A Little Story About Country Roads, Drinking Beer, and Canning Fruit

I didn't grow up in a household that practiced canning and preserving. Well, there were a few times when my mom made delicious crab apple jelly from the fruit of our front yard tree. I will never forget the tart, sweet taste of that jelly. But while my parents valued whole foods and health food stores, I think for my mom raising two kids and working and keeping up with the household was simply plenty for her. Why add a time-consuming job with questionable time/value rewards to mix?

In fact, preserving freshly grown foods was a thing out of storybooks to me. I had no idea that anyone, anywhere still did it. I only had a vague idea that it might be possible, and that maybe some of the hippy communities I tangentially circled might still fill wooden shelves in cool alcoves of kitchens somewhere with ball jars filled with preserves, capped with ring lids or even paraffin.

Early this spring, J and I moved our raised bed garden from the back yard, which has grown shady over the years due to maturing trees, to the front yard, still sunny enough to grow vegetables. Over the past several years I've been making and canning various batches of jams and preserves, and blanching and freezing anything from beans to leafy greens for the winter months; but this year was my year to get busy. I spent my summer tending the garden and hopping-to the minute a crop was ripe. From the first spring peas for freezing, to the bright burgundy beets for pickling, to the last of the pumpkins to be pureed for fall pies, I stayed up late cooking batch after batch, turning the music up loud enough to hear over the drone of the stove fan sucking up the steam of countless Ball jars. I foraged for wild berries and picked the fruit from neighborhood yards (with blessings of course) and nearly made it a full-time job to be a hunter-gatherer.

But I'm still a novice. I made plenty of blunders this year which I will learn from, and I'm sure as I grow more ambitious there will be blunders a-plenty to come. The value to time ratio is still questionable, but the satisfaction I feel for each batch completed pays in spades.

When I was 21 I moved to a rural area of Southern Oregon. I stayed on a ranch located far up a hillside called Mystic Mountain, on 40 acres of mostly forested land. A creek ran through our property named after the rattlesnakes that nested there. The nearest village was five miles down a country road, which contained a gas station and a very, very small grocery store. The nearest town, where we drove once a week for supplies, was 20 miles away.

I worked every day, seven days a week, cooking and tending to animals. Since I was the only live-in employee, my work day started late in the afternoon and went until early morning (I was tending baby animals that needed midnight feedings) so that the other employees who came and went could work day shifts. My job could best be described as "farm wife" without the marriage.

When I first moved to the ranch, the young woman who cleaned the house and planted flowers around the property took me under her brightly feathered wing. Her name was Moira, but everyone called her Moe. She had flaming red Irish hair as brassy as her voice, and she had bull-like strength developed from a life of farm work and living hard. As a 21 year old myself, Moe seemed decades older than me, but in retrospect she was probably not too much older than myself.

Moe picked me up one day soon after my settling into ranch life to take me along while she supplied-up in town. She drove her old V8 pickup truck skillfully down our impossibly rutted, steep, mile-long gravel driveway until we hit the summer road with the windows rolled down. Living at the ranch could feel very isolated, and a trip to town was a bit of an adventure; a relief almost. Moe reached under her seat and pulled out two cans of beer, handing one to me as she cracked hers open while we barreled along back roads through the valley. Moe drank two beers before reaching town, each can tossed through her open window into the bed of her pickup.

Summer rolled on and heated up. I worked my evening shifts and slept late. I took long bike rides down forest roads and explored the river banks. Rural Southern Oregon is hot and can be eerily still in the heat of the day. Then, on one such stuffy, silent day, I passed a house just off the road swathed in an explosion of flowers, shaded by fruit trees, with Moe's beat up pickup truck parked in front.

Dying for human company, I stopped and knocked on the door. Moe was just inside the screen door to the kitchen, her daughters and a neighborhood friend there with her as steam bellowed from a boiling preserving pot on the stove. Buckets of plums sat on the floor, and peaches piled up on the countertops, washed, skinned and pitted. I sat in companionable quiet with these ladies as they went about the business of putting up preserves for the winter. They had music blasting, and they settled into a rhythm dance of fruit to pot to jar to boiling water bath. It was a magic and revelatory scene for me to witness. It felt as if Moe was doing something real in a world full of emptiness.

Today I try to carve out a little of that country life into my city existence. I have the opposite problem here, there is too much of everything - noise, people, movement, distraction, computers, phones - so my attempts to breathe life into my home are also attempts to bring silence and stillness back. To be patient, to wait for the fruit to ripen, and to know when to hop up and dance.