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An Ode to My Mother

Chokecherry Picking

We stained our fingers deep red, and our buckets mounded high with the chokecherries we’d been gathering all morning. My mother, my children, and I had driven down to a large thicket on a side road along the mountain river. It was a forgotten spot, a little traveled place where few went. Here the chokecherry bushes billowed over the ditch on the edge of the gravel. We felt like we held a precious secret in knowing where this stash of bitter berries grew. The berries grew abundantly, and we picked with abandon.

Now as we looked at our haul, we knew the work was far from over. We needed to turn these currently inedible berries into the sweet and delicious canned goods we treasured all winter long. My mother, a native of Montana, had grown up around these wild gems and knew the secrets to pulling out their flavor. We followed her lead as she patiently instructed us on how to clean and cook them and then extract the meat from the inner seed, resulting in a thick liquid. This deep, garnet-colored juice became the foundation for our jams and syrups. 

The tradition continues: this year's strawberry jam

Wild Grapes

Not long after this, my mom and I went through a similar process again, this time in Minnesota. It was early September, the time of year when the wild grapes ripen. We picked on the fence lines that bordered the freeways in spots where birds had planted the grape seeds years before. Once again buckets filled the kitchen table, and as we looked upon the bounty we had just gathered, we knew we had hours of work ahead of us. Undaunted, my mom pulled out the big pots from the cupboards, filled the sink with cool water, and we began the tasks of sorting and cleaning the grapes and then creating the delectable wild grape jam we treasured so much.

Untamed grapes found in our neighborhood

I am grateful that my mom taught me how to go out into the woods and pick wild berries, be it wild blueberries, wild plums, wild grapes, or chokecherries. The concentrated nature of wild fruit results in an unusually flavorful jam. I grew up eating these delicacies, so they became a part of my cherished memory.

Mom in 2017

Growing Up

My mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants who had homesteaded land in eastern Montana. Life on the prairie had not been easy for my grandparents as they worked tirelessly to tame the land and carve out a ranch. Cold, heat, grasshoppers, an overall lack of resources, the Great Depression, and more all worked against their success. I’m not sure that my mom or her siblings ever noticed, however. The spirit in the home was one of resolve, humble tenacity, and a calm graciousness. They crafted niceties from scraps, making intricately embroidered linens, dinners for neighbors, and warm loaves of bread baked in a coal-fired oven. 

Mom's wild rice soup

You see, it was a part of my mom’s inner soul to create sweet delicacies from sour grapes. It was who her parents had been and their parents before them. Eeking out beauty from scarcity. Hospitality bubbled up from a natural interest in others and their wellbeing. This graciousness was ingrained in her fiber as she welcomed family, friends, and strangers alike into the home. They often stayed for just a cup of coffee and a piece of something sweet, but sometimes they stayed for years.

Lemon bars

A Seat at the Table

From an early age, my mom modeled many things for me. She was an effortless hostess. That generation didn’t fuss for guests. You see, a tin of homemade goodies always sat in the freezer waiting to be enjoyed. Sometimes it was a lemon bar or a piece of apple crisp. Other times she treated us to was a plate full of hamburger mushroom casserole or a bowl of Minnesota wild rice soup. Sometimes all we needed was her listening ear. Other times it was a warm bed and a shower. She spent her days thinking about others. When people came to visit, my mom feted them and welcomed them wholeheartedly.

Mom's beef and mushroom casserole

The two constants were the tables. One was in the kitchen, the other in the dining room. The first greeted you on frosty mornings with a hot mug of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal topped with bananas, or crispy toast smeared with the jam du jour. The other table became the site of prolonged story telling by hosts and guests alike as dinners and the accompanying conversations ran late into the evenings. The food always remained simple, hearty, and home cooked. Soups, stews, casseroles; food to feed a crowd of hungry stomachs. We came, hungry for conversation and nourishment, and we left sated on all fronts. 

Making krumkake at Mom and Dad's house

The Gifts My Mother Gave Me

Even as the years passed and age began to get the better of her, hosting her dear family remained my mother’s favorite pastime. I like to think I inherited that from her. Whether we arrived early or came in after dark, the windows of the house would be glowing with a warm yellow light, the porchlight welcoming weary travelers.  My mother greeted the family with open arms, cozy beds, and fresh towels laid out for us.

Fresh peach pie

What remains today are the memories, the inner pull to emulate the gracious ambiance for others that she so faithfully created for me. An ambiance that pulled people toward her, that made them feel in that moment that they were the only ones that mattered. She wasn’t one to jump to a decision, but she carefully weighed the options. Mom gave me her measured thoughtfulness. She gave me the gift of time, her time. Such a precious and rare gift this is. It’s simple yet seemingly increasingly unavailable. She gave with no expectation of reciprocation.

A listening ear, a cup of coffee, a piece of pie, a jar of chokecherry jam, a couch on which to sit and chat awhile, a quiet wisdom; these are what I’m bringing with me into the future. These are the gifts my mother gave me.  

