“What are you talking about?” I replied.
He waved his hand over the counter and dozens of jars. “Have you become your grandmother? You’re canning like a maniac.”
“No, I am not becoming my grandmother,” I sniffed indignantly. “You read the book. This is all about my grandfather.”
Until last summer, as an adult, I made blueberry jam exactly twice, and pickles once. Last autumn, inspired by a deluge of three dozen lemons left over from an event, I made preserved lemons.
But, in last year’s pandemic-heavy summer, for the first time in my life, I appreciate the sense of reward that canning offered. I felt that warmth of tranquility when stirring the pot of bubbling berries, watching and waiting for the mixture to fall off the spoon in “sheets” as my mom explained to me on the phone when I panicked while making my first batch.
Mom knows all about canning. When we kids on our Michigan farn, she would turn into what we called “The Claw” by the end of each summer. Far from my relaxing endeavor, back then, it was a full-scale military production.
When my folks moved into their ramshackle 1895 farmhouse back in the mid-1960s, Mom found more than two hundred jars in the cellar. The cache felt like a good omen. As a girl growing up on a series of farms herself, Mom seemed to be always washing jars and canning with her mother, my Grandma Inez. Her brothers would work alongside Grandpa Charles in the field, weeding, hoeing, planting and picking. Mom had small hands so the task of washing the jars inside and out invariably fell to her.
Most often, Grandma Inez “cold packed,” a process in which food is put into jars and then cooked in a hot water bath. For example, she’d peel and quarter tomatoes, then pack them into jars with a bit of kosher salt, and topped them with a lid. That was it. Soil, sunshine and a little bit of salt, that’s what a quart of tomatoes cost.
These jars would then go into Grandma Inez’ blue speckled 21-quart enameled steel pot equipped with a metal rack for jars. Once in place, the pot is covered until the water comes to a boil. While the cans “cooked” for their allotted time, Mom and Grandma Inez would spread heavy towels on the kitchen table. They’d remove the hot jars with specially made tongs and put them lid down on the towel to cool overnight. As the vacuum created by the process took effect, they could hear the lids emit a solid “dink” as the metal went concave, finalizing the seal.
Grandma Inez did all the canning except the jams and jellies. Those were left to Grandpa Charles. Canning relies on science, but Grandpa’s jam was nothing short of an art. Mom and her brothers would collect pails of blueberries and raspberries in the woods behind the farm. They were free and there were tons of them back when they were kids in the 1930s and ’40s.
“We’re gonna have fun like Saturday night in San Antonio!” Grandpa Charles would declare when Mom joined him in the kitchen for jam making. He’d turn up the radio and sing along. One of his favorite was “Shortenin’ Bread,” thought to have derived from an old Southern Plantation slave song then reworked by blues singers and eventually made famous by the Andrews Sisters:
Put on the skillet, slip on the lid,
Mama’s gonna make a little short’nin’ bread…
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread.
He’d talk her through recipes. They’d laugh and sing songs together. He’d share his tips. “Now don’t add too much sugar, or you’ll overwhelm the berries.” When people visited, he’d give them at least one jar of jam so they could sample his artistry. If they protested, he’d wave them off. “I’m making a ton for this year.” Grandpa Charles gave away much more than just jam. He would give people vegetables from his garden during the summer, beans that he grew and dried himself during winter. He was the first to volunteer to help a neighbor with anything from getting a tractor unstuck to helping slaughter a hog. He had a saying:
When you leave this world for a better one someday,
The only thing you get to take with you is what you gave away
On our Coldwater Road farm in Michigan, Mom followed Grandma Inez’s methods. Dad bought her a 21-quart cold packer, just like the one her parents used. Often in summer, Dad would hit the fields just past dawn and pick what looked ready. It cleared his mind to be in the cool morning air alone with just the sound of nature, a stark contrast to the loud, hot atmosphere of the General Motors plant where he worked for nearly 17 years. Often, my mother would open the door to find a bushel of green beans or rhubarb or corn, patiently waiting. Most days, she’d have it canned by the time he got back home.
