouTube videos (very different, but both reassuring in their own way). Bob wrote out detailed notes in his illegible handwriting. And off we went. It takes longer than the simpler water-bath method and while it was intimidating in moments to see the pressure climbing on the gauge (what if it blows?), in the end, we successfully sealed 7 quart jars of beans. Nothing exploded and no fights ensued. So yeah, we're calling that a win.
While I might not ever pressure can alone, without Bob's calming competence, there is such satisfaction in seeing the jars of beans that our labor grew, harvested, and conserved. Once again, we are struck by the honor of stewardship owning this farm brings us, of the need to respect and preserve its gifts. And how the simple act of canning and preserving reinforces the ties we have to our parents and elders who have taught us so much. Preserving our produce through family food traditions preserves our memories and our ties to our families. So much history captured in a jar of Prospect Echo Farm wax beans.
*We're all tired of Zucchini Casserole by now.