Monday, September 22, 2008

You know you’re addicted to canning when...

It starts innocently enough. You cook up a batch of apricot jam and are pleasantly surprised to find the process easier than you had imagined. And deeply satisfying. But what you don’t suspect is that apricot jam is not as sweet as it seems. It is, in fact, the gateway drug of food preservation. Soon you find yourself buying Mason jars and then other, more serious, paraphernalia: jar lifters, tongs, funnels, giant steamer pots and stacks of lids with rubber seals. You bottle some cherries. You do a few jars of tomatoes. Your grocery budget spikes from spending obscene amounts of cash on white powdery substances like pectin and sugar and Fruit Fresh. You put up some peaches and pears. One day you try a cocktail of peaches and pears diced together. Then, when simple fruits just aren’t giving you the same high, you move on to heavier stuff: tomato sauce and salsa and pickles. Still you deny you have a problem. “I can stop anytime,” you say. “Just let me finish this batch of plum-raspberry-pear jelly and I promise I’ll lay off.”

Let’s face it. You’re hooked.

As a public service to those who may be suffering from a compulsive food preservation, or to those genetically susceptible to a canning addiction, I’m offering my own story as a cautionary tale. Don’t let this happen to you. Be proactive. Get professional help if necessary. Be on the lookout for the following signs of a serious canning addiction...
  • Since mid-July you’ve had boxes of empty Mason jars and bushels of fruit all over your back porch.
  • You are still buying more boxes of empty Mason jars and bushels of fruit.
  • You wake up in the morning thinking about blanching peaches.
  • You believe the words blanching, de-seeding, and rolling boil have a musical quality to them.
  • You have a tell-tale track of tiny scars running up your arms from stirring spitting-hot jam.
  • One Saturday you spend the entire afternoon making spaghetti sauce—a process that begins with a truckload of tomatoes and 15 other ingredients like “one cup of dried basil” and after several hours of slicing and mixing and simmering and submersing in a boiling-water bath leaves you with a grand total of three jars—and you feel this was a half-day well spent.
  • You begin envying your neighbor’s pressure canner and consider breaking into her kitchen just to “try it out.”
  • You think of every batch of dishes as another chance to heat up some jars.
  • You hang out with friends who say things like, “there’s no sound in the world more satisfying than the pop of a hot jar of jam sucking in its lid”
  • And you totally agree.
  • In your parents’ new beautiful 4,000 square food home, the thing you covet most is the cold storage room under their porch.
  • You know that all Mason jars are not alike and you find yourself caressing the ones from the 1970s with stars on the front.
  • Your new most prized possessions—after the kids of course—are the antique Mason jars (the ones that once belonged to your grandma) that you appropriated in a late-night raid of your mother’s basement.
  • You deny the obvious reality that, given the proper case-lot sale, you could buy all of this food for less money than it’s costing you to bottle it yourself. Instead, you insist that it’s good for the environment, better tasting, and makes you really really happy. And you mean it. Because you sense—as you lift those jars out of their water bath, set them in a row on your kitchen counter, check the seals, and admire the fruits of your labor—that you are participating in some kind of age-old ritual. That you are your grandmother’s granddaughter. That you are preserving more than food.

Friday, September 19, 2008

hot letters

I heard in an interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin that Abraham Lincoln used to write what he called "hot letters" when he was particularly upset at someone. He would write a letter to the person, get his feelings out (very eloquently no doubt) and then put the letter in a drawer for a few days. By then he'd usually have time to cool down and think better of the situation. Many of these letters have survived with Lincoln's later notation on them: "Never sent. Never signed."

I'm adopting this idea. I already wrote one hot email this week, and although I'll admit I had intended to send it and only got distracted before I could polish it up and push the send button, it worked out for the best in the end that it's still sitting in my draft folder and I'll likely delete it soon. I wrote the email to the owner of a new store in town. Their name boasts they are a "farmer's market" but when their advertisement came in the mail and I looked through the pages, I could find not one single item from local growers. Instead, they import all their produce from Washington or Oregon or California, even the peaches and pears which are in season and falling off the trees in the orchards all around here. From my lofty perch up on the high horse I shall name Barbara, I found this to be offensive and misleading (not that I have anything against those states, mind you, but why use up all the fossil fuels to drive something hundreds of miles when we grow it in Utah?). In any case, you shouldn't call yourself a farmer's market if you don't support the local farmers. So I wrote a lengthy epistle to that effect. But I didn't have time to finish it.

