By Sonya Lea
Preserving food is the extended foreplay of the gustatory world. Especially for city-dwellers, it revives a sense of connection with wild nature, and rejuvenates senses dormant from over-reliance on the fast and the cheap. If drive-thru is the dining equivalent of the quickie, preserving fresh, seasonal produce for later supping is tantric bliss.
If drive-thru is the dining equivalent of the quickie, preserving fresh, seasonal produce for later supping is tantric bliss.
The last week of summer I drove out to the local farm and purchased boxes of coral peaches, firm pickling cucumbers, banana and pasilla and sweet Anaheim peppers, ripe red and fleshy green tomatoes and plump blackberries. It didn’t look like promiscuity until the saleswoman sized me up and down behind the mountain of produce stacked in eight large boxes. “Well, you’re sure going to have your work cut out for you,” she snarked. And the old man in line in front of me offered a wide grin, as if he knew what I would be up to, and said, in a wistful tone: “Me and the missus used to put up. Oh, I miss it so.”
By the time I unloaded the car and began washing the long, nubby cuke, I realized I was going to be days in this kitchen – days immersed in the sweet perfume of fervid juice and musky field; days with my fingers in slippery seeds, days nudging the ruby pit from its fleshy center. I filled the sink with cool water and stripped to my bare feet, and brought a berry to my lips, tracking its nib with my tongue before biting into its succulent drupelets.
Canning, freezing, drying, curing, fermenting, pickling, jam and jelly making – preserving holds the genius of our earliest people. Preserving developed between 5500 and 3500 BC, creating villages, and vessels, and livestock, perhaps even the very urge to civilize in the way we experience it today. (Though it seems strange to this acculturated cook, one of the ways historians categorize societies as being ‘civilized’ is when the primary purpose of food gathering, preparation and storing has been diverted to allow the pursuit of other, more ‘complex’ activities, such as war, religion, bureaucracy.) Homo sapiens found he could manage his stock, and digest proteins better when food went over fire, and intentional cookery followed, leading to food as a social engagement, as taboo arbiter, as identity-maker. What we keep can communicate our sense of frugal sparseness or our abundant beguilement: the heirloom we shelve can be our strained broth or our rose-drenched honey. We preserve what we wish to have known as the common good.
It’s possible that salt was the first additive used as a method to preserve food. Used by ancient communities close to the sea, salt preserves by inhibiting toxin-producing bacteria, making it essential for forms of flesh – meat, fish and the human body, as for mummifying. Those who wielded the salt wielded the power, as the Emperor Claudius knew when he strolled into the senate one day asking if man could live without salt meat. Before it was the Eternal City, Rome was a staging post where local marketers exchanged their goods for precious salt. Leaders and merchants preserved their own futures along the Via Salaria, the salt road; when unforeseen circumstances meant there was little access to fresh food, salt could define a government’s rule.
Even though we now have more sugar than we know what to do with, we continue a romance with the saporous temptress: we call our beloveds ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey’ and ask them to give us some ‘sugar’ when we wish to be kissed.
Indeed, whoever holds the keys to the pantry holds the power. None knew this better that Mahatma Gandhi, who emerged from his six-year prison confinement to protest the exclusive British licensing of Indian sea salt. When he marched from the ashram to the beach at Dandi, he placed salt crystals evaporated by the sea into his small palm, enacting a potent ritual that defied the authorities in one simple act. Indians followed, breaking the law en masse, literally assuming worth of one’s salt, until the Brits relented and asked Gandhi to represent his Indian Congress Party at the 1931 leadership conference.
At Indian rituals, Roman feasts, Athenian festivals, Chinese banquets, Middle Eastern merry-making, and Egyptian sacraments all manner of seeds, plants and flowers were preserved with sugar. After the fourteenth century, the master confectioners of Paris made their fortunes selling to the aristocracy, and since gifts of preserves were considered luxurious, these sugared treats became a regular expense of anyone who had a role with the law. (Used as chamber spices for ‘dispelling wind and encouraging the seed’ these sweets, often called sweetmeats, were at least poetically-perfect: a candy by any other name would surely not have prefaced lovemaking.) Sugar was brought to the New World after Columbus’ affair with Canary Island’s Governor, one Beatrice de Bobadilla, who sent him from their month-long tryst with cuttings of sugar cane. From that sweet union, came America’s love affair with all things candied. Jams, jellies, syrups, sugared fruits, sugar-wine (rum) – sugar was once an international currency, with labor rewarded in casks of syrup, and millions paid for its becoming a standard with their very lives, including creating a caste of slaves from Africa who would do the back-breaking work of sweetening up the colonist’s diet, and his pockets. Even though we now have more sugar than we know what to do with, we continue a romance with the saporous temptress: we call our beloveds ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey’ and ask them to give us some ‘sugar’ when we wish to be kissed. “It must be jelly,” says the blues singer, “Cuz jam don’t shake like that.”