The quantity she produced each year was nothing short of dazzling:
80 quarts of applesauce
120 quarts of tomatoes
80 quarts of peaches
40 quarts of pears
40 quarts of jam
40 quarts of green beans
60 quarts of bread and butter pickles
24 pints of corn relish
24 pints of berry syrups
24 pints of “chili sauce.”
Halfway through this list, her hands would ache and almost deform from the constant cutting of produce and twisting of the rings around the lids of the jars; hence, the term, “The Claw.”
Although she made jam for all those years, it never quite came out like her dad’s. He never wrote down any specifics. Instead, he worked by taste, evaluating the sugar in the berries and modifying the working ratio he kept in his head to achieve a certain balance. Mom tried again and again to replicate her favorite, his blueberry jam, but never quite got it right.
Then a couple of years ago, she came along with me to a book tour stop in Asheville, N.C. We stopped in for breakfast at the famed Tupelo Honey Café. The waitress dropped off a pair of huge, flaky biscuits, a ramekin of soft, sweet butter and a small bowl of dark jam. As mom and I chatted, she spread the butter and jam on her biscuit. As she took her first bite, her eyes grew wide. Then, they misted over. She put down her biscuit and began digging in her purse for a tissue.
“Mom, mom! What is it?” I asked, alarmed.
She dabbed the corners of her eyes. It was a moment before she could speak. “It just that this tastes just like my Dad’s jam,” Mom said quietly. “It just made me miss him so much all of sudden.”
The flavor of her childhood took her by surprise.
I learned that the recipe for that jam was in the cafe’s book, so I bought it on site. In the years since, I’ve only once made that blueberry jam. I meant to every summer, but never found the time.
Then, came the pandemic.
Free from any type of social schedule other than infrequent socially distanced get together with my “pod,” the summer days stretched out long and lonely in front of me. In August, to escape a wicked case of cabin fever, I grabbed my dog, kissed m husband and headed on a drive with no particular place to go. A food injury meant no hiking. I couldn’t go inside and eat anywhere. So I drove, winding and without direction until I passed a farm with a hand-lettered sign: “berries for sale.”
An abrupt turn and a masked interaction later, I came home with a big box of blueberries.
Back in my sunny kitchen, I cranked up an awesome version of “Shortenin’ Bread” by The Tractors discovered by my husband. In a time when everyone felt so far away and time suspended, stirring the hot berries in my warm kitchen felt like a kind of communion, not just with my grandfather, but the rest of humanity, then sheltered and fragile.
Like so many people, the pandemic left me feeling alone, confused and heavy with the ache of anxiety. But as I finished that jam and left the jars to cool, for the first time in months, I felt with certainty that the world would one day be right. One day, mom and I will be able to visit The Tupelo Cafe again. One day, I’ll be able to hug her close and smell the sweetness of her hair again. Until then, I have grandpa’s jam.
That night, I packed six jars to send my mother. But remembering the legacy of my grandfather, I thought of all the people I missed and decided to send each a jar of jam. A small gesture to let them know I still loved them.
In the end, I gave away all the jars. The last one went to my husband who finished it within three days. Somewhere, grandpa was proud.
Blueberry Jam Like My Grandpa’s
- Large pot
- Jars and canning lids
- Tongs to lift cans from hot water
- large mouth funnel
- ¾ cup 150g sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons pectin
- 1 ½ lbs 680g fresh blueberries (4 cups)
- 1 tablespoon 15ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Combine the sugar and pectin in a large bowl until thoroughly blended. Place the blueberries in a medium saucepan and stir in the sugar mixture and lemon juice.
- Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, occasionally stirring, for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture falls in a sheet off the back of a spoon.
- Allow to cool to room temperature before serving. Store in an airtight container for up to 30 days in the refrigerator. To preserve longer, thoroughly wash and sterilize canning jars and lids according to manufacturer directions. Put the hot blueberry mixture into the jars, and then top with lids and rings and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest for about five minutes. Using canning tongs, remove the jars and let cool on a towel for about 24 hours before storing. Check the seals. If they’re tight, store in the pantry. If not, store in your fridge. For more specifics on canning blueberry jam, see LearnToPreserve.com
This story originally appeared in 2020; it has been updated.