Then I went for a walk with my friend Stacy who is actually thrilled to see this new store coming to town because she loves organic food and herbs and she thinks we need more of these kinds of markets around here and she convinced me that I really ought to actually step foot in the place before I condemn it for high crimes against humanity and the environment. Huh. Not a bad idea.

So I'm glad I had a chance to cool down and see another side of the issue. I plan to pay a visit to the farmer's market that is not a farmer's market. Maybe I'll like the place. Maybe I'll decide it's worth driving past six other grocery stores and two other health food stores to get to. Or maybe I'll eventually revise my letter and send it. But in the meantime, I'm feeling more reasonable and a little less incensed. I'm feeling more Abraham Lincoln and a little less John Wilkes Booth.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mamma Carter

I listened to an interview yesterday between Diane Rehm and former president Jimmy Carter (originally aired in April...yes, sometimes it takes months for me to listen through my pile of podcasts). The conversation fascinated me and brought up some interesting questions....

1) How exactly did Jimmy Carter get such a bad reputation when he was in office? I remember when I was little, I bought into the negative image of Carter as a dumb peanut farmer. Now that I have seen his work in the last 20 years in international affairs and on behalf of the poorest people of our own country, I think he’s a tremendously compassionate, intelligent man. In the interview, he was articulate and funny. And frankly, everything he had to say about today’s economy and the war in Iraq and bringing peace to the Middle East made sense to me. I’d vote for him. I'm curious to see how history will remember this man.

2) President Carter talked to Diane Rehm about his recent memoir entitled, A Remarkable Mother. He described his “mamma” as a full-time nurse who in addition to her job, spent many hours a day volunteering in the local community. She worked 20-hour shifts. She was rarely home. On a black desk near the front door, Jimmy’s mamma would leave loving notes for him and his siblings, telling them what to do each day (feed the chickens, fill up the wood box, etc.). Years later, Jimmy and his sister teased their mother that they thought the black desk was their mamma. This is the woman (the real woman, not the black desk) that Carter now calls a remarkable mother, whom he describes as one of the “most extraordinary people I have ever known,” whom he credits as the inspiration for all of his life’s work.

So here’s my question. Am I seriously over-thinking this parenting job or what?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


A nice man with silver hair is tuning my piano. He arrived 3 hours ago and is still at it, whacking at each key over and over and making hair-width pitch adjustments and then moving on to the next note on a keyboard that seems to go on forever. The piercing, repetitive tinkering ricochets through the whole house, around every corner, through any doors I close to block it out. The noise has accompanied all my morning cleaning and eating and laundry folding, like a grating, atonal soundtrack to a really frightening movie about a housewife and her 2-year old daughter who I suspect are just about to be murdered by some kind of Hitchcockian psycho. I refuse to take a shower.

Detail from Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece
So I’m thinking about dissonance, which is why we called the piano tuner to begin with. (Ethan informed me last week: “I refuse to practice the piano anymore unless we get it tuned because it’s driving me crazy.” Like he needs another excuse not to practice.) Also I’ve been thinking about cognitive dissonance—that mental state which occurs when a new idea hammers itself against an older set of beliefs and creates acute discomfort. It’s difficult to hold two conflicting ideas in your mind simultaneously. This isn’t to say that we don’t do it all the time. For example, I truly believe sugar is bad for me. But I also believe Dreyer’s Spumoni is a gift from the gods. Somehow I manage to keep both thoughts segregated in opposite corners of my brain, properly appeased and happily oblivious to the other’s existence.

Last week, I finally set aside my personal prejudice against all things Oprah (a lovely woman but oh so very trendy) and began reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. To my surprise, I’m loving the book and experiencing one “aha moment” after another. Yes! I do allow my mental noise to drown out my true self. Yes! I’m a pain-body junkie. I live in the past. I dwell on the future. I need to embrace the NOW. I’m unhappy because I allow my ego—and all its defensive mechanisms—to define who I think I am. This is all heady stuff and I already feel my soul awakening (though it pains me to use the word) to a new, happier way of looking at the world.