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Vice Principles

Apple Butter Memories

The apple butter is bubbling thickly on the stovetop. Bubbles the size of quarters is what I’m shooting for. The rich, sweet aroma steaming out from the pot is the definition of autumn for me. Whiffs of apple and cinnamon remind me of Saturdays spent chasing kids around orchards, their fingers sticky from holding caramel apples, their cheeks sugary from devouring piping hot apple doughnuts. Oh, how they loved to run through corn mazes and agonize over the best pumpkin to bring home to our front porch. This is the essence of canning apple butter, the essence of fall.

The Time for Canning

I realize as I painstakingly stir this pot that lately I have been doing a great deal of harvesting and “putting up,” as they used to call canning. This practice is one of the ways I’ve found joy in these less than ideal times. It has been a bounteous gardening year. In spite of the stores experiencing a run on canning supplies, I have managed to preserve several hundred jars of jams, jellies, salsas, pasta sauces, soups, pickles, etc.

However, it’s more than just the chore of preserving garden-plenty. This is my happy place. The rhythm of harvesting, cleaning, chopping, cooking, pouring into hot, sterilized jars, and hot-water bathing the filled jars seems as natural as breathing. The act of sharing with others, whether a random act of kindness or an intentional gift, confirms that both gardening and cooking are meant to be communal. Garden vegetables and canned goods both unequivocally yearn to be given away. (Always befriend a gardener; you’ll never need to garden yourself!)

Canning and Other Glorious Ways to Cope

My mind wanders to the other things that have kept me occupied and content, which leads me to think about vices. This word, vice, has a negative definition and connotation in every dictionary I could find. The most positive spin of the meaning is the word idiosyncrasy. For purposes of this discussion, I’m going with this meaning because vices are not always evil. They can be a way to cope with life’s circumstances.

My idiosyncrasies have been key in adjusting to and then enjoying this summer of relative isolation. I have been taking the time to smell the basil, the marigolds, and the tomato leaves (I can’t “smell the roses” because my sole rose bush decided not to flower this year). Savoring that early morning cup of French press coffee, watching the robins splash water everywhere as they spiritedly bathe in the birdbath, meandering through pristine college campuses as our sweet dog and I go out for our evening stroll, or the snaps and pops of paella grilling over hardwood coals. These have become my vices, my idiosyncrasies. These are how I remain content and bring this contentment to others.

Too Much of a Good Thing? I Think Not.

As we have slowed down and created new space in our lives, we can let either the bad habits or the good habits rise to the surface. I have chosen jam making, bread baking, garden weeding, book reading, sock knitting, and backyard nibbling with my pack as my vices. I’m not yet sure if they are good or bad. I think I might have overdone the jam making. My stash of socks and baby booties has gotten much too large. Can gardens be too weed-free? Possibly. One thing I know is that I can never have too much time nibbling with loved ones in the backyard. Can one bake too much bread? Hmmm. After all, I do need somewhere for all that jam to go.

Have our habits reset? Have some hobbies become fine-tuned? Has some of the unnecessary fluff in our schedules disappeared? Do we possess increased intentionality? If even some personal improvements have occurred, this is score one for the winning team, you.

Joy and contentment are choices we make not dictated by the circumstances that surround us. Consider adopting some vices. In these odd times, choose a couple of health-producing vices, choose joy, choose to spend time on those things and with people that are important to you. It’s a well known fact that negative circumstances often result in positive outcomes that you could never have imagined would be possible. This is one of life’s more interesting juxtapositions.

Are you having trouble deciding which vices are right for you? Well, you can have some of mine. I probably have too many anyway.

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Apples are Autumn

I step outside, and the clear, cool air of autumn greets me. A breeze rustles the leaves above. I look up and catch my breath at the electric orange and red leaves of the sugar maples that dot the neighborhood. My shoes rustle through golden piles of leaves that have blown across the sidewalk. An orchestral cacophony of geese honk overhead as they head off to the south.  

Autumn is a time for closure. We are cleaning up our gardens and yards. Raking and bagging. Harvesting and canning. Tucking our yard in for a long winter’s nap. 

It’s also a time of beginnings. The school year has begun. The sound of marching bands and football games is our background music as we work outside. Our community has sprung back to life with concerts and theater performances filling the schedule once again. Colleges are back in session. Backpack-laden, Patagonia vested students stroll the campuses.    

The Comfort of Apples

For me, apples are the quintessential definition of fall. Freshly picked from the local orchard, they are crisp and sweet and juicy. In this statement, one could include all things apple. Apple orchards, apple pie, apple butter, applesauce, apple crisp. In fact, the intoxicating aroma of apple butter stewing on the stove replete with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice is something I could live with all year. Waking up each morning to the delightful end product smeared on hot toast brings a perfect start to the day.

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Apples define home. They are the warp and weft of our autumnal tapestry. We all relate to the saying, “as American as apple pie.” In the north country, the annual family trip to the apple orchard remains a tradition not to be skipped. Getting lost in the corn maze, sipping hot cider, sticky mouths and fingers from finagling with an enormous caramel apple; these are precious memories. 