There is no savings in preserving food at home. The costs of labor and equipment and of what will break or go rotten through experimentation is high compared to what we can stroll down to the store and buy for a dollar or two from Smuckers or Kraft or Heinz. Still, there is a part of our relationship to food we are buying back when we agree to follow the transformation from field to table. In grocery shopping there isn’t the kind of bond to the elements, the land, the season, the home, the kitchen; there isn’t the connection to one’s memory, or history or intention; there isn’t seasoning or sensuality or seductive surprise that can come from becoming present to food as it changes, or even likelier, as we are changed by its presence in our midst.
We are preserving passion, which is, I believe, able to be ingested as nourishment, as earth-muse, and for us, as remembrance of a moment’s lovemaking.
This is how it happens in our home – we weave food preparation with the events of the day, with the weather, with the quiet and the conversation, watching movements and mistakes as they assert themselves, upon us and upon our food, asking for our attention. This is how dried lavender gets shaken into the sugar canister for lavender-scented sugar; this is how the lavender buds get dumped into the peach jam, when the sifter is forgotten; this is how it gets stirred in with a jam-coated spoon; this is how it drips onto my breasts when I lean over to sample it; this is how my lover, walking by, missing no entreaty, turns me around and licks it from my flesh; this is how the fire leaps into me and my peaches while we’re dancing and kissing above the flame; this is perhaps what you also taste when I make you toast from fresh bread and chunky fruit and violet sprigs of calming flower. We are preserving passion, which is, I believe, able to be ingested as nourishment, as earth-muse, and for us, as remembrance of a moment’s lovemaking.
On the Sunday after I’d been at the farm, a box of enormous tomatoes sat on the kitchen table, their pulp so ready to burst forth they practically split sitting in the afternoon sun. It was time to get ready for dinner, and my man had lit a fire of mesquite and hickory on the smoker just outside the kitchen door. As he came and went, smoke infused the house, leading us straight into an ancestral domain. Before long we had gathered those beefy reds and laid them on the grill and waited until their skins split from heat and flame. I let them cool on the counter, then quickly cored and peeled them, sliding eighths into a large pot, simmering slowly, before adding grainy salt and a handful of fresh basil. An hour or so later, I lifted a wooden spoon to my mouth and felt another woman enter from the balls of my feet to the curve of my belly to just below my throat. And then she was yelling a phrase I knew I’d heard my grandmother say a long time ago, — “Oh. My. Lord!” – a gusty, guttural call of a blues woman, an expression coming more from kinetic core than mental knowing, the smoke-dazed freshness of the fruit a memory of a time I hadn’t had, couldn’t know. The man looked inside from the fire, smiling. He didn’t know who this woman was yet, but he was about to taste her.
Peach Lavender Jam
4 cups granulated sugar
large bunch lavender buds*
Shake buds into sugar and let rest for two weeks, shaking a few times each week.
2 1/2 lb. peaches, peeled and pitted
juice of one lemon
1 cup water
Prepare peaches, cut into chunks, then sprinkle with lemon juice and stir.
Bring the sugar and water to a bowl; sift the lavender out, or not – your choice! Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and boil rapidly five minutes. Add the peaches, return to boil, and boil rapidly, stirring often twenty minutes, or until jell stage.
Remove the pot from the heat and let cool for ten minutes. Skim well. Ladle into hot sterilized jars and seal. Process according to recommendations.
Makes three pints.
*(if you don’t grow and dry your own, purchase buds from a botanical store locally)
Smoke-Infused Tomato Sauce
4 lb. beefsteak tomatoes
large bunch basil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
Prepare a grill or smoker and soak wood chips in water. A few minutes before placing the tomatoes on the grill, let the chips begin to smoke. Quickly place the tomatoes, cover and peek every few minutes to see if the skins have burst. Take them off the flame (use the grill for a kebob or steak to go with the sauce.)
Peel the tomatoes, cut into eighths and if you prefer, remove most of the seeds. Place in a heavy bottomed pan, and bring to boil. Add salt. Simmer 45 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Take off the heat and stir in the vinegar.
Add a few basil sprigs to each hot sterilized jar. Pour the sauce over. Heat process, cool, and check the seals. (If you prefer not to heat process, you can refrigerate up to one month, or freeze for two months, but cool the jars first before refrigerating.)
Makes 5 cups
Use in pasta sauces or on pizzas.
Crumpacker, Bunnym The Sex Life of Food, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2006
Fisher, M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating, Wiley Publishing, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1937
Schwartz, Oded, Preserving, DK Publishing, Inc., 1996.
Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne, History of Food, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, U.K., 1992
Weldon, Amy E.,“The Fruits of Memory,” Corn Bread Nation 2, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004
Sonya Lea is the author of Wondering Who You Are, an intensely honest and lyrical memoir,published by Tin House in 2015, about what happened in her marriage after her husband lost his memories, due to a traumatic brain injury. Check out my interview with her here at my writing web site.