The only problem is that I’m an old lady and I’ve had nearly 40 years to develop my mental habits. This new material is producing some serious dissonance in my head. Plus I’m having to reconcile Tolle’s new-age-pop-psych-mystical definitions of God and spirituality with my own religious beliefs which rise from an organized religion that is just about as organized a religion as they come. Talk about your pitch adjustments.

The other soundtrack blaring through my house today is a literal soundtrack—the one from the musical Annie. Nora is a huge fan and wakes up in the morning asking, “Watch Annie?...Watch Annie?...Watch Annie?” (continued ad nauseum until Mom relents). I won’t let her watch the DVD more than once a day so I’ve made a CD of the music and it seems to be continuously playing in her bedroom. And when the CD isn’t playing, the songs are still running through my head. This isn’t such a bad thing; it’s a great musical and I used to listen to the Broadway soundtrack myself, somewhat obsessively, when I was a little girl—long before the movie version came out. But here’s the problem. I’m trying to train my mind to live in the NOW, to be alive in the moment (a la Tolle) and at the same time I have the following lyrics stage vibrato-ing their way through my head: (feel free to sing along...)

The sun'll come out
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
There'll be sun

Just thinkin' about
Clears away the cobwebs,
And the sorrow
'Til there's none

When I'm stuck with a day
That's gray,
And lonely,
I just stick out my chin
And grin,
And say,

The sun'll come out
So ya gotta hang on
'Til tomorrow
Come what may

I love ya

You're always
A day away

You know what? I actually believe this with all my heart. The gray days. The sunny tomorrow. The sticking out of chins. All of it. See the dissonance? Can I love ya tomorrow and still focus entirely on the present moment? Ow. It hurts.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

sign sign everywhere a sign

Now where was I? Oh yeah, I was saying that parents are very good at reading signs. (And if I wasn’t saying this, I really meant to say it but I didn’t because my laptop has been quite sick and only recently been released from the hospital where it underwent major surgery. Thanks for all the cards and good wishes.)

Anyway, I believe one of the things we develop as parents is superhuman sign-reading powers. No, I don’t mean road signs and I don’t mean signs about long-haired freaky people or even the dawning of the age of Aquarius signs but rather the more subtle signs that tell us the future or enlighten us as to reality. For example...

My daughter is throwing her body down into her pillow and popping back up for another dive and yelling to the Olympic judges (in Mandarin Chinese I can only assume) “watch this next one” over and over and over again. This is a sign that, contrary to my first impression as she was nodding off into her chicken dinos at lunch, the child is not in fact tired enough to take a nap.

The house is peaceful and quiet and suddenly I realize I can no longer hear Nora playing contentedly in the bathroom sink with her plastic cups. This is a sign that she has found the tube of Neosporin which makes no noise when its contents are squeezed out and smeared into a map of the Great Lakes and all their tributaries across the bathroom mirror.

My kids come home from school to the smell of snickerdoodle cookies baking in the oven. They think this is a sign that Mom is in a good mood. Their Dad knows better. When he gets home and sees the cookies he asks, “So, what’s wrong? Having a depressing day?”

The edge of the bathtub is completely covered with different sets of tiny little underpants and shorts—all of them wet. This is a sign that Nora’s potty training is going well. After all, every accident is an opportunity for learning. Right?

Nora has begun playing with books as if they were every toy in the toy box. She stacks them and builds bridges with them. She pushes them around in her shopping cart. She puts a pile of books in the baby cradle and covers them with blankets. She pulls every single one of them off the shelf (and have I told you we have hundreds of books?) and speed-reads each for about 20 seconds and then chucks it over her shoulder and grabs the next one. This is a sign that she will always love books and will someday become an editor.

I sit down to write a blog post and find myself thinking only of all the crazy things Nora has been doing all week. This is a sign that school has started and the boys (including Gabie, my usual go-to guy for blog material) desert me for most of the day. This makes me sad and a little lonely sometimes, but when I so much as indulge in a passing thought of homeschooling my kids, I get a feeling of utter panic in the pit of my stomach. This is a sign that we are doing the right thing for us right now.