Apple Cooking Creations

Free form apple tartlets are my go-to dessert at the moment. They are as quick and mindless as they are delicious. I roll out pie crust dough and cut it in large irregular circles. Thin slivers of apples splay in pinwheels in the center of the dough. Over the top I sprinkle a mixture of cinnamon and white sugar, and pats of butter dot the surface. I fold the edges of the dough over in such a way to capture the syrupy juice that develops with baking. When this sweet pleated orb bakes on a hot stone, the bottom is crisp yet flaky, the filling perfectly tender.

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Freeform apple cinnamon tartlet

From easy to complex, from breakfast to a midnight snack, apples fit the bill. When I want things as simple as can be, I slice then dip the wedges in almond butter. For a special occasion I step up my game and make the iconic French dessert Tarte Tatin. Omelets filled with sauteed apples and cheddar cheese make for a brunch your guests won’t soon forget. Slivers of apples topped with Gorgonzola cheese, local honey, and Durango Hickory Smoked sea salt is an easy hors d’oeuvres that will get you nominated for your neighborhood’s host of the year award.  

This year let us soak in this delightful season. Autumn is not going to be a wedge season. Instead of jumping over the narrow stream called fall, let’s bask in its glorious colors and delicious aromas, creating memories that last. Maple trees as brilliant as a summer sunset will stay etched in my mind throughout the grey light of winter. I am willing time to slow, enjoying every step. When winter arrives, I’ll be refreshed, renewed, and ready for parkas and boots. 

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Why Preserve?

A Way of Life

Preserving has been a longstanding tradition in our kitchen. Come August and September, we are canning the summer’s bounty. A day in the raspberry patch and a trip to the apple orchard yield jams of ruby elixir and fragrant apple butter. Pasta sauces, salsas, catsup, pestos, bisques, pickles, savory jams, giardiniera; these and more fill the pantry by the time the first hard frost kisses my garden in October.

This savory rhythm has become an essential element of the treasure we call home. At the finish of every semester, our kids would neatly tie ribbons and thank you notes to their favorite flavors of jams and present them to their teachers as gifts. A preserve of one sort or another has become the hostess gift of choice. Be it a topper for toast, the spicy sweet counterpart to a stack of smoky meat, or the sauce in a hearty lasagna, I turn to my stash on a regular basis.

So why do this? Why go to all this work when the grocery stores are brimming with aisles of canned offerings? It is so much easier to just load up your grocery cart.

It is because the golden sweetness of peach jam made at the height of juicy ripeness is irresistible. The complex aroma of a pasta sauce stewing on the stove will bring memories of those warm, summer days into your mid-winter meals. A gift crafted from the labor of one’s hands is the definition of kindheartedness. The modeling of these increasingly rare culinary arts perpetuates these rich traditions, weaving them into the fabric of our families.

Long Held Tradition

The history of preserving foods goes back thousands of years. It was a way to stretch out the meat, fruits, and vegetables into the seasons where they were not available. In the northern climes, our ancestors could freeze foods. In my Norwegian culture, transforming potatoes into a flatbread called lefse enabled them to enjoy potatoes all winter long. Meats were slow smoked over fires using local woods for the fire, local salt, and herbs to flavor. All over the world, people preserved using the elements and ingredients of their particular environment. Fermentation was used to turn grapes to wine. Honey, fruits or grains, and spices became mead. The early American settlers filled large earthen crocks with layers of pork, salt, and fat. Then these were kept cool in cellars, providing protein for these hungry families throughout the winter months.

Canning using glass jars was invented by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1809 after he was commissioned to find a way to preserve food for France’s army and navy. After much experimentation, he noticed that when foods were tightly sealed in glass, then heated to a certain temperature, they did not spoil. It would take 50 years before Louis Pasteur came along to discover and explain that heat killed to microorganisms and that sealing kept other microorganisms from entering and contaminating the contents. In the meantime, however, others were making their own discoveries. Peter Durand in England discovered and then patented the use of tin-coated iron cans instead of glass. This method was used by the British Royal Navy to feed their troops on long forays across the oceans.

Canning Today

What started long ago as a necessity has now morphed into almost an artform. From strawberry balsamic black pepper jam to pickled fennel with orange or lemon garlic pickled cauliflower, the delicious taste matches the beauty. This year, try smearing roasted onion sage jam over your Thanksgiving turkey before baking it. The variations of preserves are as many as your imagination is creative.

I have been both recipient and giver of the results of creative preservation. The smear of Bill’s Worcestershire sauce on a freshly grilled hamburger, Cindy’s cucumber hot pepper jam on my goat cheese crostini, Tami’s blackberry preserves on warm toasted slices of crusty baguettes; these are tokens of generosity. They remind me of friendships both present and past. Through their preserved creations, they have brought me into their lives. I cannot help but feel blessed by their kindness.

I remember the sounds and smells of their kitchens, their blackberry patches, dinners under the lights of their pergolas. Family, friends, jams, pickles, capacious conversations extending late into the evening. These are the ingredients to the jam called “A Heritage Preserved.” They are our heritage preserved.